Feature Article of Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Columnist: John Hamilton

The Elected Despots Club? No thanks!

While I admit I did not quite have the gumption to set my alarm to wake up at 4 am in Atlanta to watch the Ghanaian inauguration live, I did see some of the highlights and have followed the press coverage, both on Ghanaian and international websites, as well as on twitter.

As an American who spent the homestretch of the campaign in Ghana and left just a month ago, right after the election, I had an odd feeling as I watched Mahama taking the oath of office and (very awkwardly) reading a speech from an iPad he held in his hands, depriving the speech of any life, emotion, or connection with the audience.

But that awkwardness is not the source of my feeling ill-at-ease. It was the pending court case that – as every foreign journalist who covered the inauguration noted – has the potential to wind back the clock and undo all of today’s events.

By now, everyone who takes even a casual interest in Ghanaian politics should understand the constitutional issue at stake. The Ghanaian Constitution of 1992 includes 2 provisions to expel a President from the Castle: 1) impeachment and conviction for illegal acts and 2) challenge of an illegitimate election. Basically, the framers of the Constitution actually foresaw a situation in which corruption would undermine an election and evidence could be brought to court to prove that. This are exactly the circumstances seized by the NPP, and it is in this context that they have brought their petition to the Supreme Court.

The Constitution gives a 21-day period for filing of an election challenge, and then 10 days for the respondents to enter their points of view, which puts us right about the present time. The court will probably begin hearing the evidence within a week or so, and their deliberations could take some time given the complexity and enormity of the evidence at stake. There will probably be detailed testimony about biometric voting, and Mahama himself will have to take the stand. Hardly an ideal activity for a newly-inaugurated President.

Yes, the process is entirely constitutional. It seems bizarre coming from an American perspective, but the Ghanaian Constitution explicitly says that the/any actions the President takes before stepping down as a result of a fraudulent election will stand. It doesn't say“President-elect”, it says “President”. That means that the Constitution clearly anticipates a legal challenge of election fraud and corruption going beyond the inauguration date.

How bizarre would it be if a month or two from now, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that would make John Mahama have to step down? Of course, the Court could grant the reliefs asked by the NPP in their petition, if the full 1.3 million votes are truly invalid. But even if the Court doesn't go that far, and decides that a runoff would be the best option, Mahama cannot stay in the Castle. He will be “demoted” to a candidate, and have to step down pending the runoff results.

If Akufo-Addo ended up the declared winner, either by direct order of the Court or by the EC after a runoff, a new inauguration would have to take place. If that does happen, here are some things I would hope Ghana gets right the 2nd time around:

First of all, I hope Akufo-Addo’s ego will not demand the unusual act of getting African heads of state to pay homage and walk hundreds of meters to “kiss the ring”. The footage of this looked like a cross between the films Gladiator and The Godfather. Why did Mahama really feel the need to highlight the foreign leaders in such a way? Let’s not go back to the days when the Organization of African Unity was described as a “Despots' Club”. We don’t need an “Elected Despots' Club” – some humility is in order.

Secondly, I hope that Akufo-Addo, if he is inaugurated, can learn to use a teleprompter, or at least read a speech from paper in front of him so that he can interact and gesture to the crowd, like a President should. It’s nice that Mahama can be “cool” with polo shirts, sunglasses, and iPads, but this is not a teenage fashion show, it’s an inauguration.

Finally, I hope that if the Supreme Court rules that another inauguration must take place, the new President, Akufo-Addo, will not be so paranoid and will allow his political opponents the freedom to assemble. It’s bad enough that the raids of legal offices and evidence workrooms of the NPP took place, but why are the police going to court to stop young patriots from demonstrating for the rest of the week?

This case puts Ghana to the test, and a court-ruled “re-inauguration” would be a watershed moment in the history of African democracy. I am watching with anticipation to see the details of the evidence.