New ruling parties face strong challenges in Ghana and Sierra Leone

Guest post by Andrew Novak.

Following the upset wins by the All People’s Congress (APC) in Sierra Leone in 2007 and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in Ghana in 2008, both countries experienced tense but peaceful transitions of power from the ruling party to the opposition, two successes in sharp contrast to the contemporaneous electoral violence in Kenya and Zimbabwe.  In the midst of a worldwide economic recession, voters in both West African countries will return to the polls — in Sierra Leone on November 17 and Ghana on December 7 — to determine whether the new ruling parties deserve a second term.  With emboldened challengers, both contests are likely to again be close.

In the 2007 Sierra Leonean general election, the APC’s Ernest Bai Koroma (pictured above) narrowly defeated Solomon Berewa of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), then vice-president of Sierra Leone under the term-limited president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.  With overwhelming support from the north of the country and a strong showing in Freetown, the capital, Koroma was elected in a runoff as the first president from the Temne ethnic group, one of the two main ethnic groups in the country.  This year, he will face another strong challenge from Julius Maada Bio, a former military ruler of the country.  As head of state, Bio organized the elections that resulted in the peaceful transfer of power to Kabbah in March 1996, before the country’s descent into civil war.

The 2008 elections in Ghana produced a very similar outcome when then-president John Kufour was term limited after eight years in office.  Kufour’s vice president Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) narrowly led in the first round of the elections against the NDC’s John Atta Mills, 49% to 48%, but lost in a runoff of 49.8% to Mills’s 50.2% — or only about 40,000 votes out of 9 million cast — in what is likely the closest modern African election.

Like Koroma, who had challenged Kabbah in 2002, Mills had unsuccessfully ran twice against Kufour before as the NDC’s chief opposition candidate.  The former vice president of Ghana under Jerry Rawlings, a former military ruler who was twice democratically elected, Mills long had trouble separating himself from Rawlings’s controversial legacy and the two were on increasingly poor terms once Mills took office.

While both governments have wrestled with economic recession and faced charges of corruption, the center-left NDC in Ghana is in graver danger of electoral loss.  When Mills died in office in July 2012 after an illness, vice president John Dramini Mahama succeeded to the office and became the NDC’s presidential candidate against the NPP’s Akufo-Addo.  Like Ghana, which is in the process of reviewing its constitution for possible amendment in the future, Sierra Leone has engaged in broad-ranging law reform, strongly emphasizing anti-corruption efforts and attracting foreign investment.  The outcomes of both elections have far-reaching implications for the emerging rule of law in two countries with recent histories of military and one-party rule.  According to Transparency International’s corruption perception index, for instance, Sierra Leone rose from a scaled score of 2.1 to 2.5 during Koroma’s presidency, and Ghana remained steady at 3.9 during Mills’s presidency.

Both countries are strategically important to west Africa’s regional stability.  After Nigeria, Ghana is west Africa’s most populous country with 25 million people and a regional economic star.  Continued peace, economic progress and legal reform in Sierra Leone are key security concerns following the civil war there from 1991 to 2002 that not only destabilized Sierra Leone, but merged into a growing web of conflict in neighboring Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire as well.

As with all elections, however, the quality of the candidates matter as much as economic and demographic fundamentals, and it is for this reason that Koroma is likely a slight favorite for reelection in Sierra Leone while Mahama is a slight underdog in Ghana.

Mahama faces in Akufo-Addo an experienced opponent with a popular electoral platform, the highlight of which is free basic education, and Mahama looked amateurish and untested in his first presidential debate.  In addition, his party is also less unified than it was four years ago.  The few polls that have been performed currently show Akufo-Addo with a slight lead, and possibly enough to avoid a run-off.

Koroma is in better shape, buoyed by strong economic projections after the development of iron ore deposits and the popularity of his free maternal health care program, although increased food prices and unemployment mask some of these successes.  In addition, in Sierra Leone, it is the challenger (Bio) and not the incumbent who is beset by party defections and questions about his human rights record from his time in office.  The contest is shaping up to be closer than expected, however, in part because of Bio’s charismatic appeal and a feeling that economic gains have not reached the most vulnerable members of the population.  Koroma is still more likely than not to pull out a win — Ghana’s Mahama cannot say the same — but a close contest may increase the risk of election irregularities and violence.

Close elections in Sub-Saharan Africa have the potential either to strengthen or to undermine the rule of law, depending on the credibility of the process and the results.  Whether Sierra Leone and Ghana are able to successfully repeat their experiments with democracy in a second consecutive election could determine whether they continue to be models for the continent, especially with upcoming spring elections in both Kenya and Zimbabwe, or whether they find that they are not quite able to close the democratic deal.

Andrew Novak is the adjunct professor of African law at American University Washington College of Law.

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