Amid outpouring of grief, the former vice president John Dramani Mahama was sworn in as Ghana’s new president within a few hours following the sudden death of President John Evans Atta Mills, marking another smooth transition in Ghana’s democratic trajectory.
Unlike the previous ones, this transition was one that came out of the blue, unplanned and unexpected, making it all the more significant. It is yet another successful test of the resilience of Ghana’s emerging democracy.
Ghana’s smooth transition should by no means be taken for granted in a continent most prone to chronic instability. For instance, when faced with a similar test earlier in the year, Malawi almost flunked it. Following the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika in April, an unsuccessful plot to install the president’s brother as president instead of the then vice president Joyce Banda brought Malawi dangerously close to a constitutional crisis that could have resulted in serious instability.
Atta Mills was a gentle and humble man, an advocate and practitioner of politics without bitterness, earning him the title Asomdwehene (King of Peace). He first contested for president in 2000 as the candidate for the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party losing to John Agyeman Kuffuor of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), tried again in 2004 and lost to the incumbent until 2008 when he won to become president.
Despite losing consecutive elections, he stayed the course and didn’t decamp to another party as would almost certainly have been the case if he were a Nigerian politician.
President Mahama is facing a number of challenges in the run up to the presidential election in December and time is not on his side. As the new leader of the ruling NDC, he has to move swiftly to see to it that the party’s presidential candidate is chosen for the election in December.
To avoid a bruising nomination battle, President Mahama will also need to heal the rift within the party partly by reaching out to the faction represented by the former president Jerry John Rawlings, founder of the party, and his wife Nana Agyeman Rawlings whom Atta Mills defeated in the contest for the party’s presidential ticket last year.
President Mahama’s task in reconciling the party would not be easy following Rawlings’s caustic remarks on the death of Atta Mills. Whereas other Ghanaian politicians including former president Kuffuor paid tribute to the late president and said his life was worth emulating, Rawlings, still smarting from his feud with the late president, was alone in sounding a discordant note when he said that Atta Mills would have lived longer if he had been wiser.
The biggest challenge facing President Mahama would be to oversee and ensure the conduct of a free and fair election in December. The election of 2008 had been very close and Atta Mills won just by a whisker after a keenly contested run off against the backdrop of a highly charged political atmosphere amid allegations of vote rigging. But for the statesmanship of the then president Kuffuor, matters could have gone out of hand.
Ghana has had five elections since the restoration of democracy without any major crisis, thanks to the electoral commission that has ensured free and fair elections. This is a lesson for other African countries including Nigeria where elections are generally considered a do-or-die affair.
Having said that there should be no room for complacency as the case of Mali has shown. Despite two decades of uninterrupted democratic rule, the country reverted back to military rule earlier this year. The stakes have become much higher in Ghanaian presidential elections following the discovery of oil in 2007 and the beginning of production from the off shore Jubilee Oil Field in December 2010, underscoring the need for greater vigilance.
With only a few months to go to the December elections, President Mahama might secure his party’s nomination for the presidential election. If he succeeds in getting the nomination and goes on to win in his own right, it will have further deepened Ghana’s democracy given the fact that he is a minority from the Northern Region.