By Nelson Oppong
After two major setbacks in 2008 and 2012, Ghana’s main opposition party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) led by Nana Akuffo Addo, secured a resounding electoral victory in the 7 December election against the incumbent National Democratic Congress (NDC), led by President John Mahama. Results from 271 (out of 275 constituencies) declared by the Electoral Commission (EC) gave Akuffo Addo 53.85% of valid votes cast, against President Mahama’s 44.40%. The NPP is also set to take over the Ghanaian parliament after increasing its share of the 275 parliamentary seats by a significant margin with more than 160 seats, having won 123 seats in 2012.
The results represent a comfortable win for a party that looked set for another devastating loss just over a year ago, with internal bickering leading to the suspension of several notable party executives. During the campaign, the party’s dire financial strain became a major talking point, especially when contrasted with the incumbent’s resources, demonstrated by mega billboards of the President across the country. This is the first time that a sitting President has lost an election in Ghana’s electoral history. Against the backdrop of recent victories by opposition parties in Nigeria and the Gambia, the stranglehold of incumbents over elections appears to be waning across Africa.
Having won four elections in the past, the NDC went into the 2016 election with a widely-held perception that it is the most formidable election-winning machine in Ghana, despite its weaknesses in managing the economy. On the contrary, while the NPP is often presented as comparably better at economic management, the party elitist posturing is considered less suited for grassroots mobilization that could secure frequent electoral victory. Among its wider political economy dynamics, the 2012 election did not only challenge this long-held perception, but most significantly it signalled shifting preferences among Ghanaian voters for candidates with a demonstrable capacity and programme to “put money in peoples’ pockets.”
Post-mortem analysis has identified several reasons for the NPP’s decisive victory, foremost among them the severe drain in the country’s economic fortunes and the lacklustre anti-corruption climate under the Mahama administration. One of the main events that significantly tipped the scales against the NDC is the high-profile election petition that was filed by the NPP contesting the results of the 2012 Presidential election.
While the eight-month long hearing of the petition led to an affirmation of President Mahama, it placed the courts at the epicentre of elections in Ghana, opened the electoral process to wider public scrutiny, gave an added boost to the standing of Akuffo Addo and his running mate, Mahamadu Bawumia, and energized the NPP’s base into action over areas that required vigilance for the party’s victory. In many African elections, where the tenor of reform is largely oriented towards capacity building of election management bodies, political parties, and civil society organisations, the 2016 election adds another layer to the role of judicial adjudication in building trust and promoting the credibility of elections.
When the NPP took the EC to Court
Ghana’s democracy came under the spotlight in 2012 when three members of the NPP, namely Akuffo Addo, his running mate, Mahamadu Bawumia, and the party chairperson, Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey, filed a petition at the Supreme Court challenging the declaration of Mahama as winner of the presidential polls. In the petition, the party alleged gross irregularities in over 11,000 polling stations with a call for annulments that would ostensibly lead to Akuffo Addo’s victory.
The NPP presidential candidate – who came under sharp criticism from his political opponents and some high profile NPP members for being a sore loser and putting the country on the brink of collapse – argued that the NPP’s case was premised on “mind blowing” evidence that would deepen Ghana’s democracy and strengthen the institutions that are mandated to oversee the electoral process. After months of hearing and deliberation, which were broadcast live on national television, a nine-member Supreme Court returned a verdict rejecting the NPP’s petition that affirmed the EC’s earlier declaration. In what was celebrated as a hallmark of statesmanship, the NPP presidential candidate accepted the court’s decision and conceded to Mahama.
The count at a polling station in Nkwanta, Asante Akim South, Ashanti (Gabrielle Lynch)
The petition, albeit less pleasant for the NPP, was instrumentalised successfully by Akuffo Addo to bolster his control of the party and image across the country. Following a concession speech, in which the NPP leader called on Ghanaians to “iron out our differences, ease the tensions among us, and come together to build our country,” his residence in Nima-Accra, assumed a newfound symbolism with well-publicized congratulatory visits by diplomats, leading party activists, religious leaders, and revered statesmen within and outside Ghana. The growing stature of Akuffo Addo, as a statesman and potential president, not only ensured his decisive win in the presidential primary within the NPP, but it also enabled him to effectively deal with the perception of him being a hot-headed, intolerant, and violent person, which has been pushed largely by the NDC in the last two elections.
