Ghana Politics 101 – Elections Contextualized

On Wednesday, December 7th, Ghana will once again celebrate democratic elections.  Ghana is usually hailed as the star of Africa or Africa’s most peaceful and stable country. Since 1992, the country has enjoyed substantial levels of political peace and stability. Yet as elections approach, tensions arise and there is a sense of uncertainty in the air.

There is no dearth of skeptical Ghanaians. On many occasions, I have been told something along the lines of “Ghana is hot,”  “this time, the stakes are even higher,” or “tensions are really high.” Incidentally, often these sentences do not come from “ordinary” citizens but from people who work in the NGO, policy, or peacebuilding space. Incendiary language abounds, pundits usually cite the role of the media as concerning, and amidst accusations of stolen policies (for example, here, NPP accused NDC of stealing its policies) or electoral rigging, it is hard to discern what the actual policies are. Even international media is painting a grim picture (see this article from The Economist).

Why this skepticism? In order to understand Ghana’s current political and economic environment, one needs to contextualize it. A broader historical frame helps to avoid overestimating the strength of Ghana’s democracy but also to value the institutions, mechanisms, and people that have allowed for peace to prevail. An understanding of the political economy of the country, helps elucidate how the electoral campaign has unfolded.

Ghana’s political history

In 1957, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP), Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to attain independence. Unlike the surrounding countries in the region, Ghana has not suffered widespread violence, yet the country’s political history has also been convoluted (for those interested, though, I recommend to delve even deeper; the history of the Gold Coast at large is fascinating).

Nkrumah’s rule can be divided in two periods. From 1957 to 1960 and from 1960 to February 1966. The first period was characterized by a more laissez-faire policy in the economic domain (including vis-à-vis the expatriates that dominated the economy), and a series of political measures that promoted peace and stability but also aimed at strengthening Nkrumah’s position as well as that of the CPP. Notable among these measures were the “Avoidance of Discrimination Act” that banned organizations, parties, and societies which were confined only to “particular tribal, racial, religious groups, which were used for political purposes” and the “Preventive Detention Act.” During the first period, however, these acts were not excessively used. Nkrumah, throughout his life, was also one of the main proponents of an African Union and worked actively to promote Pan-Africanism. In 1960, Nkrumah’s position shifted more toward socialism (he had always been a socialist but had not promoted it once in government) and he became increasingly more authoritative. In 1966, he was overthrown in a coup d’état that marked the beginning of two decades of alternating military and civilian rule.

Ghana experienced four successful coups d’état in a period of fifteen years. Each of the coups – 1966, 1972, 1979, and 1992 – was followed by a period of military rule that ultimately led to a peaceful transition to a Civilian Republic (there was one last failed coup in 1983).

The 1979 coup was led by a group of young officers, including Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. That same year, elections were called and Ghana returned to Constitutional rule. Yet in 1981, once again, Rawlings led another successful coup; the military was not satisfied with the way in which the country was being ruled. Under his mandate, the Constitution of Ghana was suspended and political parties were banned. In 1992, Rawlings funded the NDC, the party currently in power,  the fourth republic was proclaimed, and Ghana celebrated presidential elections. Rawlings himself was elected. He was reelected again in 1996.

This history of coups d’état coexists with the presence of unresolved regional conflicts that are at times exacerbated by political parties. Conflicts are of different nature: chieftaincy, natural resources, land, borders, religious, ethnic, or a combination of any of these, yet chieftaincy-related conflicts, in which the stool is contested, are probably the most prominent ones. Additionally, chiefs are not supposed to align with any party (as law mandates) yet in many instances, they are taking sides. Political parties are sometimes tied to factions that dispute chieftaincy rights. While political parties can gain support by spurring the feuds, it seems that the quarreling groups can also use the parties to settle old disputes.

It is against this historical background that elections take place in Ghana. Elections in Ghana are also strongly influenced by the country’s demographics and its political economy.

