Ghana: The 10% election
Our mud-spattered four-wheel drive barrels along the rutted track that may have been a serviceable road in better days. The driver steels himself for the long climb into Salaga as darkness falls on a September night, and the vehicle starts sliding around the gooey red mud after another torrential downpour.
The rains are coming down heavily in northern Ghana, which should help the harvest. That could matter more than ever this year. In presidential and parliamentary elections on 7 December, the governing National Democratic Congress (NDC) is defending its record after eight years in power. Ahead of the vote everything is political: the price of food and fuel, the lack of jobs, bad roads and broken bridges.
Preceding us on the road are the combined forces of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) in a 20-car convoy led by presidential candidate Nana Akufo-Addo, his deputy Mahamudu Bawumia and former trade minister Alan Kyerematen. After a long day of speeches the convoy is running late for its last rally of the day.
There are worries about protocol. It is bad form for outsiders to visit a chief after sunset. But the word is that Salaga’s recently installed kpembewura (chief), Daari Haruna Bismark, is more than a little sympathetic to Akufo-Addo’s cause. The two worked together in government a decade ago and have stayed in touch.
Going to market
A market town and centre of the kola nut trade, Salaga switches political allegiance between the two main parties. It is known as Ghana’s Timbuktu because it has drawn people from all over the region: the Gonja, known for their warrior kings, and the Hausa, Dagomba and Wangara. Neither party can take Salaga’s feisty voters for granted.
Akufo-Addo and his colleagues drive into Salaga’s market square, eager to get their message across. It is past 10 in the evening, but the town is buzzing. Traders are selling candles, mosquito coils, bags of millet and tins of sardines, hoping for extra business.
Alongside, hawkers of political merchandise set up shop selling banners, caps and badges, all in the party colours of blue, red and white.
Vuvuzelas and car horns punctuate the night air as one of the party’s loudspeaker trucks starts blaring out a seamless medley of highlife, hiplife and Ghanaian hip-hop. The crowd sways, and teenagers and children saunter into the square.
Bawumia, sporting an elegant black-and-white smock emphasising his northern roots, starts with a recitation of the country’s economic woes: “Food price? Wahala! [trouble] Fuel price? Wahala! Electricity? Wahala!” before getting into a quick-fire economic diagnosis. Truth is, he says, the NDC government has wasted Ghana’s money on contracts with cronies, mired the economy in debt and made people pay the bill by raising taxes on everything.
Kyerematen’s formula is reminiscent of a line from United States former president Ronald Reagan. He simply asks the crowd if they feel better off than they were eight years ago, the last time the NPP was in power. That elicits a lot of shouting, most of it complaints about conditions.
All this sets the stage for Akufo-Addo’s stump speech. “Ghana is not a poor country,” he intones, promising to run a government that would look after the people and not the pockets of politicians.
Then he makes three specific promises: under his government, each village would get a dam to feed a basic irrigation system; there would be a factory in each of the country’s 216 districts; and the government would give $1m per year to each of the country’s 275 constituencies to invest in their own economic development.
Because Ghana’s elections have become a pledging competition, Akufo-Addo signs off with a plaintive message: “And I want you to know that I will never, ever stand before you and tell you that I can do something that I cannot do.”
The great unknown is how this sort of campaigning helps the candidates. A band of journalists, we followed Akufo-Addo’s convoy for a relentless 18-hour day, bouncing along potholed roads as he and his colleagues paid homage to local chieftains and gave their well-practised speeches to crowds across the region.
Open to offers
At each stop, we get out and talk to the people crowding into the market squares. Some are drawn by the music and the possibility of free food and drink. Others are just looking for a diversion. Some are evidently partisan, flaunting their NPP party colours and cheering the candidates with full-throated roars. Some seem to be NDC supporters keeping a wary eye on their adversaries.
In Saboba, Sadiq, a resident in his twenties, gives his considered view: “We want a change, so I want to see what these people are offering. They will need to convince us.” Sadiq is proud of his country, its history of protest and peaceful political change. It is very different from its neighbours, where elections have descended into violence in recent years.
Local leaders help sway public opinion. There was a stir in Salaga when the kpembewura confidently predicted that Akufo-Addo would win the presidential election with 53% of the vote.
A few weeks earlier, President John Dramani Mahama flew by helicopter to Tamale then drove across to congratulate the kpembewura on his elevation. Mahama’s Gonja people are an important force in the region, but no political base can be taken for granted in this election.
Back in Tamale, Akufo-Addo and Bawumia are still fizzing with enthusiasm after the long day. “The north has become a battleground region,” insists Bawumia, who was born in Tamale, the regional capital. His constituency is in neighbouring Walewale. “This isn’t empty talk. We are running a data-led campaign, and we are targeting NDC’s strongholds in the Northern and Volta regions.”
One benefit of his party’s long battle in the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the 2012 presidential election, says Bawumia, is that they have a forensic knowledge of the voting patterns of each of the country’s 275 constituencies.
This time, the NPP is better prepared, says Akufo-Addo. It has recruited stronger party agents who are determined to monitor every polling station and protect NPP votes.
Asked about the impact of the imbalance of resources and publicity – NDC posters have been plastered along the streets of the capital for weeks and the state media has been eagerly reporting on new power stations and roads – Akufo-Addo is sceptical. “We are not intimidated by the financial differences. I don’t see this election being determined by money,” he adds, arguing that Ghanaians are furious about what they see as the waste of public money and contracts for cronies.
Bawumia and Akufo-Addo hammer home what they call the “ruinous mismanagement of the economy” by Mahama and the NDC. Over the past four years, growth has halved to less than 4% and inflation is still more than 16%. Most people pay surcharges on fuel, water and electricity.
Anger over high prices and the lack of jobs is mounting, but the NDC has met that with relentless lists of new roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. Lots of shiny new buildings are springing up, but some of them, such as the new Ridge Hospital in Accra, are costing several times more than their original budgets.
Many people are talking about rampant corruption. Some, like Accra-based band Villy & the Xtreme Volumes, even sing about it. The band performs a number called “Chale, wia my money eh?” in popular bars, like Republic in Accra.
Akufo-Addo explains that “this is the most rapacious government that Ghana has ever seen,” but he concedes that complaints about corruption are blunted into the partisan debate. He wants to end the finger-pointing between the two parties and establish an office of the special prosecutor with independent powers to investigate and prosecute. “It would be entirely independent from party political pressure and would have the resources that have been denied to the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice,” he says.
No easy win
The NPP’s Kyerematen, who hails from Ashanti Region with its four million voters, says the calls for change are resonating across the country. “It’s very strong among the youth […]. We need to rebuild the productive base, […] raise earnings and employment to boost purchasing power.”
Despite the economic woes and complaints about graft, many expect the election to be extremely tight.
Neither of the parties expect an easy win. The governing NDC reckons its well-resourced organisation and shrewd campaigning will pay off as it insists, yet again, that the economy is on the brink of take-off.
Short of funds, the NPP is running a grassroots-focused campaign, sending its top team to the critical villages and towns it needs to get the numbers to win.
Veteran activist Yao Graham, director of Third World Network-Africa in Accra, says the result will be determined by less than 10% of voters: “Both the big parties have these historic allegiances, so it’s the swing votes that will count. But this could be their last time.”
With the rising importance of the youth, less swayed by how their parents vote, more mobile and much more demanding, Ghana’s political duopoly could be nearing its end, predicts Graham.
And strangely, he adds, few in the country’s political elite seem to have noticed these changes, let alone worked out a response to them. ●