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Watching the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election

It was a Ghanaian election that got me interested in journalism in the first place. In December 2000, Ghana faced a fascinating political juncture. Two elections had taken place since 1992 – both of which were widely characterized as free and fair – and both had elected Jerry Rawlings, who’d taken power in coups in 1979 and again in 1981. The Ghanaian constitution prevented Rawlings from running again, and while there was widespread speculation that Rawlings’s wife would run as a candidate for the presidency, allowing Rawlings to continue managing from the shadows, the ruling NDC party nominated Professor John Atta Mills, the sitting Vice President.

Running against Atta Mills were a slew of candidates, most notably NPP’s John Kufuor. Kufuor won the first round of elections, which ran smoothly, but wasn’t able to avoid a runoff. (Ghana’s electoral system demands a candidate win 50% or more of the votes, or must face a runoff against the second-place candidate.) He then won a runoff election against Atta Mills roughly three weeks later, and took power in what some have characterized as Ghana’s first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1957.

I was working on the Geekcorps project in 2000, and we had a class of volunteers in Ghana during the elections. Knowing that African elections can sometimes go off the rails, we were watching the election closely, desperate for whatever news we could get. Our volunteers in country sent us amazing stories of long lines at polling places, heated discussions between political partisans but very little conflict, and an intriguing vote monitoring mechanism. When witnesses saw evidence that people were being prevented from voting or turned away from polling places, they used mobile phones to call radio stations like JoyFM and report what they were seeing. These stations are the most popular source of news within the country, so a report on the radio compels the authorities to investigate.

You may remember that the US election didn’t go so smoothly in 2000. The disparity between the smoothness of the Ghanaian election and the complications with the US election were the source of some amusement to Ghanaians. My friend Koby Koomson – who at that time was Ghana’s ambassador to the US – sent a letter to President Bill Clinton offering the assistance of Ghanaian poll monitors in overseeing vote recounts in Florida. Oddly enough, President Clinton didn’t take him up on the offer.

Watching from the US, I was astounded at how little coverage the Ghanaian election received. The New York Times ran a brief piece three days after the voting ended, and we were able to follow reports from Ghanaian websites and the BBC… but clearly a peaceful and historic Ghanaian election wasn’t frontpage news in the US. This led me to start asking questions about what was front page news, a question that’s shaped much of my work over the past five years, including my work on Global Attention Profiles and on Global Voices.

Ghana’s gearing up for another election right now, and there’s a roar of media from within the country speculating on outcomes. Kufuor, who’s presided over eight years of good economic growth, is constitutionally mandated to step down, and his proposed successor Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, is running a close race against Professor Atta Mills, the perpetual NDC candidate. They’re the front-runners in a colorful field, including eight major presidential candidates and a wide range of parliamentary candidates.

Gallup polling (yes, Gallup polls in Ghana) finds a high degree of interest in the elections, with 48% of respondents reporting a high degree of interest. Polling suggests that economic issues top the list of concerns for most voters. This makes good sense – while Ghana’s experienced strong economic growth and seen the emergence of a middle class, many, many Ghanaians are still desperately poor and wonder if the ruling government has done enough to share the wealth and build infrastructure that will help poorer Ghanaians succeed.

My friend Ken Ofori-Atta, an investment banker and successful entrepreneur, offers an op-ed that gives both an overview of the economic successes of the past few years and sympathy for Ghanaians who feel left behind by recent economic developments. I get the strong sense that Ken supports Nana Addo, believing NPP is better positioned to continue Ghana’s recent growth, a perspective I tend to share as well.

But there’s no shortage of topics to debate in the run up to Sunday’s polls. The discovery of oil off the coast of Ghana introduces the possibility that Ghana will become a petro-state, a circumstance which might be bad news given the poor governance that characterises many mineral-rich African states. (Ghana is seeking advice from Norway, one of the states that’s had the most success turning oil revenue into social development.) It’s clear that the discovery of oil is going to unlock a flurry of regional and ethnic claims to ownership of the new resource and provide major governance challenges to the nation’s new leader.

Whatever debates are taking place, most commentators believe that the voting will be smooth, peaceful and that all parties will accept the results. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case in many African elections this past year. With fingers crossed not for any particular outcome, but for a smooth process, I’ll be watching closely. For those interested in following along on Sunday and the days that follow:

JoyFM, one of Accra’s biggest radio stations, has an excellent website with lots of political news.

The African Elections Project, a project of my friends at the International Institute of ICT Journalism, has been providing good coverage and will track results in real time. They’re maintaining a twitter feed as well.

Ghana Elections Watch features a useful map that shows how Ghanaians are currently represented by parliamentarians, which gives a sense for the complexities of support for NPP, NDC and other parties.

Think Ghana offers some helpful historical data on elections in their “Voting Trend” section.

Augustinus College in Amsterdam is holding a debate about election results on December 8th, the night following the polling. They’ve got an excellent overview of parties and their positions on their web site.

The tone of discussions around the election has been, for the most part, pretty good humored. I wrote a few weeks ago about the battle for the election taking place through candy-sellers, and NDC’s embrace of Barack Obama. I leave you today with speculations about the political motivations of a goat that’s been chewing NPP posters. Here’s hoping that there’s no more drama in this weekend’s elections than the occasional stray goat with political ambitions.

While we’re hanging out in Ghana – and man, do I wish I were hanging out in Ghana right now – let me mention BarCampGhana, a technology unconference scheduled for December 22 in Accra at the beautiful AITI Center. Estelle Sowah, who heads BusyInternet, will be the keynote speaker, and it should be a fantastic gathering. if you’re anywhere in West Africa, you should check it out.

4 thoughts on “Watching the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election”

  1. Your comment about peaceful and historic elections in Ghana not being big news in the US made me think of my flight today from LAX to JFK. The flight was continuing on to Accra from JFK. As I was getting on the airplane, the person in front of me asked the stewardess checking boarding passes where Accra was. “In West Africa,” she said. I thought that was mighty unspecific. So when the woman sitting next to me asked whether I knew where Accra was, I responded “It’s the capital of Ghana.” She asked “Where’s that?” Guess the stewardess knew her audience the first time.

  2. i will follow the elections because I do, and hope to discover some great blogs from Ghana from their coverage. I also hope they pass as smoothly as the 2000 one

  3. Ethan — much has happened with election monitoring since your volunteers were here in 2000. CODEO, the Coalition of Domestic Election Monitors, has deployed 4,000 election nonpartisan observers; 1,000 of which are texting in their observations and tonight a parallel vote count. I just wrote about this here: http://mobileactive.org/sms-critical-election-observation-ghana – right from the CODEO central Observation Center. And it’s a buzzing place with reports pouring in via SMS from all over the country. CODEO just released its mid-day report which you can find on the wwww.codeogh.org website.

    CODEO will be issuing a statement tonight about the conduct of the election, and tomorrow there will be more statements and press conferences, so check out the site.

    All the best from Accra.

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