Ghana’s Political Economy

Ghana is a middle-income country of about 28 million inhabitants. Highly heterogeneous in ethnolinguistic terms, Ghana’s growth strategy was partially based in the primary-export-led model[1] (currently, the top exports of Ghana are Crude Petroleum, Gold, Cocoa Beans, Cocoa Paste  and Cocoa Butter).[2] Its top imports are Refined Petroleum, Crude Petroleum, Gold, Rice, and Packaged Medicaments and the most recent exports are led by crude petroleum which represent 26 percent of the total exports of Ghana.[3]

Ghana’s economy grows steadily although according to Bloomberg markets, growth has slowed. Inequality levels remain extremely high, with an estimated Gini coefficient of 42,77 that keeps rising. So does unemployment. Precise data on unemployment does not exist due to the size of the informal economy, albeit it is uncontested that large swathes of youth remain unemployed (even regardless of educational achievements).

[More on Ghana’s political economy here.]

Ghana’s Contemporary Politics

Ghana is a multiparty democracy but there are two main parties that can realistically win the elections. The National Democratic Council is currently in power, with John Mahama Dramani as president. Nana Akuffo-Ado, of the National Patriotic Front, is his main opponent.

The NPP was in power from 2001 to 2008. Nana Akufo-Addo was the NPP’s runner up in the 2008 election and he run again in 2012. John Dramani Mahama took office in July 2012 following the death of his predecessor and he was elected to office shortly after, in the December 2012 elections. The NPP contested the results of the 2012 election before the Supreme Court. The appeal created tensions but in the end Nana Akkufo-Ado made a statement accepting the Court’s ruling in favor of Mahama and congratulated the president.

Now, in 2016, the same two men contest the election. Looming over this election is a sense of “a president’s right to a second term.” Over the course of the fourth republic, all presidents have been reelected and it appears that Mahama feels entitled to the same. That notion is strongly influencing this election as well, but people are also tired of the pervasive corruption and the palpable inequality.

How different are both parties and their policies? Reality is that they are both center-right parties with rather vague and sometimes unrealistic policies. One of the parties has promised “one district, one dam.” The manifestos include provisions such as “manage the economy competently” and they are rife of attacks against the other major political party and the respective leaders.

The elections are very tight and so far it is impossible to predict who will win. In the next few days, we will know the results. The conduct of the elections is relevant first and foremost to Ghanaians, but also to the rest of the continent and the world. In light of the events in Gabon, expectation over results in Ghana is even higher. Fortunately, the most recent election in the continent, that of Gambia, resulted in the incumbent admitting defeat and conceding the election. Whatever occurs in Ghana, the country has the advantage of having strong institutions and devoted citizens who are committing themselves to a peaceful election. The National Peace Council, the West African Network for Peace, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, among others, are just a few examples.


[1] Attah K. Boame, “Primary-Export-Led Growth: The Evidence of Ghana,” Journal of Economic Development (1998), 175.

[2] The discovery of oil in commercial quantitites, however, did not take place until 2007. For more on Ghana’s oil management see Ransford Edward Van Gyampo, “Saving Ghana from Its Oil: A Critical Assessment of Preparations Made so Far,” Africa Today 57 (2011), 49-69 and Kwamina Panford, “The Academy and The Successful Management of Ghana’s Petroleum Resources,” Africa Today 61 (2014), 79-107.

[3] Ibid.

Other readings:

Clementina Amankwaah. “Election-Related Violence: The Case of Ghana.” Current African Issues 56 (2013).


Africa is a Country. “All you need to know about Ghana’s December 7, 2016 elections.”

Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group. “Ghana Presidential and Parliamentary Elecitions.” (2012).

Anything by historians Adu Boahene and Naomi Chazan

How We Process Information: Why Politicians Can Overtly Lie and People Still Believe Them

Why do people still believe him if there is so much evidence that proves he is lying?

Over the past few months I heard this sentence (or different iterations of it) on multiple occasions. Whether applied to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Nigel Farage, Álvaro Uribe, Nana Akufo-Ado or John Dramani Mahama, the outrage was always the same. Behavioral economics can actually help in answering this question. By learning how we process information and what we do with it, we can better understand how the media gets to play the role it does and why sometimes it doesn’t help in disproving overtly false statements.

It is commonly believed that the vast amounts of information nowadays available and the way people share information should make it easier to separate falsehood from facts, yet as we saw in the latest American elections, this is usually not the case. Instead of identifying falsehoods, the multiplicity of opinions simply created a cacophony of errors that only after the elections started to be dispelled. Why does this happen?

