A stable foundation: Political and economic growth in one of Africa’s first democracies


Often lauded as one of the most peaceful and open democracies in western Africa, the Republic of Ghana has now experienced decades of relatively stable political and economic progress.

However, while the country has seen two successful democratic handovers of power and four presidential elections over the past 13 years, it was not always so, and following Ghana’s 1957 declaration of independence there ensued several years of strife and tension. In 2012 Ghana was able to celebrate two decades of a return to civilian, multiparty democracy, but the passing of President John Atta Mills in July of that year came as a shock.

His vice-president, John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress, would take over for the remainder of his term before winning the presidential elections in December 2012. A petition over the outcome of that election was brought by the opposition National Patriotic Party, although this was later dismissed by the Supreme Court.

ECONOMIC GAINS: Throughout this time, economic progress has remained steady, particularly since the turn of the millennium, during which time Ghana’s GDP leapt from just $6.2bn in 2000 to $40.7bn in current US dollars at the end of 2012, according to data from the World Bank. This expansion was in part a result of statistical re-basing, but also of double-digit growth, a jump in commodity prices and an increase in service activity.

As a result of its recent economic surge and stable environment, investment levels have continue to rise as companies, both foreign and domestic, are eager to capitalise on the country’s wealth of natural resources and growing middle class.

DEMOGRAPHICS: Over the past three decades Ghana’s population has more than doubled in size, growing from 11.6m in 1982 to 24.9m in 2012, according to figures from the World Bank. Around 37% of Ghanaians are under the age of 15, and 50% live in urban areas. Life expectancy is 59 years for men and 61 years for women. There are more than 100 ethnic groups, though the Akan, from southern Ghana, are easily the largest, with an estimated population of 14m. Other major ethnic groups include the Mole-Dagbon, Ewe and Ga-Dangme.

Centuries of European colonisation have left a mark on Ghanaian culture, principally through the presence of the English language and Christianity.

However, though the official language of the country is English, the government continues to support numerous other local languages, such as Asante (Ashanti) and Ewe. Christianity remains the dominant religion, with the latest census reporting over 70% of the population as Christian. Islam, which is more commonly found in northern regions, accounts for 17.6% of the population, while 5.3% declare no religious affiliation and an estimated 5.2% practice traditional religions. Religious beliefs and practices often display a certain level of syncretism; indigenous elements are intermixed with some Muslim and Christian practises, which can make it difficult to draw sharp distinctions.

GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: Much of the country is made up of lowland plains areas, small hills and rivers, though it does possess small mountain ranges, such as the Akwapim-Togo located in the eastern border region, which has the nation’s highest peak in Mount Afadjato (885m). The western region bordering Côte d’Ivoire is blanketed by a thick tropical rainforest, where much of the country’s natural resource wealth, such as timber, gold, minerals and even offshore deposits of oil and gas, including the recently discovered Jubilee oil field, are found.

Ghana is also home to the world’s largest artificial lake, Lake Volta, which was created through the construction of the Akosombo Dam in 1965. To this day, the dam continues to provide the majority of the country’s electricity supply.

Bordered by Burkina Faso to the north, the Côte d’Ivoire to the west, Togo to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Ghana’s total land area is only slightly smaller than the UK at 227,540 sq km. With Accra as its capital, the country is divided into 10 administrative regions, which are further divided into a total of 216 districts. Positioned just a few degrees north of the equator, the nation’s climate is an archetypal two-season tropical climate, with the six-month rainy season typically beginning in March in southern parts of the country and April in northern areas. March and April are generally the warmest months of the year, with average temperatures of 28°C, though the country’s relatively flat topography and proximity to the equator ensure relatively stable temperatures throughout the year, with the nation’s coolest month being August, which averages 24°C.

COLONIAL HISTORY: Muslim traders from North Africa were present in Ghana and Western Africa long before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century; however, it was the arrival of Portuguese colonists that prompted the influx of people from several other European nations, and eventually led to centuries of a slave trade on what would later become known as the Gold Coast. Furthermore, by the close of the 19th century the British had officially made the Gold Coast a colony and protectorate of the crown, despite numerous periods of conflict and violence with the local kingdoms, and with the Ashanti people in particular.

