The 2016 Presidential election in Ghana was one of the more anticipated sub-Saharan election in recent history. As Ghana is often referred to as a “model democracy” for sub-Saharan Africa, champions of democracy around the world anxiously watched the election, fearful that democratic backsliding could occur. Since being the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957, Ghana has experienced serious democratic erosion in the form of three military coups. Ghana’s fourth republic, however, has been exceptional to its African neighbors, as it has held seven free and fair elections since its constitution was ratified in 1992 and numerous peaceful transitions of power between competing political parties. Through a narrow lens of democracy, Ghana shines. However, when we impose a stricter view of democracy it is clear that deteriorating faith in democratic institutions in Ghana has created minor democratic backsliding that must be addressed or the country could be at risk of following the same wider trends of democratic breakdown that have plagued other sub-Saharan African countries.
The paramount threat to Ghanaian democracy is the electorate’s deteriorating faith in the country’s democratic institutions. In 2008, only 12% of Ghanaians felt that they were “not getting enough democracy” whereas that number has skyrocketed to 38% in 2014. An Afrobarometer paper analyzing democracy across Africa found that rising “public disillusionment with the government of the day” should be cause for concern for the stability of the Ghanaian democracy.
This disillusionment can be attributed to large-scale corruption in the public sector that has eroded the legitimacy of many democratic institutions. In his book on the issues in the Ghanaian democracy, Kwame Ninsin claims that no elected official “has left office without being tainted with corruption”. While this is almost certainly an exaggeration, Ninsin’s statement sheds light on how severe Ghanaians believe the corruption in their parliament is. He also argues that elected office has been increasingly viewed as a lucrative opportunity in Ghana. The increase from only 463 candidates for 200 seats in 1992 to 1332 candidates for 275 seats in Ghanaian parliamentary elections reflects the dramatic increase in demand for public office positions. Ninsin asserts, “the prevailing view of elections is as a means to control the state for the accumulation of private wealth.” Regardless of the fairness of these elections representation is seen as a way to acquire personal wealth. This calls into serious questions whose interests Ghanaian elected representatives represent.
Corruption has extended beyond parliament to other democratic institutions. For example, the Supreme Court was rocked by a 2015 documentary showing over 180 justices and their staff requesting bribes to influence judicial decisions. The fact that well over half of Ghanaians report having little to no trust in the judiciary should be no surprise. Ghana’s government responded to the scandal by suspending 12 high court justices and 22 junior court justices. Regardless, the integrity of the Ghanaian judicial branch, a body that Ghana’s democracy’s stability has relied on, has been severely undermined.
The ineffectiveness of President Mahama’s regime from 2012 to 2016 amplified the public’s disillusion with the government. Corruption, economic distress, failing welfare support programs, and wider dysfunction plagued the Mahama administration as it did his predecessor John Atta Mills. Less than one year before the 2016 election, the Mahama administration was subject to scandal when it was reported that Mahama embezzled funds for a new public bus program to finance his campaign and high-profile donors. The 60% of Ghanaians who disapproved of Mahama’s performance, nearly 20% higher than any other figure reported in the history of Ghana’s fourth republic, would vote Mahama and his party, the NDC, out of power in 2016 and usher in President Nana Akufo-Addo.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, the international community stressed how important it was for the stability of Ghana’s democracy. With the stakes so high and the payoff from assuming power so large, many were fearful if democratic norms would be abandoned. The NPP cast doubts on the legitimacy of the election results before it was held, NDC media threatened the lives of justices supporting the electoral commission’s work to regulate the voting registry as a part of a larger trend of hate speech in the media, and small instances of political violence were being reported. However, in the end, former President Mahama peacefully left office after losing the election and crisis was largely averted. The international community rejoiced as Ghana yet again blazed the trail of democracy in Africa. But simply endorsing any democracy that conducts a free and fair election is too relaxed a standard of strong democracy to abide by. This relaxed standard can easily lead to oversight of smaller instances of democratic backsliding that can multiply into more serious democratic crises, as they did in 2012 in Mali, a former “model democracy in Africa” just like Ghana that experienced a coup d’état. Afrobarometer found that the statistics on popular opinion of the government and democratic institutions in Mali from 2002 to 2008 in the lead up to the eventual coup roughly align with the same statistics in Ghana from 2008 to 2014.
Not only is the standard of free and fair elections too limited, but also the existence of such elections in Ghana is no certainty. After the 2012 election, the NPP rejected the results claiming the election was a fraud and chose to petition the case to the Supreme Court. The Court found profound voting irregularities, unverified voters, and over voting, but ruled that these discrepancies did not influence the election. However, the BBC reported that voting irregularities in Accra alone could have accounted for President Mahama’s victory. Some political experts went as far to say that the Supreme Court’s ruling “endorsed illegality at the highest levels”. The court’s findings made it clear that the electoral commission was inept in its management of the voting registry. This case and the Ghanaian politicians defaming and politicizing the electoral commission publically in the media has made many Ghanaians believe the electoral commission is subject to inevitable fraud. The public is increasingly doubting the legitimacy of their elections: only 46% of Ghanaians believed the 2012 elections to be “completely free and fair” or “free and fair with minor issues”, whereas that number was 80% in 2002. The 2012 election deteriorated the electorate’s faith in the judiciary and the electoral commission and its maintenance of the voter registry; in turn, the entire electoral process in Ghana was called into question. If this erosion of legitimacy continues, future election results could be called into question in a manner that could create a democratic crisis.
The risks to Ghana’s democracy are most likely limited, and the 2016 election largely restored faith in the country’s democracy. However, the legitimacy of many democratic institutions and elected officials has deteriorated in the eyes of the electorate and as a result, the legitimacy of the democracy at large is at risk. Ghanaian policy must work to restore the legitimacy of its democratic institutions. Ghanaians have now experienced two successive presidential administrations that were largely ineffective and plagued by corruption. If President Akufo-Addo is unable to show that his regime can effectively address the issues Ghana faces, the Ghanaian democracy risks a much more serious and explicit backslide. It is dangerous to write off the minor democratic failures in Ghana mentioned in this paper as inconsequential. Left unchecked, these problems that have undermined the legitimacy of sectors of the Ghanaian government could undermine and destabilize the entire democracy that has been a leader in the democratic movement across Africa.