Why you should care
A rare stable democracy in Africa, Ghana may be just what Africa needs to produce regional leaders able to address issues from terrorism to infectious disease.
Crisis sometimes tosses up a leader.
Like when Islamist rebels kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls in May, spreading furor quickly around the globe. And neighboring countries fretted that violence from the perpetrators, Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist group, would cross borders.
Into the void stepped Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama, who took the initiative to convene an emergency meeting of regional security officials in May to better coordinate the response. Stepping up’s starting to look like a pattern.
Until a few years ago Mahama was a just a young politician from the country’s sparsely populated north and little known outside of Ghanaian political circles. But in 2014, people far beyond this West Africa nation of 25 million are starting to learn his name as he takes on more and more leadership responsibility in the region. Come August, the 55-year-old leader will be one of the stars at President Barack Obama’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, given Ghana’s leading role in every major American development program at work in Africa.
The coup d’état that unseated our first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah … marked the awakening of my consciousness.
— John Dramani Mahama
It’s not just the Boko Haram crisis. Mahama’s government just hosted health ministers from 11 African countries to try address the region’s spreading Ebola outbreak. And Mahama recently took over as head of the Economic Community of West African States, a body pushing regional integration, and of the African Union’s trade committee, raising both his profile and that of Ghana. Ghana is one of the few African countries that counts as a stable democracy, boosting Mahama’s legitimacy and authority.
“Convening power is really important. If you can invite people and they come, they can always discover some possible solution going forward,” says Ambassador Mary Carlin Yates, the United States’ top diplomat in Accra from 2002 to 2005. “I think that’s what Ghana has as a nation,” Yates says, given its twenty-year record of democratic governance and peaceful transfers of power — a rare feat in Africa.
International fame aside, Mahama faces a much more complicated and difficult challenge to achieve his domestic goal of middle-class prosperity for Ghanaians, and staying in office long enough to see it through.
He started off as an accidental president, ascending from the vice presidency when his predecessor, John Atta Mills, died in 2012. He then won his own election in December of that year in a tightly contested race.
Mahama was born in 1958, just a year after Ghana’s founding as the first black African country to gain independence from colonial rule. He gained fame, Obama-like, as an accomplished writer, communicator and diplomat, before he won election in 1996 to his father’s former seat in parliament. It takes but a few minutes listening to his sonorous voice reading his celebrated 2012 memoir to appreciate his flair for words.
“For many individuals there is a moment that stands out pivotal to the awakening of their consciousness,” Mahama writes. “Ghana’s descent into ‘the lost decades’ began with such a moment, with the coup d’état that unseated our first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah … it’s clear to me that this moment marked the awakening of my consciousness.”
Little in his background suggests he’s the one to spur Ghana’s private-sector economic development, although he did work on Ghana’s domestic economy in parliament in the 1990s.
His 2014 state of the nation speech in February spoke of Ghana’s prospects, especially those provided by an offshore oil boom.
“These new opportunities will enable us to transform ourselves from a lower middle-income, import-dependent, developing country to a proud and robust, self-sufficient middle-income nation,” he said.
Even if oil revenues increase, Mahama will face continuing questions about where the money goes and why it’s not trickling down faster.
It’s a reasonable dream, given Ghana’s resources, and yet soaring expectations for the country’s oil windfall and a less-than-stellar economy have left the Ghanaian public feeling sour. A new protest movement — #occupyFlagstaffHouse (a reference to Ghana’s equivalent of the White House) — has rallied disgruntled Ghanaians who are unhappy about rising costs and inflation. Soaring public debt and drops in commodity prices like gold and cocoa have slowed growth. Not exactly what people expected when the Jubilee oil field off Ghana’s Atlantic coast was discovered in 2007, bursting with more than 1.5 billion barrels worth of oil reserves.
The slowdown, however, should be temporary, as oil production starts to reach capacity in the second half of the decade. Mahama is no doubt hoping that happens by 2016, when he’s up for what looks like a close re-election contest.
Even if oil revenues increase, he’ll face continuing questions about where the money goes and why it’s not trickling down faster.
“Ghana has not been particularly successful in accounting for public revenues” from its growing oil production, writes Albert Kan-Dapaah, the co-founder of the Accra think tank Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Africa, in an email. This despite the passage of the Petroleum Revenue Management Act in 2011 that requires a full accounting.
Still, if domestic political or economic concerns are weighing Mahama down, he’s not showing it. With regional heavyweight Nigeria more or less MIA these days — distracted by its own internal challenges — Mahama seems happy to assume the role of go-to West African leader. Further afield, the president, who studied in Moscow during the Soviet days and has also spent time in Japan, is openly embracing China, the East and developing world investors, in addition to the West.
His international stature doesn’t appear so far to have helped him much politically at home, but he’s got a few years to turn that around.