John Mahama on Democracy and Elections in Contemporary Africa

by May 10, 2019

Presentation by John Mahama, former President of Ghana, organised by The Africa Studies Centre, Oxford University

In a packed audience at the Said Business School, Oxford University, Mr Mahama stated that democracy is the antithesis to dictatorship, based on the rule of law. Elections allow voters to choose their leaders for a specific time space. Africa he noted, had experimented with three main scenarios, namely, post -independence party rule; military dictatorship and the Africa spring. Pressure from the people has now ensured that elections are now the norm rather than the exception, even dictators have felt the need to go through the motion. He noted that citizens can force change, citing recent upheavals lines in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Gambia. The African Union (AU) has provided robust normative guidelines and framework in its 2007 governance charter, a departure from its previous “non-interference” position. This democratic wave has ushered gains in the continent with 4-6% growth in GDP and impressive growth in telecommunication and information technology, primary school enrolment, gender equality and life expectancy. The recent AU free trade agreement is likely to further enhance these trends.

He noted that there were still significant challenges facing the continent. The dividends of democracy are often not immediately evident. There were still huge income disparity and unemployment issues. Citizens often questioned the need for democracy which did not result in positive economic outcome for many of them with critics noting that democracy is not a panacea for the economic growth which has lagged population growth. Democracy has yet to eradicate corruption, still at unacceptably high levels. The wheels of democracy are often slow in addressing critical issues of concern. Women are still grossly under-represented, citing Ghana where women account for only 12.7% of members of parliament. The democratic process has still to address the issue of decentralisation of power. New administrations often reneged on agreements made by their predecessors. Voting systems, particularly new IT systems, are often not robust enough. He also highlighted the issue of new media in spreading fake news. IT voting systems and new media were problems in the world as a whole and he referred to recent issues in the US and Europe. He highlighted the development of bots and trolling factories and noted issues with IT systems in elections in Ghana, Kenya and Sierra Leone where demands had been made to revert to more manual systems. Ethnic divisions and bigotry were significant challenges, citing statements made in Ghana that resource rich regions should have disproportionately higher political leverage a proposal which all major parties have rejected. Terrorism in the Sahel region poses a threat to the democracy process in the continent. Democracy in Africa he noted is blossoming but must be nurtured to ensure that it develops its full potential for the people.

Professor Wale Adebanwi, Rhodes Professor of Race studies, Director of the African Studies Centre, Oxford University and convenor of the event noted that democracy in Africa is work in progress, citing high levels of poverty that has given rise to a newly coined phrase, “stomach infrastructure”. He raised the issue of political violence and posed the question of how Mr Mahama is coping with life outside power. Mr Mahama stated that Africa must develop its infrastructure, namely, its educational institutions, roads, water and electricity supplies, noting that while people often stated that one cannot eat roads governments need to “teach people how to fish rather than giving them fish”. A robust infrastructure development programme such as that his government embarked on created jobs. On the issue of political violence he acknowledged that one political party had developed a militia fermenting violence and the current government had absorbed members of that militia into the security services which he did not believe is the solution to the problem. Mr Mahama noted that his life outside power was much more peaceful and he had only reluctantly agreed after being pressed by his party to stand again as presidential candidate for the next election.

Members of the audience raised the issue of election hacking; the need for African governments to consider coalition governments rather than the adversarial approach between parties; the fact that “benevolent dictatorships” in countries such as Singapore and Rwanda have delivered more in terms of economic development; the length of administrations, four years, is too short for governments to implement meaningful programmes; the wasteful trend of new governments abandoning programmes started by their predecessors; the high cost of elections; the need for a robust free media. The issue was raised of corruption by government officials and the fact that governments do not often prosecute such officials.

In his response, Mr Mahama noted that the current government in Ghana had not shared his party’s concern about hacking but hoped that the Electoral Commission would take a good appraisal of the issue and how to protect elections, an issue many governments around the world are trying to address. Ghana had inherited the electoral system of winner takes all/first past the post system from the British and should consider the point about all parties working together for the benefit of the country. The record of Ghana since it embarked on the democratic process was impressive in terms of economic development and he rejected the “benevolent dictatorship” model. He was open to an increase in the length of administrations if sanctioned by the people because there is a good case for a five year term. He was supportive of a strong and robust media and was critical of recent moves by the current administration to silence two radio stations for dubious administrative reasons, particularly as those stations were supportive of the opposition but admitted though that Ghana has numerous media outlets. The issue of fake news needed to be addressed. If elected again he would devote more time to effectively communicating with the public. Governments needed to ensure that viable projects started by their predecessors are completed, an issue that all parties should address. The high cost of election was an issue that ECOWAS is investigating and he looked forward to their analysis and how those costs can be minimised. He supported swift and drastic actions against corrupt officials and highlighted the case of a top official in his administration that had been tried and penalised for such action.