INDEPENDENCE: Though the Gold Coast and numerous other African colonies witnessed sustained (and at times violent) resistance against colonial rule throughout history, cohesive and broad-based independence movements were far less common. One of the first modern indigenous political organisations in the country was formed in August 1947 by a group of businessmen and other white-collar professionals known as the Big Six. Of the six founders and leaders of the United Gold Coast Convention, two (Kwame Nkrumah and Edward Adufo-Addo), would later go on to serve as presidents of the republic. Nkrumah, however, left the group in 1949 due to ideological differences and went on to form the Convention People’s Party (CPP). It would be the CPP who autonomously governed the colony in the early 1950s before leading the push for independence. Nkrumah, who was elected to represent the collective colonies during the waning years of British administration following a national campaign of civil disobedience, led an initiative to draft a republican constitution. Three years later he was elected the first president.

Along with the CPP, Nkrumah also sought to transform the West African republic into a modern state partially modelled on socialist principles. The resulting government instituted a variety of public works projects in an attempt to jump-start development and ramp up growth. Two particularly influential projects came out of this effort: first, the Akowombo Dam, which created the world’s largest manmade lake, and second the Valco aluminium smelter, Africa’s largest such industrial facility.

TURMOIL: However, the government began to fall prey to increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and in 1964, Nkrumah amended the constitution to turn the republic into one-party state, prohibiting strikes, declaring himself president for life and carrying out political arrests. Indeed, the increasing oppressiveness, combined with a growing dictatorial bent and corruption, prompted the army to step in and overthrow the regime in 1966, dismissing the president and his ministers. The military then formed the National Liberation Council to oversee the creation of a multi-party democracy and the redrafting of the constitution. Three years later the Second Republic was born, along with a new constitution and a newly elected civilian government under Kofi Abrefa Busia and his Progress Party.

Yet the 1970s proved to be even more turbulent than the 1960s as economic turmoil, including tripledigit inflation and dropping commodity prices, led to another military coup in 1972, this one by Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong. Acheampong went on to form the National Redemption Council, which later became known as the Supreme Military Council, but as corruption and mismanagement worsened Acheampong found himself ousted by a military coup under Lieutenant General Frederick Akuffo in 1978. The following year saw further upheaval when the worsening economic conditions prompted a group of junior military officers, known as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, to stage the country’s fourth military coup in 15 years.

MODERN HISTORY: Upon assuming power, the AFRC executed senior officers of the NRC – including Acheampong and Akuffo – and aggressively prosecuted dozens of cases of corruption against other military officers and public officials. The AFRC also created a new draft constitution, which provided for a new governmental framework, including an elected president, a single-house parliamentary legislature and an independent judiciary, along with an elections commission and a host of independent governmental oversight agencies.

As such, elections were held in September 1979, and Ghana’s Third Republic was born, and Hilla Limann of the People’s National Party assumed power. However, by 1981 the AFRC had intervened again in order to remove Limann from power, citing ineffective policy, and established the ruling Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) with Rawlings as its chairman and as de facto ruler of the country.

The PNDC, though the most recent ruling body in a string of military councils, went on to rule Ghana much differently throughout the 1980s. Though strong opposition to the PNDC existed in the country, and was indeed at times oppressed, the PNDC also actively sought to pave the way for reestablishing constitutional and civilian governance.

To this end the National Commission for Democracy was set up in 1982; however, it would be a full decade before the ban on party politics was finally lifted and the new constitution ratified in 1992, with the creation of the Fourth Republic. Rawlings would serve as the first president of what had become a two-party democratic system, with members from Rawling’s NDC and the newly formed New Patriotic Party (NPP) holding office ever since.

HANDING OVER: Elections held in December 2000 brought the country’s first democratic changeover of power since independence nearly half a century earlier. Opposition candidate John Kufour, of the NPP, won 56% of the total vote. The NPP also staged a significant comeback in parliament, garnering slightly more than half of the seats.

