It was the closest presidential election in African history, and the campaign preceding it was marked by harsh rhetoric. But Ghana's 2008 election bore little resemblance to Kenya's 2007 election, with its deadly aftermath of ethnic violence.
The race between Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party and John Atta Mills of the opposition National Democratic Congress was nail-bitingly close after Akufo-Addo narrowly won a first round of voting. But in the run-off election three weeks later, Mills squeaked by him, winning by 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.
But despite the razor-thin margin of victory, Akufo-Addo conceded. So too did outgoing President John Kufuor, who was from the same party as Akufo-Addo. There were no outbreaks of ethnic violence, no barrage of lawsuits demanding recounts and no interference by security forces. The media was free to report, and the electoral commission operated independently and transparently.
“Very often when we look at Africa we lose hope,” Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, told a press conference following badly flawed 2010 elections in Sudan. “We don't need to lose hope.”
Indeed, nine sub-Saharan African countries are consolidating democratic gains, according to the Washington-based democracy advocacy group Freedom House. South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius, Cape Verde and São Tomé/Príncipe are often rightfully praised for their political freedoms and smooth transitions from one leader to the next. However, politics in all three of the southern African countries are dominated by a single party, while Mauritius, Cape Verde and São Tomé/Príncipe are tiny island states.
Election officers count votes at a polling station in Accra, Ghana, on Dec. 7, 2008. The West African country has twice transferred presidential power peacefully from one party to another via the ballot box, providing a counter-example to recent African elections marred by intimidation and violence. (AFP/Getty Images/Andreas Solaro)
That makes the achievements of West Africa's Ghana, Mali and Benin all the more impressive. All three have successfully transferred presidential power from one party to another via the ballot box. In Ghana, it's happened twice, in Benin three times.
They also provide counter-examples to the widely held view that nations must first attain a level of economic security before democracy can take root. Mali is among the world's poorest nations, while Ghana only attained the status of “middle-income” country (as defined by the World Bank) in 2010 — a full decade after its first democratic transition.
Even as many other countries on the continent have seen democratic freedoms retreat, multiparty systems in Mali, Benin and Ghana seem to be strengthening with each passing election. The success of those nations' democracies provides a powerful example to strongmen elsewhere on the continent, who cling to power by arguing that only authoritarianism can bring Africa stability and that Africans are not ready for democracy.
Having military men who are willing to exit politics gracefully seems to help. Benin's Lt. Gen. Mathieu Kérékou was Africa's first post-independence leader to allow himself to be voted from office. In Ghana, former president Jerry Rawlings came to power via a coup d'etat, ruled as a military leader for 11 years before twice winning disputed elections in the 1990s. But he stepped down in 2000, after then opposition leader Kufuor beat Mills, Rawlings' vice president.
Mali also had military leaders who were willing to step aside for civilians. After leading a coup that ousted former dictator Moussa Traore in 1991, Gen. Amadou Toumani Touré held multiparty polls the following year and handed power over to former opposition leader Alpha Konaré. A grateful population elected Touré to succeed Konaré in 2002.
“It's something of an achievement for Africa that you can count a handful of countries that have gone through power alternations,” says Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, who oversees the Afrobarometer opinion poll monitoring African attitudes toward democracy. “It's no longer unthinkable.”
— Jason McLure