Since 1998, when Nana Addo lost to John Kufuor in a bitterly fought presidential primary in the NPP, his temperament has always come under question. In the 2008 election, the NDC sustained these attacks against Nana Addo by claiming that his character and demeanour is far from the calmness and modesty of its candidate, John Atta Mills. Nana Addo did not also help assuage this negative perception during the 2012 campaign when he charged NPP supporters to protect themselves against attacks by NDC activists with chants of “All Die Be Die,” which was interpreted as admonition for violence. During the 2016 campaign, the NDC maintained these attacks by pointing to infighting within the NPP as testament to Akuffo Addo’s inability to unify the country. However, this strategy by the NDC failed in 2016 largely because many Ghanaians were exposed to the “soft” Nana Addo, especially after his acceptance of Supreme Court verdict over the petition.
Among the petitioners, the person who perhaps benefitted most was Bawumia, a 53-year-old renowned economist who hails from the Northern Region of Ghana. As the principal witness for the petition, the NPP’s vice presidential candidate, who was hitherto largely known for his economic proficiency, but limited political experience, impressed national television audiences with his calm temperament, sheer brilliance over electoral matters, and commitment to take the bullet for the NPP. Indeed, immediately after the Supreme Court’s verdict, Bawumia was touted as a possible flagbearer of the NPP when Akuffo Addo had not formally announced his intention to contest the 2016 election.
Over the last three years, Bawumia’s stature as a reliable and articulate interlocutor for the NPP has grown in unmeasurable proportion. His presentations on the Ghanaian economy at various lectures across the country, and the faltering responses by government economists and spokesperson, helped sell the NPP as the party which was better placed to address the country’s economic challenges. The prospects of an active and frontline Vice President in the person of Bawumia, which was dramatized forcefully during the petition hearing, also enabled the NPP to manage the “anti-Northern” tag, which the Mahama-led NDC amplified in the heat of the campaign. Direct comparisons were also often made with the less articulate NDC Vice President who often cut a marginal figure in Mahama’s government.
The Courts have changed the contours of electoral politics
While heeding to their flagbearer’s call to respect the verdict of the Supreme Court in the election petition, many NPP activists were left with a strong sense of injustice meted out to them by the EC. Over the last three years, the party has supported a groundswell of activities, ranging from demonstrations to open aspersions at members of the EC, particularly Charlotte Osei, who is the current Chairperson of the Commission. The anti-Osei rhetoric by the NPP reached its most appalling phase when a Member of Parliament for the party, Kennedy Agyapong, attracted the ire of the public for referring to the EC Chairperson as a “wicked woman” who landed her position by giving sexual favours.
This open hostility against the EC persisted alongside soul-searching within the NPP that led the party to embark on a host of activities meant to apply pressure for electoral reform, while building internal capacity and vigilance over the electoral process.
Local media reports after the election have shed light on the role of an engineering service manager from the US space agency, NASA, who was contracted by the NPP campaign team to recruit and train party agents to secure and deliver election results from polling stations into a common database where they could track and collate results more accurately.
Although many party activists criticized different aspects of the Supreme Court’s verdict, it became an important reference point that legitimized different claims for reforms that were advanced in various press briefings. Notably, the pro-NPP Let My Vote Count Alliance staged various demonstrations to apply pressure on the EC to compile a new voter’s register; a point that was emphasized by the Supreme Court’s ruling. In many instances when the NPP failed to secure a concession from the EC, the courts became popular battlegrounds for the party’s agitations. For instance, three members of the Let My Vote Count Alliance, supported by a team of lawyers from the NPP, initiated a series of legal action at the Supreme Court against the EC over the compilation of a new electoral register and the use of National Health Insurance IDs.
The increasing use of the courts by various NPP activists represents a broader trend of political socialization in support of legal litigation over electoral matters that was fuelled by the 2012 petition. Court proceedings against the EC, which yielded notable judgements for the NPP, thrusted Ghana’s superior courts to the hotbed of the 2016 election. Most importantly, the past year witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of litigations through the courts, including internal party matters, disputed primaries, and different aspects of the electoral process by candidates, political parties, civil society organisations and private citizens. Indeed, while the EC disqualified some candidates in the 2012 election over clerical errors without any court action, a similar act in 2016 against 13 political parties led to more than four suits against the EC, which enabled some aggrieved parties ― the National Democratic Party, the People’s National Convention, and the Progressive Peoples Party ― to get back onto the Presidential ballot.
