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Ghanaian politics and the (wo)man on the street

It’s possible to keep up with news from Africa if you know where to look – some of the BlogAfrica sites, AllAfrica.com, the East African Standard, and the BBC, taken collectively, do a decent job of covering events as they occur. But it’s awfully hard to get a read for political opinion when you’re not on the ground.

On the ground, it’s another matter entirely. The Ghanaians I know tend to be wonderfully opinionated, happy to argue politics at the drop of a hat. When privately-owned radio came to Ghana, political talk radio followed along almost immediately. It makes perfect sense – it’s an easy extension of the arguments that rage in the markets, in tro-tro, in restaurants and business meetings.

I’ve been asking friends about the upcoming elections. Ghana’s presidential election is this coming December, a bit more than a month after the US elections. President Kufuor will be running for reelection and, while conventional wisdom says he’ll win (in no small part because he’s running against uncharismatic, bookish Dr. Atta-Mills, the Ghanaian Al Gore), word on the street seems to be that he might have an uphill battle.

Three years ago, when Kufuor was elected, he was the opposition leader running against NDC, the party of J.J. Rawling, who was stepping down after almost twenty years of not-quite-continuous rule. While many of his supporters were interested in his pro-business background and stance, others were voting against Rawlings’s candidate, Atta-Mills, rather than for Kufuor. As a result, the minor parties in Ghanaian politics joined with NPP against NDC, bringing Kufuor to victory by a tight margin.

(Sidenote – Many commentators believed it wasn’t possible for the opposition to win an election in Ghana – they were pleasantly surprised when, not only did the opposition win, but the election was declared free and fair, with a minimum of electoral violence. You may remember that the 2000 election in the US didn’t go quite as smoothly. As Ghanaians celebrated a successful election and voting recount debates continued in Florida, my friend Koby Koomson, then Ghana’s ambassador to the US, called me with a wonderful idea. He was planning to call President Clinton with an offer of Ghanaian election observers to help the US sort out its election debacle. No word on Clinton’s response.)

Now Kufuor’s running on his record, not against Rawlings’s past. And while his macroeconomic politics make a great deal of sense in The Economist, they’re a lot harder to sell to the man or woman on the street. Kufuor is rapidly phasing out price subsidies on gasoline, water, electicity and other essentials. While this is necessary in economic terms to help lower foreign debt, it’s a pretty difficult situation for ordinary Ghanaians trying to make ends meet.

The friends I’ve talked to are upset about price increases, but they’re more dismayed by what government money is being spent on. Motorcades seem to be a particularly sore subject. We passed one on the road to Achimota on Sunday – five police motorcycles, four black sedans and an ambulance. Given the small size of the caravan, one of our group observed that it was a ministerial caravan, not the President’s more substantial entourage. “Probably the Deputy Minister of Motorcades”, another member of our group guessed. There’s near equal dismay about ministerial and presidential travel overseas.


My friend Fortune had the strongest opinions about Kufuor and his administration, none of them positive. A die-hard Rawlings fan (she would argue, a die-hard Nkrumah-ist), she believes Kufuor has had his chance to make a change and has squandered it. While her complaints ranged far and wide, they seemed to center on a key issue: those who stayed, versus those who left.

She, and others I’ve spoken to, associate Kufuor, an Oxford-educated lawyer, with the group of Ghanaians who left the country during its most troubled times – 1983 – 1985 – and have returned now to start businesses and take government jobs. (This isn’t entirely fair, as Kufuor was in Ghana, and part of Rawlings’s cabinet when he took power… or maybe it is, as he left Rawlings’s government after seven months to return to life as a businessman. Certainly some of the technocrats he’s surrounded himself with are “returnees”.) For Ghanaians like Fortune, who lived through the abject poverty of the early eighties, it’s hard to feel completely positive about people who didn’t share the suffering of those days.

On the other hand, the folks who are returning to Ghana are often the most interesting and creative entrepreneurs in the IT sector and the folks who give me the most hope about the economic future of Ghana.

What will this mean for Kufuor? Time will tell, and I’m looking forward to having two elections to watch this fall.