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Ayittey on Ghana's Elections: WALL STREET JOURNAL

Nyansani Kramo
2001-01-04 09:11:29

Date: 01/04/2001

Author: George B.N. Ayittey.

There's some good news from Africa. Jan. 7 will mark the end of the darkest chapter in Ghana's post-colonial history. The corrupt and brutal 19-year reign of Marxist President Jerry Rawlings is over. John Kufuor, a democrat and capitalist, defeated Mr. Rawlings's hand-picked successor, Vice President John Atta Mills, in a Dec. 28 presidential run-off. John Kufuor has ample support.

Like many corrupt governments in Africa, Mr. Rawlings's regime got by for so long with a little help from the West. Upon seizing power in a 1981 coup, Mr. Rawlings, a self-styled revolutionary, proceeded to impose the most stringent controls on the economy. Market women who violated price controls were stripped naked, whipped, their heads shaven, and wares confiscated. In addition, scores of markets, portrayed by Mr. Rawlings as "dens of profiteers," were razed to the ground. His policies sent Ghana's economy reeling. Unable to secure help from its friends -- the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany and Libya -- the regime came begging to the World Bank, which it had earlier denounced as "imperialist."

Seduced by the charisma of Mr. Rawlings and the chance to snatch Ghana from the Soviet orbit, the West poured in money. The World Bank, in particular, pumped more than $4 billion into Ghana, declaring the country an "African economic star" in 1993. Ghana was also the first country on President Clinton's itinerary during his historic visit to Africa in 1998. But by 2000, inflation raged at 60%, unemployment hovered around 30%, interest rates had reached 50%, and the currency had virtually collapsed.

To satisfy its appetite for revenue, the government sought to tax anything that moved. The people rebelled. On May 5, 1995, for example, over 100,000 Ghanaians demonstrated in the streets of the capital, Accra, demanding the repeal of the 18% value-added tax. Government-hired thugs opened fire on them, killing four. Last July, the Ghana Trade Union Congress, a traditional ally of the government, staged a one-day strike to denounce the failure of the regime's policies and open pillage of the nation's treasury.

The distinction between the government's and the ruling party's funds had progressively ceased to exist and the looting of coffers was brazen. Vincent Assisseh, press secretary of the ruling party, built a multi-million dollar empire, acquired mansions and a fleet of expensive cars. Mr. Rawlings, the Marxist revolutionary, cruised around in a Jaguar convertible. Some 40% of World Bank loans and Western aid was squandered or stolen.

But Ghanaians never bought the Rawlings regime's attempts to blame Ghana's troubles on outsiders. Over 80% of voters turned out in the first round of elections on Dec. 7 to toss the government from power.

The Rawlings regime was determined to hang on, afraid that its misdeeds might be exposed. But too brazen an attempt to manipulate the electoral process would have triggered an implosion, as recently happened in neighboring Ivory Coast.

There on Oct. 27, the head of state, Gen. Robert Guei, who had seized power in a Dec. 1999 coup, stood for election. When early results showed he was losing, he sacked the electoral commissioner and sent in military goons with bazookas to take over the count and declare him the winner. Angry Ivorians poured into the streets, seized the state-owned TV station and drove Gen. Guei out of office. He fled the country in a helicopter on Oct. 28. This pattern has been repeated so often in Africa that it has become a normal way for power to change hands.

The blockage of the democratic process or the refusal to hold elections plunged Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and Sudan into civil war. It destroyed Rwanda in 1993 and Sierra Leone in 1992. Subversion of democracy in Liberia in 1985 eventually set off a civil war there in 1989, and it instigated civil strife in Cameroon in 1991, and in Congo, Togo and Kenya in 1992. The annulment of electoral results by the military started Algeria's civil war in 1992 and plunged Nigeria into political turmoil in 1993. The struggle for power explains why Africa is in the deadly grip of a never-ending cycle of wanton chaos, horrific carnage, senseless civil wars and collapsing economies.

A high state of anxiety and tension enshrouded Ghana's Dec. 7 elections. Though they were marred by violence in which 10 people died, the vote count was fair and the opposition won control of parliament. On the run-off day of Dec. 28, Mr. Rawlings unleashed his thugs to intimidate voters. Roadblocks were set up to prevent voters from going to the polls. Commandos invaded the town of Kumasi, the stronghold of Mr. Kufuor's National Patriotic Party, to terrorize voters. At a polling station in Accra, opposition MP John Bartels was stabbed and his bodyguards shot in the leg and arm. At another polling station, opposition MP Theresa Tagoe was pummeled into unconsciousness.

When the results started coming in the next day, Mr. Kufuor had a comfortable lead over the Mr. Mills. But in Africa, incumbent parties generally don't concede defeat. They are removed through military coups, rebel insurgencies or assassination. Of the 190 African heads of state since 1960, only 20 relinquished power voluntarily. Of these, less than 10 stepped down in a democratic transition; the bulk simply retired after long years in office.

Yet at 7:00 pm, Mr. Mills telephoned Mr. Kufuor to concede defeat and the country heaved a sigh of relief. Opposition supporters poured onto the streets to celebrate. Thus, Ghana managed to pull itself back from the brink, bringing to six -- Benin, Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal and South Africa -- the number of African countries that have successively and peacefully effected a democratic transfer of power from one elected president to another.

The transition in Ghana also marks the first time in recent African history that power is being transferred from a Marxist to a free market liberal. Accusing the Rawlings regime of paying lip service to the private sector, Mr. Kufuor has vowed to back free-market reforms. "If this means my being unpopular, it's just unfortunate. I'm ready to be very tough, but tough for a purpose," he said in a recent interview. It's immensely gratifying that Ghana has finally found a leader who will honor Africa's rich heritage of free enterprise, free village markets and free trade. They were there before the colonialists arrived.
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