The count continues at a polling station in Nkwanta, Ashanti (Gabrielle Lynch)
Prior to the NPP’s petition in 2012, judicial adjudication of electoral disputes was rare. This was largely due to a generalised perception that the costly and inflexible litigation processes in the courts were, at best, the last option for aggrieved candidates. The transparency of the petition, which was boasted by the live broadcast of court proceedings on national television shattered this myth in two main respects: First, contrary to long-held belief about the independence of the EC, the courts asserted their supervisory jurisdiction over Ghanaian elections. Secondly, the closeness of the nine-member panel, with 3 dissenting judgements in favour of some claims in the petition, apprised the wider public about the disposition of some judges to offer rulings that could lead to a reversal of election results and acts of election management officials.
Mahama and the NDC were confined to the status quo
On the contrary, the NDC left the 2012 election petition with a sense of vindication, which consigned them to the unenviable position of advocates-in-chief for the EC. The foundation of this newfound status quo began during hearing of the petition, when the party joined the EC to defend Mahama’s victory.
However, the NDC’s defence of the EC did not stop after the Supreme Court’s judgement was delivered. During sitting by a five-member committee that was set up by the EC to examine claims for a new register, the NDC refuted the NPP’s claims arguing that the register is credible and must only be re-compiled after ten years given the costs to the taxpayers. Apart from opposing calls by the NPP for a new voters’ register, various NDC activists took on the job of EC spokespersons on radio and TV discussions even in instances where notable indiscretions by the EC.
The cozy relationship between the NDC and the EC reached a boiling point after a ruling of the Supreme Court against the EC’s decision to include names of voters who registered with NHIS cards on the register. In a radio discussion on Montie FM, which is owned by some prominent NDC members, two supporters of the ruling party and a talk-show host issued threats of violence against some of the judges, including the Chief Justice, if they made further judgements against the EC. In July 2016, these NDC sympathizers, who became known as the Montie 3, were sentenced to four months in jail and fined 10, 000 Cedis each for contempt. Barely a month later, the President bowed to pressure from members of the NDC and his cabinet, and remitted the sentences, which led critics to bemoan the abuse of his constitutional powers of pardon to undermine the judiciary.
If the NPP left the petition determined to be more vigilant, the NDC suffered from a great deal of complacency that significantly tipped the election against them. Indeed, when counting and collation of the 2016 results were taking place, the party assumed the NPP’s 2012 posture with criticisms about voter irregularities and threats of legal action to change some of the results. No doubt, the NDC have accepted the results of the election and President Mahama has conceded to Nana Akuffo Addo as the President-elect. Nonetheless, as the party embarks on a rebuilding programme to wrestle power from the NPP, they are likely to incorporate the courts in their overall strategy.
A New Agenda for Electoral Reform.
The role of the 2012 election petition in shaping the contours of electoral reforms, which added a major boost to the NPP’s quest to wrestle power from the Mahama-led NDC, has a much broader resonance. Across many developing countries, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, judicial reform is often treated as delinked from the more specialized field of election management.
In the case of electoral reform, significant weight has been placed on capacity building for political parties, election management bodies, and civil society organizations. Across many African states, in particular, this reform agenda has been shaped by the predominant viewpoint which suggests that despite notable inroads in democratization, the political environment remains largely fragile amid widespread corruption in public institutions, including the judiciary. Consequently, specialists and donors working on electoral reform often prefer alternative dispute resolutions mechanisms – such as committees for inter-party dialogue and peace initiatives by NGOs – to adversarial judicial proceedings.
While Ghana’s 2012 election offered an important test case for the role of “soft” institutions in the pursuit of alternative dispute resolution, with commendable inputs from the Peace Council and other NGO initiatives, the dispute over the results underlined their limits. It may take a while to grasp the full impact of the 2012 petition on Ghana’s political landscape and even why the NPP defied the odds to win the 2016 election. Nonetheless, the interconnections between the petition and the victory are too important to ignore. For donors and policy activists interested in electoral reform, there could not have been any better case to revise the largely cynical script about judicial verdicts.
Nelson Oppong is a member of the Editorial Working Group of ROAPE. He specialises in comparative politics, global governance, and the political economy of institutions in resource-rich countries.
Feature Photograph: Graffiti at polling station in Nkwanta Asante Akim, South Ashante (Gabrielle Lynch).