In the era of internet and information, errors can be propagated and amplified. Combined with belief polarization and one’s likelihood to question news that contradict our prior beliefs (defined below), the likelihood of “liars” being discredited is extremely reduced.

As data consumers, generally, we do not collect dispersed information, contrast (or better yet, triangulate it) and reach a conclusion as to what is the “truth.” On the contrary, we usually fall into information cocoons or information segregation. Basically, we tend to just receive information that aligns or is biased in favor of our previous beliefs. As data consumers, we do not tend to read or watch the news in media outlets that follow a different editorial line. In other words, we are ideologically segregated (this phenomenon can also help explain why we can be convinced that there is a majority when there isn’t, we interact only with those who think like us).

In a surprising 2011 study, Gentzkown and Shapiro found that ideological segregation is even higher in face-to-face interactions than in online interactions. This makes sense insofar, at the end of the day, our friends tend to be somewhat similar to us (people we like). What about Facebook? Our Facebook feed might be representative of our face-to-face interactions, thus being highly segregated as well. The posts we see will not tend to discredit our opinions or the posts that we share ourselves.

As a direct consequence, we obtain one-sided views and enter – as professor Cass Sunstein says – into information cocoons and echo chambers which are, on the first place, a real problem for any democracy, but also a place where amplification of errors, hidden profiles, cascade effects and polarization are inevitable.

The situation becomes a bit more complicated if we add what is called belief polarization into the mix. We have what behavioral economist call “priors”, our beliefs without any information. The “posterior” is our updated belief once we have received information. We tend to think that when presented with the same information, our beliefs will converge. In many instances, this is not the case. We care directly about our beliefs (we are attached to them, we don’t want to relinquish them!) and thus we try to maintain them. Put simply, there are things we want to believe thus we do – we also discard the information that contradicts these beliefs (this is known as motivated belief bias and confirmatory bias).

If a media outlet reports that a certain politician that I dislike in my country is allegedly corrupt, I will probably believe it. But, if it comes out that Emma Watson was involved in the Panama papers scandal, I will probably question it or try to justify it (not that this happened…).

In a famous 1979 study, Lord, Ross, and Lepper conducted an experiment that demonstrated how people examine relevant empirical evidence in a biased manner. In the study, people holding different beliefs on the capital punishment were presented with two studies, one that seemingly confirmed their prior and one that seemingly contradicted it. The subjects rated the study that contradicted their prior beliefs as less reliable and became more convinced of the veracity of their prior opinions, that is, the subjects, instead of converging into a shared position (or closer position), became more extreme. In other words, belief polarization ensued.

Hypothetically, if I were a Trump supporter and a media outlet presents me with information about the feasibility of building a wall (and Mexicans paying for it) and another media outlet proves that this is almost impossible, I will take the former at face value and discard the latter. In reality though, due to ideological segregation and information cocoons, it is possible that I will not even consume the information that contradicts my prior.

In sum, people believe that they are unbiased information processors, but the reality is that we tend to be recipients of one-sided information, we process information in a biased manner, and even when we receive contradictory information, we become more polarized instead of converge towards one position.

This way of processing data has a direct impact on how media outlets can operate.  If we are not going to discredit media outlets for reporting dubious information, they can care less about their reputation or the veracity of the news they publish (and can rush into publishing without conducting a thorough fact-check first). If they report false news, people who want to believe them will still believe them because they want to do so. Reporting quality, despite the availability of vast information, is then much lower. In fact, as we have seen, some studies suggest that an outlet will be perceived as more truthful if it confirms our priors.


Sources for this article and reading recommendations:

Gentzkow, Mathew and Jesse M. Shapiro. “Competition and Truth in the Market for News.Journal of Economic Perspectives 22 (2008): 133 – 154.

Lord, Charles G., Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequantly Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 2098 – 21-9.

Sunstein, Cass. Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)


[Disclaimer: for this article, I drew heavily from what I studied in my Behavioral Economics class at the Yale School of Management with Prof. Florian Ederer and Prof. Shane Frederick ]