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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why Obama may be wrong on Ghana

Africans especially Ghanaians made much ado—and rightly so—about Obama’s first visit to the continent of his father. And while there was no question about the depth of symbolism associated with his trip, intense debate prevailed-and still does-over why he chose Ghana.

Despite the bright spots in the country’s contemporary politics--and the huge potential it exudes, there is one fundamental point missing from the whole story.

Why isn’t anyone talking about the fact that from the realistic viewpoint, Ghana’s democracy still remains in doubt?

It has been said that “facts are sacred”: so let’s start from there since unlike opinions there can only be one set of them. Ghana’s place in history is unquestioned: first Sub-Saharan country to gain independence, five successful democratic elections since 1992, high voter turnout at elections and a relatively peaceful political atmosphere.

For the most practical purposes Ghana was the political beau idéal.

But while it is okay to encourage a seemingly progressive nation, any honest observer of our politics knows this isn’t quite the entire picture. Let’s get things straight. The irony of Obama’s trip is that while upholding the country as a model of democracy, he failed to acknowledge the unmistakable paradox: Ghana may have organized five back-to-back elections since 1992, but its democracy remains shaky.

The official Washington explanation is that they’re “lifting up successful models” such as Ghana as a ‘reward’ for their democratic credentials. The media reported that Obama hopes his visit will spur others to “emulate the West African country’s democratic record.”

Ghana, Model of democracy? Really?

Is the US so desperate to prove to the world that democracy works or are they just naïve? Here is a country which cannot even fulfill the most basic of the democratic requirements: credible elections. Secondly, events from not just the last election in Ghana-but the ones preceding it-where a number of lives were lost from Accra to Bawku show that the democratic experiment is far from emulation.

Party politics in Ghana is still largely defined by ethnicity, religion, money laundering, and the cult of personality. Not issues and ideas. The “North” and Volta will continue to vote for anyone other than the NPP and Ashanti will always go NPP. What Tocqueville said of French society in the 19th century holds true today for Ghanaian politics, “shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendships.”

It is only in Africa that sloppy elections are acceptable and everything is seen in relative terms; “Relatively peaceful” “relatively developed” “relatively stable” “relatively prosperous”. Why does everything in Africa have to be relative? I think most of us in Ghana like to hide our shortcomings by taking the easy way: make ourselves look good by pointing to worse neighbors.

Unfortunately, a nation that continues to lower standards is only preparing excuses for inevitable failure.

Many Ghanaians will be hard pressed for answers (since we’re supposed to be a model) if you ask them to identify a couple of reasons why we’re so “successful” and other African countries are not. If history indeed repeats itself, then in fact, Ghana’s contagious influence should be viewed with skepticism--considering how our predilection for coups right after independence caught on with the rest of the continent.

Almost everyone is writing about how inspirational Obama’s visit to Africa has been and I don’t want to be the party pooper. However the crux of my argument is that ignoring the underlying problems that continue to make us poor and “relatively stable” is hardly helpful.
Worse still, we may one day find ourselves where Kenya did in January 2008. Don’t forget that like Ivory Coast, theirs was a country which had not experienced a single coup before the electoral violence marred what was otherwise a bastion of “relative stability”.

Better to admit and confront our shortcomings head on than risk asking ourselves later on: what happened?

Etse Sikanku
University of Iowa
Journalism and Mass Communication
Email: Email the author

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