Background and analysis

Ghana was the first country in Sub-Sahara Africa to be independent from colonial rule (Ethiopia had been briefly colonised for less than ten years by Mussolini but the Italian dictator’s colonial ambition was curtailed by Britain and its colonies) and the first country in Africa to develop a robust democratic system where governments from different parties changed multiple times. Interestingly, the birth of democracy in 1992 was brought about by the dramatic intervention of Lieutenant Rawlins when the country had been brought to its knees through corruption and mismanagement by governments. It was therefore a very good thing for the leader of a defeated party in that country to make this presentation. Contrary to the sentiment that African electorates are not sophisticated enough to decide on the competence of their governments, the demise of Mr Mahama’s government demonstrated that the Ghanaian electorate made a logical conclusion and will no doubt make a similar decision if the current administration does not govern according to the expectation of its bosses, the electorate. While the presentation was not a report about the record of Mr Mahama’s administration we can deduce from the analysis of that record of why the Ghanaian electorate voted his government out of power and the challenge he faces getting back in government. Under Mahama’s watch the value of Ghanaian Cedi depreciated significantly against major currencies; there was a major power crisis; major scandals relating to the 2014 Brazil world cup and a bus branding scam. The opposition successfully branded Mahama’s government as corrupt, a label that the administration treated casually. The suspension of allowances for teachers and nurses was seen as insensitive. The challenge for Mahama in taking back control will be tough given the record of the current government as eloquently presented by Abdul Keku Baako in an analysis of Mahama and the current administration on key metrics.

Ghana Economic Indicators
2016 2018
Cedi depreciation 9.7 8.4
GDP growth rate 3.7 7.4
Inflation 17.5 9.47
Fiscal deficit as% of GDP 9 2.8
Debt to GDP ratio 73.1 67.3
MPR 25.5 20
Balance of Trade $ billion -1.4 1.1
Gross International Reserves $ billions 6.2 7.3

The analysis gives a snapshot of key economic indicators in the last year of Mahama’s administration in 2016 compared to the situation in 2018 half way in the current administration. Under the current administration Cedi depreciation is lower; economic growth rate is higher while inflation, fiscal deficit and debt to GDP ratio are significantly lower. The Monetary Policy Rate (MPR) is lower, reducing the cost of loans and increasing the availability of loans to the private sector; balance of trade has improved from a deficit to a surplus and; gross international reserves are higher. In terms of economic policy therefore the current government is demonstrating that it is a better manager. While these may sound as dry statistics, they are the (macroeconomic) building blocks that create a conducive environment for investment by local and foreign investors leading to economic growth and jobs that eventually feed into the democratic process as people ask, are we better off now than we were four years ago in the forthcoming elections. Indicators like the value of the Cedi relative to foreign currencies which determine the price of goods, which together with inflation and access to loans also have a direct impact on the average voter’s pocket. The corruption scandals noted above and a government seeming indifference to it aggrieve the voter who took out on Mahama’s party. That is indeed the beauty of democracy which Mahama did not obviously dwell on.

A major issue that was raised that African democracies have to cope with is whether a “benevolent dictatorship” is a better alternative. With widespread poverty, the high cost of elections and governance and the slow pace of change in the democratic system does the Rwanda or Singaporean model or even the Chinese economic miracle not serve the people better? As a Ghanaian friend of mine said of the current government, “there are so many ministers that there will be little left of the cake after all of them have taken their cuts”. The examples noted have offered more dramatic economic transformation but at a cost according to some commentators. Does it matter and these countries can argue that in addition to their more dramatic economic records they operate democratic systems which may not adhere to the western ideal but is appropriate for their countries. Rwanda has the highest proportion of women in parliament and needs to guard against ethnic tensions that resulted in the massacres in the 1990’s. Both Rwanda and Singapore have regular elections and the latter has a vibrant media sector. China can claim with much justification that its dramatic economic transformation is far more important to its people than the wester ideal.

One issue that Mr Mahama did not address properly and the “stomach infrastructure” sentiment ignores is the crucial benefit of development of the infrastructure. Mr Mahama noted that infrastructure projects provide jobs. Developing the infrastructure is crucial not so much because of the jobs it generates during the construction stage but rather because it makes the country more attractive for investment. While Mr Mahama’s statement “teaching how to fish” partly deals with the issue, it does not fully capture it. That sentiment has been unfortunately used successfully, notably in Nigeria, by politicians, showering the electorate with imported rice from Asia immediately before elections, often using misappropriated government funds, rather than embarking on the fundamental investments and reforms in agriculture that the Buhari government is implementing which have far more long term positive effects. Africa badly needs such projects because of the dilapidated/non-existent infrastructure and to compete for investment funds. This includes physical structures as well as soft infrastructure such as the educational system focusing on science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the regulatory framework (e g ease of doing business metrics). That is the true challenge for democracy in Africa which some of the “benevolent dictatorships” have done more successfully and particularly so as Mahama noted that new administrations often stop work on projects started by their predecessors. Infrastructure plans and projects often need more than the typical four year cycle in the democratic process.

On the whole this was a very good presentation and credit must be given to Mr Mahama for his lucid presentation and for not being overly political by using it as a party political broadcast. Admittedly he made a few references to his administration’s good work and criticism of the current administration. This presentation by the country that led the way in decolonisation, the democratic process and the birth of the democratic spring on the continent was very refreshing. Professor Wale Adebanwi must be commended for providing a picture of the African story that is often not heard in this country.

J Boima Rogers is Principal Consultant at Media and Event Management Oxford (MEMO)