Ghana's presidential candidates have wrapped up their campaigns ahead of a general election Sunday but in a sense the most important result is already in. President John Kufuor, 69, is stepping down after two terms, peacefully and voluntarily. That in itself sets Ghana's election apart from recent polls in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria, which were plagued by corruption, violence, despotism and the steadfast refusal by the ruling party to let go. It is also a reminder that governance in sub-Saharan Africa, a region of 48 nations, cannot be characterized simply by the brutal repression doled out by Robert Mugabe and his ilk.
That Ghana represents the more optimistic side of Africa carries great symbolism. During the continent's post-independence history, Ghana has often been a crucible of all Africa's hope. It was the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence from its colonial ruler, Britain, in 1957. Its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was also a lead figure in the pan-African nationalist movement. That didn't stop Ghana from falling victim to the same demons that have plagued much of the continent since independence: Nkrumah was ousted in a military takeover in 1966 and the country has had four more coups since then, two of which installed Jerry Rawlings as president. Multi-party democracy returned in 1992 and Rawlings departed in 2001 after losing to Kufuor.
Since then, the economy has boomed, by 6.7% last year as opposed to 3.7% in 2002, and inflation has fallen from 32.9% to 10.7% in the same period. A consensus has developed on the big questions such as liberal economics, and efforts to alleviate poverty. Regardless of who replaces Kufuor out of the two leading candidates Nana Akufo-Addo, 62, from Kufuor's ruling New Patriotic Party, and John Atta Mills, 62, of the National Democratic Congress are neck and neck in the race, according to opinion polls neither is expected to initiate radical change.
Perhaps most importantly, both candidates have put forward plans to safeguard the expected billions of dollars in oil revenues which should start to flow into the country's coffers after 2010. In October, Akufo-Addo said he planned to set up an "oil fund" to invest revenues in developing the country's education, health-care and basic infrastructure. Mills went further, calling for the formation of an "independent authority which will account for the oil resource." "We don't want it to be a curse," he said. That curse, or resource curse, as economists call it, describes a tendency for countries with abundant natural resources to be more corrupt, more prone to violence and unrest, and more iniquitous and impoverished than those without, something evident across the oil-rich states of West Africa. While corruption thrives in Ghana, it is encouraging that both candidates recognize the potential pitfalls of oil. Ghana has some experience in natural resources: it is the world's second-biggest cocoa producer, after neighboring Cote d"Ivoire, and Africa's second biggest gold producer, after South Africa.
Not everyone is reassured. The benefits of growth have not trickled down far enough, and most of Ghana is still poor. There are few roads in the north of the country. Few homes in the capital Accra have working sewers. Frustration over all this, say some, is made only deeper by the oil discovery. At a presentation on the election at the independent think-tank, the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development, earlier this year, the political analyst and former director of the country's Narcotic Control Board, K. B. Quantson, warned: "Ghana should not delude itself that it is living well above mayhem and the deadly clashes that have unfortunately plagued Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Kenya." The assumption that Ghana's stability will continue is "dangerous," he added, arguing that the country's relative calm is threatened by bad governance, opportunism, intolerance, impunity and corruption.