Photo by Sven Torfinn / PANOS

If you travel the sun-drenched coast of Ghana along the Gulf of Guinea from the capital Accra to the border with Côte d’Ivoire, you will see the most impressive display of European military architecture outside of that continent. These forts, mostly British and Dutch, mark the country as a centre of Africa’s notorious slave trade. From the glories of the medieval Ashanti kingdom to the heady days of the continent’s first successful independence struggle, Ghana, despite its relatively small size, has been at the centre of things African.

The people of Ghana went to the polls in December 2008 and elected a new government. It was a lively affair, and resulted in a virtual dead heat between the two main candidates. In January, however, the 64-year-old John Evans Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress took the oath of office before cheering crowds in Accra’s Independence Square after topping his opponent by less than one per cent of the vote. Despite misgivings, a reluctant opposition accepted the popular verdict.

This is not exactly a shocking turn of events, as it now happens on 7 December every four years. But on an African continent marred by civil wars, military coups and undernutrition, Ghana is remarkably normal in its conduct of politics. Ghanaians are enthusiastic about their democracy, and between 70 and 80 per cent of registered voters regularly turn out at the polls. Not that there haven’t been military coups in the past. But since the election of Jerry Rawlings in 1993 there has been a peaceful succession of elected governments. Ghana is blessed with being relatively free of the ethnic tensions that have scarred politics in countries like Kenya and Nigeria.

Flag of Ghana

Ghana was the first African country to achieve independence (from Britain) – in 1957, when the Pan-African visionary Kwame Nkrumah led a largely peaceful movement of decolonization. His regime was overthrown in a 1966 military coup by those fearful of his radical inclinations. To this day Nkrumah holds a special place in the Ghanaian political pantheon, along with that other flawed idealist, Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings (President from 1981 to 2001).

Ghanaians are generally horrified by political violence, all too common in West African neighbours such as Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. Rawlings, credited with saving the country from corruption and chaos in the 1980s, is still widely criticized for the summary execution in 1979 of eight senior military officers after his seizure of power; he himself says he much regrets the killings. While capital punishment is still on the books, it has not been used since July 1993.

Although Ghana possesses great mineral wealth, most people still survive through subsistence agriculture. Cocoa remains the main export crop, with a smallholder pattern untypical of the large commercial plantations that dominate production elsewhere. Despite many co-operatives and a cocoa marketing board, many cocoa farmers are still at the mercy of private traders and international markets. It is among subsistence farmers, however, that poverty takes its greatest toll – particularly in the north, where there is only one crop a year and the dry harmattan winds from the Sahara play havoc with soil fertility.

The recent discoveries of offshore oil raise the issue of who benefits from such export developments. Very few of the economic benefits from gold mining have stayed in the country – the industry is marked by low wages, arbitrary land grabs, and environmental damage by foreign mining companies (many from Canada and Australia). Similarly, as a poster child of African ‘normality’, Ghana has been a major recipient of foreign aid and loans. But Government compliance with IMF- and World Bank-designed austerity programmes has entailed the embrace of market solutions that always tend to enrich a few at the expense of the majority. The poor are still waiting for their share.

Richard Swift

Map of Ghana