Ghana polls could go either way

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

After the astonishingly heartening dramatic turn of events in The Gambia last week – longstanding incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, lost his fifth re-election bid and shockingly conceded defeat, the presidential election in Ghana this week (7 December) has hearts racing. Not that there is much doubt the polls would be credible – probably outside of South Africa, Ghana has an unparalleled record of running successful elections that have been deemed largely free and fair. Worry is the election results may be too close, and thus move into second round: the winner must secure more than half of votes cast. For the two leading presidential contenders, John Mahama of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) and Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), the main opposition party, that is. The last time they sparred in 2012, President Mahama won 50.6 percent of the vote, about 3 points above Mr Akufo-Addo’s 47.8 percent.

Opposition has ample ammunition
Mr Akufo-Addo’s challenge to the incumbent is stronger now. But Mr Mahama, who has had the mixed fortunes of steering Ghana through a most difficult time, has deeper pockets this time. He rose to the office in July 2012, after the death of John Atta Mills, the first president of the country to die in office, and successfully contested for his first term five months later, amid recurring power shortages (‘dumsor’), which he almost entirely pledged his presidency on resolving. True, his administration has put in a lot of efforts towards resolving the problem. Power barges were procured to bridge the supply gap temporarily as more permanent solutions were being sought. A gas-fired power plant was also built. With income from newly discovered crude oil slow in coming (some was even spent before being earned) amid ramped-up spending, public debt rose to almost 70 percent of GDP in 2014 from about 50 percent in 2012, the year Mr Mahama took office. Inevitably, his administration had to seek IMF aid to manage what could have been a much worse economic crisis. A 13 percent increase in public sector salaries in early 2015 was clearly ill-advised. Mr Mahama also increased the minimum wage by about 17 percent in that year. Now another 13 percent wage increase for the country’s civil servants early next year has been promised. And the minimum wage is almost certainly going to rise by 10 percent in January. Little wonder, the public wage bill for this year to June has already gulped almost 60 percent of the budget for the entire year. There have also been allegations of corruption. A controversial gas turbine contract is one example. An SUV gift to Mr Mahama by a government contractor was also a source of some controversy.

To one’s mind, Mr Mahama and his team have done as much as any administration could to steer the country out of the doldrums, self-inflicted in any case. But voters hardly care how hard a government is working if the outcomes are below expectations. And Mr Mahama has had to take some very unpopular decisions. Power tariffs and fuel prices have risen quite a bit since four years ago for instance, more than double in some cases. And until recently, inflation showed little signs of slowing. There is hope now that the current downward trend in the pace of price changes would be sustained. It has to be the case. Otherwise the recent cut in interest rates by the central bank rings slightly like a favour to the new governor’s benefactor. Even so, it is most unprecedented for a central bank to cut interest rates just two weeks or so to potentially contentious elections; in Ghana at least. Optimism about the economy by administration officials is not farfetched regardless. Inflation would likely slow into the single-digits next year. Interest rates would also likely come down as the central bank continues the easing policy it just started. And yes, the economy would likely roar in 2017 as oil and gas production gathers steam, albeit probably in the 7 percent range, less than Mr Mahama’s assertion of above 8 percent during the presidential debate, but definitely better than expectations of about 4 percent for this year.

Equal chances
Clearly, the opposition goes to the polls with a lot to criticise Mr Mahama about. Not that if it were in government it would do any better. Accusations of corruption applies to members of the opposition as much as those of the ruling party. I last visited Accra, the Ghanaian capital city, around mid-2015. I recall a most interesting conversation, with those very lively storytellers: cab drivers know all of a city’s secrets. While trying to avoid some gully-type potholes – I chose an opportune time it turned out, the cab driver went on a diatribe about how distant from reality members of the political class were. He harped on the wanton display of wealth by government officials who before getting to office barely got by. Coming from Nigeria, I found this a little bit amusing. If the only thing our politicians did was to live comfortably on our dime but do their jobs nevertheless, that would be a most gratifying turn of events. Ghanaians still have it good. And yes, dumsor was a recurring issue in the conversation. And the all too familiar argument about the rich not being overly concerned since they have standby generators and so on.

True, Mr Akufo-Addo is promising everything and all things. While on a rally in September for instance, he promised each of Ghana’s 275 constituencies the local equivalent of US$1 million annually if he won power, about US$1.1 billion over four years. Every village would also get a dam, every district, 110 in all, a factory and everyone eligible a free secondary school education, he added. Hollow promises. Nonetheless, his grassroots approach – he even skipped the presidential debate, uneventful in any case – and populist promises likely resonates with not a few voters seeking some reprieve from what is still a challenging economic environment. To his credit, Mr Mahama has not responded as much in kind, by and large. Regardless, his chances of winning are about the same as those of his main challenger. One private opinion poll actually puts Mr Akufo-Addo in the lead to win the election. Another suggests Mr Mahama might win, but by the slimmest of margins. Truth is, no one knows for sure. And that is how it should be.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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