In DepthColumnsGhana's northern voting arithmetic


Posted on Monday, 15 October 2012 15:16

Ghana's northern voting arithmetic

Prince Ofori-Atta

In December, Ghana's Acting President, John Dramani Mahama will meet chief opposition leader Nana Akuffo Addo in a presidential election that promises to redifine the West African country's geopolitics.

Combined statistics of three regions in Ghana - the north, upper east and upper west (northern Ghana) -  have since the country's return to democratic rule in 1992 tilted towards the ruling party. The National Democratic Congress (NDC) has registered a staggering 60 percent margin in previous polls.

But while a northern native's appearance as a premier candidate of a leading political party at the pending polls is a rarity only experienced once in Ghana, analysts continue to pore over what would look like in the country's first close presidential race in the three regions of the north.

The ruling NDC's careful numerical planning to optimise votes in its favour was  thrown into disarray following the death in office of President Atta Mills and risks impacting  on their traditional numerical advantage.

Ethnic Arithmetic

Ghana's fourth republic has continued to move steadily towards a bifurcated political system, creating in its wake both loyal and swing constituencies. The NDC and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) contending for the majority vote in the country's 230 constituencies (275 in 2012) tend to perform better in areas where affiliation to the party has been ethnically oriented for the most part.

Martin Amidu, Ghana's former Attorney General recently poised an unavoidable question in today's political sphere: "How far is it true to say that the politics of Africa is the politics of ethnic arithmetic?"

Ethnicity and religion, aside - issues such as education - will play a major role in northern Ghana's presidential and parliamentary elections, and the party that is better equipped to toe the complex socio-cultural arithmetical line is certain to mark huge points.

How far is it true to say that the politics of Africa is the politics of ethnic arithmetic?

Oscar Abagali, a political journalist who hails from the north and has spent a lot of time on the campaign trail with the two presidential candidates, describes the reception each individual has received as overwhelming. "Whilst Nana Akuffo Addo is welcomed as a household name in the three regions of the north, John Mahama is seen by many in that area as one of their own," he said.

But despite the suggestion of an unwritten north-north amity in voting trends, kindred sentiments among certain northern groupings run deeper than meets the eye. Although Nana Akuffo Addo is not a northerner, his running mate, Mamudu Bawumiah is Mamprusi which is part of the majority Dagbamba ethnic group. Bawumiah is also part of the 60 percent northern Muslim community. Mahama hails from the minority Gonja ethnic group and is non-Muslim.

As questions pertaining to which of the presidential duo will clinch northern Ghana in the 2012 elections burn on the tips of several tongues, a certain awareness of a fragile NDC in one of its traditional territories is brought to the fore.

Northern Ghana has a majority Muslim population on the one hand, and a majority Dagbamba ethnic grouping on the other hand, both giving impetus to arguments favouring NPP's strength in an otherwise NDC domain.

Be that as it may, "a northern presidential candidate, no matter his other identities, banalises the question of ethnicity and religion", argues Abagali. In other words, as long as Mahama is in the presidential and not vice presidential position, there is a strong possibility of northerners rallying around his candidacy.

1979 redux

Seventy-one year-old Ghanaian, James Cromwell Mould, reminisces over the 1979 elections that brought Hilla Liman to power before his untimely deposal by Jerry John Rawlings in 1981. He argues that the December, 2012 polls do not reflect the same dynamics.

"In '79, Liman was the only northerner on any substantial ticket, at a time when the many other southern political parties were very divided," he said. "So a united party went on to produce Ghana's first and only president from the north."

A 1979 north-south presidential bid by the People's National Party (PNP), very similar to the NDC's Mahama and Amissah-Arthur 2012 candidacy, saw the northern politician Hilla Liman and Joseph De Graft-Johnson from Cape Coast being propelled to the helm of government affairs.

"It is true that the NDC composition is not very different from what brought the PNP to power in '79, but a closer look at the NPP candidates shows that the outcome will be very different in the north, especially as they have also managed to present a strong northern candidate," Mould said.

The system of ethnic combinations, involving presidential hopefuls from antipodal lengths used by Liman and De Graft-Johnson 33 years ago has since become common practice.

