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Opinions of Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Columnist: The Africa Report

Fear and laughter on the Ghana campaign trail

It may be that the results in what many see as Ghana’s closest ever election on 7 December could come down to a choice between sugary, fizzy drinks. On our tour through the battleground regions, we stopped off at a lively café in Cape Coast where customers joke with the shopkeeper.

“Give me Akufo-Addo,” says one ­woman as she points towards the fridge. “What about Bawumia?” came the reply. “Don’t you want Bawumia?”

They laugh as the shopkeeper pulls out the shortest of the soft drink bottles and hands it to the thirsty customer. Nana Akufo-Addo, the opposition’s determined presidential candidate, and his cerebral running mate, Mahamudu Bawumia, are zooming around the country in the last few vital weeks of the campaign. Akufo-Addo is considerably shorter than his opponent, President John Mahama.

But the joking over soft drinks seems to support the view that many Ghanaians are sceptical of both parties and their candidates. The country is in its deepest economic trouble for 20 years, but the politicians’ remedies fail to convince. Less than two months from voting day on 7 December, neither party has caught the popular imagination.

Cape Coast is the capital of Central Region, a swing region in recent elections. As the whitewashed slave forts and warehouses show, Cape Coast was a base for the early European traders. Today, it is one of the country’s more prosperous and ethnically mixed areas, sitting between Accra and Takoradi, the centre of the growing oil and gas industry.

‘We don’t see any changes’

On a day off, a group of fishermen gather at the foot of the imposing Cape Coast castle to talk about the election. Most have decided not to vote, unimpressed by what the parties are offering – either Akufo-Addo’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) or Mahama’s National Democratic Congress (NDC).

“We need a harbour here. We need security,” says Papa Annan. “The politicians come here, they talk, we vote for them and we don’t see any changes. We want someone who will represent us, fight for us, not come with money for votes.”
Papa Amissah, a 47-year-old fisherman turned taxi driver, explains: “We are all from this community, regardless of the political party […]. We’re just looking at the best person to do the job […]. It’s about your achievements.”

Sitting at a beachside bar, Peter Simon Gyekye, regional coordinator and secretary for his Cape Coast North constituency, tells us how he moved from being a supporter of NPP to a campaigning member of the NDC. “These [NPP] guys, they are good at making noise, phantom promises.” Unconvinced of the NPP’s developmental efforts, Gyekye formed a teacher’s group and joined the NDC campaign for the presidency. His man won in a closely fought race in 2012.

“We’ve [been] listening to comments from the ground and the feelings of the people. For me, my concern is to deliver my constituency,” says Gyekye.

And what are these comments and feelings? “Infrastructure, water, electricity, schools, roads, clinics, markets. If issues are not handled well, it can become an electoral issue in the hands of the political opponent.”

Delivering is expensive. Parliamentarians and rival candidates pay school fees and medical bills for some people in their constituencies. They assiduously attend marriages and funerals, giving wads of cedis to the happy couples and grieving families.

Organising rallies is costly, according to ‘Staga’, the NPP’s deputy secretary for Cape Coast North: “Recently, we [the constituency organisation] had our campaign launch and the cost [includes] the T-shirts, transportation.” Added to that are crates of party banners, flags and caps that have to be trucked in. “They budgeted close to, say, ¢15,000 ($3,800),” concludes Staga. That adds up to many millions when multiplied across the country’s 275 parliamentary constituencies and 29,000 polling stations.

As the sun goes down, the NPP’s Staga is pumped up for a round of door-to-door canvassing. About a dozen of the faithful bolster Staga’s efforts, praising Akufo-Addo and rubbishing the Mahama government’s record. Although the area has supported the NDC strongly, Staga argues that he can convince people. “We have to get those floating voters […] [they] will decide who wins the election.”
Some 80km to the west is Takoradi, which saw a brief boom after 2010 when companies set up service industries and hotels for the engineers and technicians working in the oil industry.

Over iced tea and sandwiches at a café owned by a couple from the Netherlands, Kofi Nsiah, who runs a construction company, talks about the downturn. “If I’m voting, I’m looking at the value of the money and the way it felt then compared to how it feels now. In the hotel business, business is dry.”

Nsiah’s company Macaw also produces concrete pipes and cement. Like manufacturers across the country, it has been badly hit by dumsor (power cuts). Macaw had to lay off workers.

“They [the parties] have to convince us of what they are going to do,” says Nsiah. He raises the issue of a tourism levy and high tariffs for water and electricity, which have pushed up business costs.

Stephane ‘Abbas’ Miezan, head of the regional chamber of commerce, warns about the gap between words and deeds. Political campaigners switch between trying to win over hard-pressed constituents to patronising business leaders.

Fickle messages

“I’m told of a story that somebody’s campaign encouraged people to stow away to Europe,” laments Miezan. “But if the same person met me, he would tell me we are going to improve electricity, the road network, technology and information and communication technologies because he knows that those things are important to me.”

A few kilometres out of Takoradi is Apremdo. Here people of the Ahanta ethnic group live under the traditional leadership of Chief Nana Agya Kwamena XI. The chief tells The Africa Report that his community is dissatisfied. The chief is waiting for parliamentary contenders to pay a courtesy call. “When they are in need, I can assure you they will come. But after that, you will not see them again.”

Outside in the compound, people are still more forthright, talking about a parliamentary candidate trying to woo voters by giving away cups of rice and cooking oil. The outgoing NPP member of parliament has not fulfilled his promises, a young man says. “This guy has been minister before, but just look at this place,” he says as he points to the narrow, unpaved and potholed walkways. “What has been done?”

Miezan is more hopeful.“We’ve moved ahead in 20 years of democracy. People are beginning to accept that our politics should be more on issues,” he says. “But the kind of people that we are, we say one thing and we do differently.” Fixing that will take much more information and education for the voters, he concludes.