These elections helped cement Ghana’s reputation as a robust African democracy. Rawlings, who served out his full term, stepped down in January 2001; his successor (and former vice-president), John Atta Mills, settled into the opposition seat despite contesting the 2000 elections.

The year 2008 saw the third elections since Rawlings stepped down and the second peaceful handover of power, marking another watershed moment for both the country and the subcontinent as a whole, as power passed to an opposition party. The presidential polls saw a 69% turnout, with eight candidates vying for the position, but the fragmented race meant that none had succeeded in garnering more than half of the vote. A run-off election was subsequently held between Nana Akufo-Addo, John Kufour’s successor as the NPP candidate, and John Atta Mills, who again represented the NDC. Atta Mills was declared the winner, eking out a victory by an estimated 40,000 votes. The NDC was also able to establish a nine-seat majority in the parliament.

2012 ELECTIONS: The 2012 election cycle was heavily affected by the death of Mills in July of that year. The vice-president, John Mahama, succeeded Mills and ran as the NDC’s candidate in the end-of-year elections against the NPP’s Nana Akufo-Addo.

Mahama would then go on to win the first round of elections with 50.7% of the popular vote, while Akufo-Addo ended up with 47.7%. However, AkufoAddo and the NPP have been appealing the vote since the results came in, claiming more than 11,000 ballot sheets – representing millions of votes – must be disqualified due to irregularities. The case made its way to the Supreme Court in May 2013, but the petition was dismissed at the end of August the same year. The decision declared the election results valid and Mahama the official president.

BRANCHES OF POWER: The executive power rests in the office of the president, who may be elected to no more than two four-year terms. The president is responsible for appointing the vice-president and the ministers who serve on the 25-member Council of State. According to the constitution, the majority of ministers of state that are appointed by the president to the council must come from parliament. The president is also tasked with appointing judges to the ultimate judicial arbiter, the Supreme Court, which is composed of a Chief Justice and a minimum of nine other justices. The national legislative body must then approve the judicial nominations.

The parliament was expanded in late 2012 from a 230- to a 275-member unicameral body that is elected together with the president to four-year terms. However, unlike the president, the members of the parliament are elected based on a plurality vote (most votes wins), whereas the elected president must receive a majority vote in order to win. The NDC and NPP have dominated the legislative body since the creation of the Fourth Republic in 1992, a trend that was perpetuated in the 2012 elections with the NDC and the NPP together taking 271 of 275 possible seats.

The president is given powers to initiate legislation, which must then be ratified by the parliament. He also boasts veto powers unless legislation is passed by an urgency vote. The parliament, on the other hand, is restricted to initiating only legislation with no financial implications.

FOREIGN RELATIONS: Ghana traditionally punches well above its weight in the regional and global arena. As one of the first sub-Saharan states established in the 20th century, the country has historically been active on the foreign relations front, and under former President Nkrumah it was a leading voice for pan-African unity. Ever since, it has been a pivotal actor in the region, helping to establish the 16-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975.

It is also an active member within the UN and has routinely served on UN peacekeeping missions. Furthermore, its bilateral ties to the UK remain strong, and the country has cultivated solid links with the US over the past half century as well. Since the turn of the millennium, the government has also begun to further develop its political and economic ties with fellow emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil. China, for example, which is currently Ghana’s second-most-important trading partner, has headquartered the West African branch of its ChinaAfrica Development Fund in Accra.

Many of the recent developments on the foreign policy front have indeed been forged by a desire to increase economic collaboration through the establishment of free trade agreements (FTAs). Ghana has signed numerous trade agreements over the past 20 years, including agreements with the US (a trade and investment framework was inked in 1999), the EU (through the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement), Turkey and the Republic of Korea.

OUTLOOK: Though certainly not without its obstacles, which include inclusive growth, job creation and infrastructure deficits, Ghana continues to serve as a role model for peaceful, democratic rule in western Africa. Political battles are now fought in the media and courtrooms, providing a relatively open, transparent and, most importantly, peaceful democratic system. With macroeconomic progress forecasted to continue, Ghana is in a good position to continue moving along the road of development.

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