An African influence?

The ethnic rhetoric has gained momentum in the past decades following the rise of multi-party democratic regimes, registering heated debates and redefining identities on the African continent.

However, the north-south ethnic arithmetic with respect to political strategy is not isolated to Ghana. Former Nigerian president Shehu Shagari, a northerner, who had a southern running mate, Alex Ekwueme, won in the south during the 1979 presidential elections.

Nigerian political analyst, Steve Okay, argues that "the introduction of tribalism into Nigerian politics in 1964, when the politics of carpet-crossing was smuggled into the constitution by virtue of the colonial administration, started the culture of politicians who had been voted into power outside their ethnic groupings forming ethnic-based alliances in the legislature in order to consolidate their power."

they have penetrated every northern nook and cranny that have remained inaccessible to their party

This has led to a very ethnically polarised political atmosphere in Nigeria, a country once referred to as the bellwether of multiculturalism. One Nigerian presidential hopeful who has failed his bid many times is "Buhari, who tried taking advantage of the religious vote by federating Islamic clerics to get Muslims to vote for him.

"So, more than religion, the divisions can be blamed on the carpet-crossing ethnic oriented politics."

But whilst Ghana has been spared any visible ethnic divisions among political parties, mostly as a result of the absence of religious and ethnic representation in the country's legislature, as well as the now seemingly well anchored south-north presidential tickets, the pending polls are set to reveal if Ghana's northern Muslims would chose to vote for a northern Christian president or a Muslim vice president.

About 17.6 percent of Ghana's population is Muslim with a vast majority based in the three northern regions whose population has 60 percent Muslims.

John Mahama and Kwesi Amissah Arthur whose incumbency is by virtue of John Atta Mills's truncated presidency have had only a few months to catch up with Nana Akuffo Addo and Mamudu Bawumiah on the campaign trail. Having toured the country three times, "the NPP duo has penetrated every northern nook and cranny that have remained inaccessible to their party" says an NPP official.

Room for surprise

And with the north's traditional average election turn out of about 68 percent as well as a high NDC winning margin, the NPP was hoping for a spectacular crunch after nominating a northerner from both the majority ethnic and religious groups.

"But that was when John Mahama was only a vice presidential candidate. So there is still room for a lot of surprises, especially as religion is not expected to have a great impact" says Abagali.

According to the 2010 population census, the three regions of the north, excluding those who identify themselves as northerners and yet live in other parts of the country, represent 16 percent of the total Ghanaian population.

Northern Muslims, who live in "Zongo" communities dotted around the country and who, according to DaMina - an international research group, have historically voted between 75-80 percent in favour of the NDC, will be confronted with a full NDC Christian candidacy and a Christian-Muslim NPP candidacy.

there is still room for a lot of surprises, especially as religion is not expected to have a great impact

Accommodating several ethnic groupings, traditional alliances in northern Ghana may also impact voting trends in the three regions. Longstanding cultural and linguistic ties bind the Dagbamba - composed of the Nanumba, Mamprusi and Dagomba - together. Considered as  the biggest grouping in Northern Ghana, the Dagbamba represent a considerable number as a voting bloc.

The minority Gonja  ethnic group, which Mahama belongs to, is not part of the far-reaching Dagbamba grouping. And historical references tell a tale of longstanding collaboration among the Dagbamba in northern Ghana.

The combined total of 77.5 percent of the northern population living in rural areas also reveals that there has been limited interaction with other peoples. The probability of old binding alliances that could serve as wind beneath the wings of a fellow kinsman, therefore, remains high.

The socio-cultural, ethnic and religious divisions that have since time immemorial marked the African political scene will be tested in Ghana's next election, as two different northerners with different affiliations represent two very different political parties.

Prince Ofori-Atta

Prince Ofori-Atta

Prince M. Ofori-Atta is the editor of He is a founding member of World Radio Paris, a community radio station in Paris, France. He is also a member of the Paris-based Cercle Andrew Young, a journalism Think Tank. Ofori-Atta edited between 2008 and 2011.

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