Oil, gas, gold, education and health dominate a landmark election in which the main contenders may again be fewer than just 50,000 votes apart
It has been Ghana’s longest-ever campaign and electors are being offered a real choice of policies and people but still the two major parties are running neck-and-neck ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections on 7 December. The centre-left National Democratic Congress under President John Dramani Mahama has maintained a slight lead, according to local and international pollsters. Yet the NDC is fighting off criticism that it has not maximised the economic potential of new oil and gas production and that it remains hamstrung by corruption and chronically inefficient public services.
Unfortunately for the governing party, two symbols of those complaints have dominated the all-important FM radio talk shows in recent weeks. Firstly, the frequent power cuts, caused partly by shortages of spares and a crisis at the Tema Oil Refinery, are a constant reminder of the shortcomings of state companies and services, especially since bills have risen sharply over the past four years. Secondly, the claim that the much-delayed gas processing plant being built at Atuabo by China’s Sinopec is grossly over-priced raises more doubts about the NDC’s record in the oil and gas sector (Africa-Asia Confidential, Vol 6 No 1, November 2012, Political storm over Chinese gas contracts).
The claims, detailed by the Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas and based on information gleaned from the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation, target the Managing Director of the Ghana National Gas Company, former NDC minister George Sipa-Adjah Yankey. They accuse him of incompetence or worse. The GNGC Chairman, former Finance Minister Kwesi Botchwey, sprang to Yankey’s defence, insisting the Board had fully investigated the claims and dismissed them. Civil society lobbyists such as Steve Manteaw are now trying to get full disclosure of the contracts between Sinopec and the GNGC. Put together with opposition claims that China’s Huawei secured tax exemptions in return for political contributions, Chinese companies are having a bad election in Ghana. Such is the country’s raucous but pluralist politics.
No slouches in the counter-attack, the NDC accuses the opposition New Patriotic Party and its presidential candidate, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of being puppets of multinationals such as the United States’ agricultural company Monsanto. NDC critics claim the NPP’s agricultural expansion policies are based on imposing Monsanto’s genetically modified seed varieties on local farmers. More widely, they paint the centre-right NPP as the party of ‘bosses in suits’ who have little understanding of or interest in the lives of the urban or rural poor.
Akufo-Addo’s oratorical style was developed in the Inns of Court at London’s Middle Temple and he has honed an effective anti-corruption attack on Mahama and party. ‘Which is more important,’ he asks, ‘free limousines for the ministers or free secondary education for your children?’ His pledge to provide universal free education has come under attack for the lack of credible costing but many are persuaded by the argument: if smaller economies such as Kenya and Uganda can afford to offer free secondary education, why not Ghana?
Beyond the serious national debate about policies, there is also the vital matter of local political patronage. The tone has become venomous at the grassroots level, with party foot soldiers fighting constituency-by-constituency. After four particularly violent by-elections over the past three years, partisan loyalties could yet spin out of control, especially if the results look close. President Mahama told Africa Confidential, just after his inauguration in August, that the main election issues were not financial and strategic: ‘It’s about Ghana and Ghanaians. Ghanaians think beyond bricks and mortar… What kind of leader they have is just as important. Issues like corruption, rule of law and justice are just as important.’
Akufo-Addo insists that the new oil wealth is raising the temperature. ‘If we in Ghana are able to have an election that is free and fair, and devoid of incident, it will be a huge statement about our future.’ In a paper on the effects of oil revenue on Ghana’s democracy, Professors Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi and Kwasi Prempeh deplore how arguments are ‘turned into an occasion for political grandstanding and gamesmanship’. They argue that the receipt and centralised management of billions of dollars in oil and gas receipts will reinforce the ‘winner takes all’ nature of the political system.
The party that emerges victorious, assuming it both wins the presidency and controls Parliament, will take almost absolute control of the state. The victors can allocate tens of thousands of jobs, consultancies, directorships, civil service posts and building contracts. This distribution of spoils is how both parties recruit campaign workers and raise finance. Loyalty and campaign muscle come in return for payments and access to patronage. That has skewed the parties’ focus towards short-term issues which bring lucrative contracts to party supporters.
A fraying consensus
The cross-party consensus of the five multi-party elections since 1992 is fraying, following the Electoral Commission’s decision to disqualify three presidential aspirants, including the former First Lady, Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings. Her fledgling National Democratic Party was likely to take votes from the NDC. Both she and her husband, ex-President Jerry John Rawlings, distrust the current leadership of the party he founded, the NDC.
Still wildly popular in his Volta Region redoubt and in the cities, Flight Lieutenant (Retired) Rawlings and his wife no longer carry sway in the NDC hierarchy. After intense negotiations he, but so far not she, has been persuaded back into the NDC fold to campaign for Mahama. He will carry less political weight than in 2008, when his energetic appearances may have given the NDC victory over the NPP, by just 40,000 votes. Since he took over from the late John Evans Atta Mills in July, the diplomatic Mahama has brought a measure of unity back into NDC affairs.
As in 2000 and 2008, votes in four swing regions may decide the outcome: Greater Accra, Brong-Ahafo, Central and Western. In Western Region, massive amounts are being spent on infrastructure development, particularly in oil and gas. The NPP’s share of the Western vote has dropped steadily: 61% in 2000, 57% in 2004, 52% in 2008. NPP strategists hope their promises to allow the oil-producing Region a special share of new export revenue (as in Nigeria’s Niger Delta) may help the party to win back its support.
The NDC’s Vice Presidential candidate and former Governor of the Bank of Ghana, Paa Kwesi Bekoe Amissah-Arthur, is a Fante from Cape Coast, the Central regional capital; his wife, Matilda Amissah-Arthur, is an Nzema from Western Region. Mahama’s wife, Lordina Mahama, is from Brong-Ahafo. Akufo-Addo may be helped by the fact that his wife Rebecca Akufo-Addo is from Greater Accra; his running mate, a former central bank Deputy Governor, Mahamudu Bawumia, is from the north, as is Mahama. Both have worked hard in the three northern regions and have made ethnic appeals, as has NDC General Secretary Johnson Asiedu Nketia (aka General Mosquito).
Despite doubts about quality and funding, Akufo-Addo’s promise of free secondary education is helping his campaign. The NDC has failed to keep its promise of a one-time premium for membership of the national health insurance scheme, which some think in danger of collapse, especially in the NPP’s Ashanti regional stronghold. The opposition has promised to make health insurance free for all under-18s.
The Electoral Commission Chairman, Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, is supervising his last election before retirement, having guided the process through five polls. In a worrying sign three weeks before voting, opposition activists claim the Commission is biased towards the NDC and argue that the 2010 local elections were badly botched. Opposition officials complain that the new biometric electoral register is not available for verification. Electronic voting machines will be used for the first time and any technical glitches are likely to bring cries of foul play from the losers. Having forced through legislation creating 45 new constituencies just three months before polling, the NDC has a public relations battle to win over allegations of electoral skulduggery.