Who is Nana Akufo-Addo? And how would he govern Ghana?

Ghanaians go to the polls to elect a president and a parliament Friday, and there’s a good chance they will elect to send a new president to Jubilee House.

Although he’s technically the challenger in the race, Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) is a narrow favorite to oust John Dramini Mahama, the incumbent and candidate of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), who was elevated to Ghana’s presidency only in July after the death of John Atta Mills, who narrowly defeated Akufo-Addo in the 2008 election by the narrowest of margins.

This time around, Akufo-Addo seems even better placed to succeed in a campaign that has featured spirited debate about how best to provide education and health care to Ghana’s youth, how to approach ongoing tensions and instability in Côte d’Ivoire, and how to continue Ghana’s economy, the strongest in all of Africa.

Akufo-Addo has a strong pedigree in Ghanaian politics — his father, Edward Akufo-Addo, was the third chief justice of Ghana and served as Ghana’s chiefly ceremonial president from 1969 to 1972, as well as one of the ‘Big Six’ leaders of the United Gold Coast Convention that fought for Ghana’s independence and were arrested for their efforts.  Akufo-Addo’s great uncle and uncle were also members of the ‘Big Six.’

Like Mills before him, Akufo-Addo has the advantage of having run in a prior presidential race.  In the 2008 election, Akufo-Addo actually won the first round with 49.13% of the vote to just 47.92% for Mills, but lost the runoff, taking just 49.77% to 50.23% for Mills.

Before the 2008 election, Akufo-Addo, previously an attorney, served in the administration of former NPP president John Kufuor, first as attorney general, where he worked to repeal the criminal libel law that earlier Ghanaian administrations had used to inhibit free speech, and later as justice minister and foreign minister.

As African legal studies scholar Andrew Novak has written earlier this autumn for Suffragio, Mahama has at times looked amateurish and untested against the experienced Akufo-Addo.

Although the NPP is seen as traditionally more of the center-right and the NDC of the center-left, it’s Akufo-Addo who has called for a more activist role for Ghana’s government in the current campaign, including free basic and secondary high school education for all Ghanaians as well as free health care for all Ghanaian children.  Free primary education is enshrined as a fundamental right in Ghana’s constitution, but quality often falls far below acceptable standards, especially in rural Ghana.

Akufo-Addo has repeatedly and forcefully defended his plan against NDC skepticism that the NPP won’t be able to enact such sweeping reforms; Akufo-Addo, in turn, has criticized the NDC for failing to keep its promises from the 2008 election on health care.

Despite their enthusiasm for a strong government role in health care and education, however, Akufo-Addo and the NPP have been champions of a strong free-market economy and private property rights.

Foreign affairs have figured prominently in the campaign — notably, in October, Ghana found itself in a diplomatic tussle with Argentina after it impounded an Argentine vessel on behalf of creditors, and it arrested over 100 Chinese nationals and killed one Chinese boy in a raid against illegal gold mining.

But foreign relations with Ghana’s western neighbor, Côte d’Ivoire, have been even more explosive as a campaign issue.  In late September, Côte d’Ivoire closed its border with Ghana briefly after rebels — claimed to be exiled supporters for former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo — launched a deadly attack on an Ivorian army border checkpoint.

In a debate on November 22, however, Akufo-Addo made comments that the NPC claimed were irresponsible:

Akufo-Addo criticized the NDC administration for not doing enough to foster good cooperation with Ghana’s neighbours, citing a UN report accusing Ghana of having allowed insurgents to use its territory while planning subversive actions against the constitutionally elected government in [Côte d’Ivoire].

If elected President, Akufo-Addo promised to end the “dzi wo fie asem” (mind your own business) foreign policy introduced by the NDC. The current approach, he claimed, has damaged Ghana’s image internationally to the extent that other countries suspected Ghana of harbouring dissidents seeking to destabilise neighbouring countries.

Following the debate, officials in Mahama’s government argued that Akufo-Addo’s comments were reckless to imply that Ghana had intentionally allowed rebels to attack Côte d’Ivoire from within Ghana.  Ghana has avoided the internal violence and instability that has plagued several countries throughout west Africa over the past two decades, including Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and, most recently, Mali.

A candidate must win over 50% of the vote on Friday; otherwise, a runoff will be held on December 28.  In 2008, Paa Kwesi Nduom, who is running in 2012 as the candidate of his newly-formed Progressive People’s Party, won 1.34% of the vote, and he could win enough support this time around, as well, to throw the election into a runoff.

Akufo-Addo — and the NPP’s return to power — would not radically alter Ghana’s broad economic course of the past three decades.  Ghana’s economy, once a disaster even by sub-Saharan African standards, was in freefall for much of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Former Ghanaian leader Jerry Rawlings’s government stabilized the economy in the mid-1980s, and Ghana has consistently grown ever since.  In particular, the discover of oil in Ghana in 2007 boosted an already robust economy, including wide cocoa and gold exports and a services sector that accounts for nearly half of the country’s GDP.  The oil wealth, however, has pushed Ghana’s GDP growth to a staggering 14.4% in 2011, making Ghana the fastest-growing economy in Africa and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

As the Center for Global Development’s Steven Radelet writes in Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way:

The Ghanaian economy today bears little resemblance to the basket case of the early 1980s.  Economic growth has averaged 5 percent per year for 25 years, translating into a 70 percent increase in the income of the average Ghanaian.  The poverty rate, after dropping only slightly from 53 percent in 1984 to 50 percent in 1993 in the early days of the reform program, fell dramatically to 30 percent by 2005.  Life expectancy was 53 years in 1980; today it is 60 years….  In the late 1990s, as the economy began to stabilize and then expand, Ghana began to shift from authoritarian rule to democracy.  It substantially strengthened political rights, civil liberties, and basic freedoms, and its indicators of governance have improved markedly.  It held peaceful and competitive elections in 2000, 2004, and 2008.

As the challenger, Akufo-Addo, like Mills and Kufuor before him, promised to tackle corruption in Ghana, which has become an increased concern given Ghana’s newfound oil profits.  In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Ghana ranks just 3.9 on a scale of 1 to 10, but Ghana’s ranking has held steady for the past decade, and it ranks well above Nigeria and even above Brazil and Italy.

Ghana, which obtained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, is today an anchor of stability within west Africa.  With 25 million people, Ghana is the most populous country in West Africa after Nigeria, also a rising economic power.

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