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Post-election tension shakes African beacon of stability

Political leaders as well as election observers in Ghana have called for calm after the top opposition party threatened to contest the results of the recent presidential poll. Are Ghanaians likely to listen?

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International and regional election observers say Ghana’s recently conducted presidential poll appeared transparent, which saw incumbent John Mahama beating his rival by a slim majority, with a local monitoring group on Monday urging respect for the results.

Yet tensions have been rising in the Ghanaian capital of Accra since Sunday, when the country’s electoral commission declared Mahama the winner with 50.7% - just enough to avoid a run-off with his chief rival Nana Akufo-Addo, who got 47.7% of the vote.

Hundreds of Akufo-Addo supporters demonstrated outside the electoral commission offices, compelling security forces to use tear gas to disperse the crowd.

'Generally an accurate reflection' of the vote

The disturbances came as Akufo-Addo’s NPP (New Patriotic Party) said in a draft statement sent to reporters late Sunday that they would contest the results, accusing the ruling party of falsifying the final tally. But soon after party leaders issued the statement, they sent an email to reporters rescinding it, according to the Associated Press. With NPP officials scheduled to hold a meeting Tuesday, it remains unclear if the party intends to formally contest the results.

A day after the results were declared, observers from the Commonwealth, the West African bloc ECOWAS and local group CODEO said the vote appeared peaceful and transparent.

On Monday, CODEO, which deployed observers throughout the country, said it had confidence in the official results, calling them "generally an accurate reflection of how Ghanaians voted in the December 7 polls."

"CODEO advises all the presidential election contestants and their supporters as well as the general public to place confidence in the electoral commission's official presidential election results," it said.

Fears of instability in a beacon of stability

The allegations of rigging followed voting delays in parts of Ghana after hundreds of electronic fingerprint readers -- newly introduced for the 2012 elections -- failed on Friday, forcing some polling stations to reopen on Saturday to clear the backlog.

The NPP response to the results raised fears of post-electoral unrest in a nation seen as a stable democracy in a region beset by coups and instability.

But Nicholas Norbrook, managing editor of The Africa Report, downplayed the chances of the sort of post-electoral unrest that has plagued neighbouring countries such as Ivory Coast.

“Ghana has an incredibly well developed political system and political process,” said Norbrook in an interview with FRANCE 24. “If there are any challenges, it would go through the court system and follow a due process -- there’s very little chance of upheaval.”

Power oscillating between two parties

One of the first African countries to gain independence, following the 1957 ouster of its British colonizer, Ghana endured a series of coups before Jerry Rawlings took power in 1981. From its early fraught experiences with democratic governance, Ghana has emerged with a democratic system that is envied and respected across the African continent.

Over the past two decades, the country has held six multiparty elections -- including the December 7, 2012 poll. Unlike many post-colonial African nations, Ghanaian politics has not been dominated by a single party. While the NDP won presidential and parliamentary elections in 1992, 1996 and 2008, the NPP won elections in 2000 and 2004.

“Since independence, power has oscillated between two parties, and since the early 1990s, the country’s institutional framework has been respected,” said Norbrook.

Strong institutions that transcend individual personalities

Ghana’s highly respected institutions include the country’s electoral commission, according to Ruby Sandhu-Rojon, UN Resident Coordinator for Ghana. “The electoral commission is seen as a strong and credible body. Almost 60% of the Ghanaian people trust this institution," said Sandhu-Rojon, citing a recent study by Afrobarometer, a polling institute dedicated to surveys on democracy and governance in Africa.

Besides the political bodies, Sandhu-Rojon notes that Ghana has a number of institutions that represent “stabilizing forces, such as the Ghanaian army, the media, as well as various NGOs that effectively defend justice and human rights."

While Ghana has historically had a well-educated social and political elite, Hélène Quénot-Suarez of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) notes that the country’s “institutions and politics transcend individual personalities".

Citing the example of Mahama, who took office in July following the sudden death of his predecessor John Atta Mills, Quénot-Suarez noted that, “It’s clear that the death of President Atta Mills did not call into question the election or the existence of his party.”

'Growing a little more with each new election'

But while the oil-rich West African nation enjoys many encouraging signs -- including steady economic growth -- it may not be immune to the outbreaks of violence that have plagued other West African nations once considered examples of stability, such as Ivory Coast and Mali.

The lead-up to the December 7 presidential poll saw both candidates running on essentially similar platforms, with the opposition’s Akufo-Addo promising free secondary education for all Ghanaians while his rival promised to build on the country’s infrastructure.

"The programmes of the candidates are not so different from each other, and once in power, it is not uncommon that nepotism stages its presence,” said Anne Hugon, an Africa specialist at the Paris-based CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research).

In the 1960s for instance, Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s founding father and hero of the Pan-Africanism movement, instituted a one-party state while severely repressing the opposition. But according to Sandhu-Rojon, democracy is above all "a long-learning process and a constant consolidation" that requires vigilance to all sorts of abuses. "Ghanaians grow a little more with each new election."

It remains to be seen if Ghanaians will heed the numerous calls for calm and if the country can get through the latest post-election differences unscathed. Ghanaians need only look around their neighbourhood for lessons in how not to handle post-electoral disputes.

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