Ghana’s election was largely a referendum on President Akufo-Addo’s economic vision

A child holds a flag of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) after Nana Akufo-Addo was declared president of Ghana by the Electoral Commission in Accra on Dec. 9. (Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty Images)
A child holds a flag of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) after Nana Akufo-Addo was declared president of Ghana by the Electoral Commission in Accra on Dec. 9. (Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 7, almost 13.2 million Ghanaians voted to reelect incumbent President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). Akufo-Addo received 51.3 percent of the vote, mainly defeating his predecessor John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), who received 47.3 percent of the vote and has said he will contest the results.

Ghana’s election occurred as covid-19 cases in the country climbed, and only weeks after the death of former president Jerry John Rawlings. Before the election, the International Monetary Fund issued a gloomy 2020 projection of minus-1.6 percent economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa — the lowest on record. The World Bank estimates as many as 40 million Africans south of the Sahara will be pushed into extreme poverty.

The 2020 Ghanaian election was a referendum on Akufo-Addo, whose first-term rhetoric and policies centered on economic development. His campaigns in 2016 and 2020 promised to build a “Ghana Beyond Aid”. What does Akufo-Addo’s win mean for economic progress in post-pandemic Africa? Here’s what you need to know.

Akufo-Addo considers the potential to end foreign aid dependency

In 2016, a few months into his presidency, Akufo-Addo stunned the world at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron when he called on his African counterparts to end their dependency on the West. Though this stirred up the age-old debate in the West on the efficiency or sustainability of foreign aid for development, Ghanaians saw Akufo-Addo’s remarks as echoing his campaign rhetoric. Some analysts, however, have questioned the wisdom or effect of ending aid to Ghana or Africa from partners like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and China.

Akufo-Addo has clarified this vision by defining Ghana beyond aid as “a deliberate, qualitative change in all aspects of our lives”. In his view, this will bring positive changes in job creation, infrastructure development, education, industrialization and private sector development.

Though one of Africa’s well-performing economies, Ghana is likely to see its GDP growth slide from a projected 6.8 percent to 2.6 percent in 2020, prompting the country’s finance minister to call for more external support. This challenges the “Ghana beyond aid” vision. Nonetheless, Akufo-Addo’s extraordinary campaign promise and subsequent reelection suggests Ghanaians are willing to take a critical look at their country’s dependency on foreign aid.

In his first term, Akufo-Addo targeted job creation

To ensure the development of Ghana’s economic resources to the well-being of its population, Akufo-Addo introduced diverse development programs. Initiatives like One District, One Factory and Planting for Food and Jobs target employment creation alongside development in manufacturing and agriculture sectors. In response to the covid-19 pandemic, some of these objectives remain part of the recovery plan launched under the Ghana CARES program.

While work on these ambitious projects, along with his free basic education policy, helped his reelection bid, the issues of corruption and uneven wealth distribution may have been some reasons for a smaller margin of victory compared with the 2016 election outcome.

Ghanaians remain open to both Chinese and Western models of development

Ghana has historically worked with the West and China on economic development. China continues to be influential in African economies, delivering pandemic-related assistance some analysts have dubbed “mask diplomacy”. Akufo-Addo and other African leaders have touted China’s development model and assistance as a plus for Africa. A recent Afrobarometer survey found Ghanaian respondents’ perception of China as a positive influence has increased to 47 percent in 2020 from 34 percent in 2015.

While the Ghanaians surveyed thought the United States was the best model to guide future development, the proportion who said China offered the best model increased slightly in the past five years. This upturn is interesting, given the various ways Ghana’s government has supported China’s involvement in the economy, alongside cracking down on Chinese participation in illegal gold mining activities from 2017.

Such nuances suggest a diverse African electorate may support different development experiences and paths. My research with Steve Hess, for instance, suggests political leaders probably gain electoral advantage with attempts to parse such differences in popular opinions — which often denotes public responses to engagements by China and the West.

Akufo-Addo launched an ambitious covid-19 response

The pandemic, of course, has put leaders around the world under increased pressure to secure the lives and livelihoods of their population. Akufo-Addo won global plaudits when he cautioned Ghanaians that “we know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life”.

Akufo-Addo ordered a partial lockdown between March 30 and April 19 to stop the spread of the coronavirus. To offset the economic effects, Ghanaians received waivers for some utility charges through year’s end, and distribution of free meals in some poorer neighborhoods. In addition, the government provided regular presidential updates on the pandemic, across multiple media platforms and different forms of social media.

This reflection of leadership in the face of crisis received some positive reactions from the Ghanaian electorate — and probably contributed to his reelection in a rather competitive election.

How will the win shape Ghana’s economic recovery?

A recent UNDP-published report estimated 14 million Ghanaians were poor, based on three dimensions — health, education and living standards. In the post-pandemic recovery, some of Akufo-Addo’s projects aimed at poverty reduction, like free basic education, along with pandemic-specific programs such as Ghana CARES, may help minimize the pandemic’s impact on economically vulnerable citizens, and further enhance economic development. Expectedly, each economic achievement under Akufo-Addo’s leadership would definitely count toward realizing his “Ghana beyond aid” agenda.

Ghana has produced strong leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Jerry John Rawlings. Nkrumah championed anti-colonial struggles while Rawlings advocated for a people-centered development.

African economic development often hinges on the ability of individual leaders to assume bold continental visions while recognizing the tough national realities that often influence their voters. If this victory stands, Akufo-Addo now has four more years to continue his development agenda for Ghana, and its success (or failure) will cement his legacy.

Richard Aidoo is a professor of politics at Coastal Carolina University, and editor of “The Politics of Economic Reform in Ghana” (Routledge, 2019).

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