Ghana’s general elections take off on December 7, 2020. Usually, by this time, the entire country would be consumed with excitement. But this year, the presidential campaign, which usually captivates the population, has not evoked the same attention levels. The COVID-19 pandemic is partly responsible. A ban on large public gatherings has made it nearly impossible for the candidates to travel across the country to share their messages. Socially-distanced campaign events have not generated the same enthusiasm as large rallies often do. However, the main reason for the lack of fervor lies not with the pandemic but with the two lackluster leading candidates.
For the first time, the leading candidates are not new to the job, or, as some put it, they have both been tried before: A former president, John Mahama, is contesting the incumbent, Nana Akufo-Addo. Mahama, who belongs to the opposition party, the National Democratic Congress, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 2016 for presiding over a corrupt government and mismanaging the economy. In his pitch to Ghanaians, his opponent, Akufo-Addo, a member of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), promised not to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes and root out corruption and transform the economy. Analysts believe this was why he won the 2016 elections by the widest margin ever, around 9.5%.
But now, both men and their governments and political parties are seen in the same light – corrupt, incompetent, and clueless. President Akufo-Addo has been accused of not only failing to fight corruption but using his office to protect officials indicted in corruption scandals. The president cleared officials at the sports ministry accused of engaging in visa racketeering, but the case remains unresolved. In another instance, a presidential staffer who was caught on camera taking bribes to secure mining licenses for companies was also cleared of any charge. The government’s decision to terminate a concession agreement under mysterious circumstances caused the country to forfeit $190 million under the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, an American foreign aid agency.
Akufo-Addo’s failure to deliver on his promises and the NPP’s government performance has left many as disenchanted with him and his party as they were with John Mahama and his National Democratic Congress (NDC). His presidency has left many disillusioned with what a Ghanaian academic described as “a choiceless democracy:” one in which governments remain unaccountable, corrupt, and incapable of addressing challenges. For many Ghanaians, if 2016 was about replacing a corrupt government with a new one, 2020 is more like being stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.
That, perhaps, is why the only person generating some excitement in the race is John Mahama’s vice-presidential running-mate: Professor Naana Jane Opoku-Agyemang. A former education minister and vice-chancellor at one of Ghana’s largest public universities, Opoku-Agyemang is the first woman to be chosen as a vice presidential nominee by one of the major political parties in the country. Women account for nearly 50 percent of Ghana’s population but are underrepresented in leadership positions across all sectors. The exclusion is even more pronounced in the decision-making process. Out of 275 members of parliament, only 39 are women. When questioned about the low numbers of women in positions of power in Ghana, President Akufo-Addo blamed the Ghanaian women’s movement, whose members, he said, need to be more active if they want women to seize power. It is not surprising that many feminists and activists have rallied behind the opposition ticket.
Ghanaian vice presidents do not wield much power in government, nor do they have clearly defined roles beyond chairing meetings in the president’s absence. But if there is any party that knows the value of a charming and credible vice-presidential candidate, it is the NPP. In 2016, it was current vice president Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia whose credibility and charm carried Akufo-Addo president to the finish line. His ability to lead accessible conversations about the economy transformed the campaign, and his predictions came to pass.
While Opoku-Agyemang may not have Bawumia’s charm, she is one of the few people in Ghanaian politics who went into government and left with her credibility intact. Unlike her boss and his main opponent, Opoku-Agyemang is not seen as corrupt, a trait that has made her attractive to those disappointed in the NPP. Her recent speeches—in which she focused on policy—received widespread praise from those who say they are tired of the vitriolic back-and-forth between the two parties. Overall, the former education minister is seen by many as an “excellent choice.” For those people, Opoku-Agyemang may influence Mahama and the government to do better in power.
It explains why the NPP and the government have gone to great lengths to discredit her and separate Opoku-Agyemang from Mahama by emphasizing his faults. Before her selection, one of the NPP’s mantras was “the alternative is scarier,” but now some party officials are using everything, including sexism, to undermine her. One NPP politician said that she could never succeed as a running mate with her looks. It is evident from the reception Opoku-Agyemang continues to receive that her selection has energized the NDC’s campaign and a section of those disillusioned with Ghana’s political process. Knowing that a credible VP candidate can make or break a political ticket, the incumbent president is no longer guaranteed a second term.
This is by no means a suggestion that the election will be an easy victory for Mahama because of Opoku-Agyemang. People may be disappointed in Akufo-Addo’s government, but it does not mean they trust Mahama either. Since his return to the campaign trail, Mahama has not once expressed remorse for his mismanagement of the economy or the corruption that occurred on his watch. He has not offered any apologies for failing the first time around. Neither has he disclosed any lessons he has gained from reflecting on his defeat and time as president. His only pitch has been to ask Ghanaians to elect him so that he can correct his mistakes. This obvious lack of regret, which the NPP has been harping on, is likely to hurt his chances.
There will also be those who will look at the disconnect between the current vice president’s performance and the promises the NPP made during the campaign and decide against voting for John Mahama solely because of Opoku-Agyemang. One of the promises the NPP made ahead of the election in 2016 was that the current vice president, Dr. Bawumia, an economist, would play a huge role in government. But in power, it is clear that he does not wield great influence over government policy and directions. People could see Naana Jane Opoku-Agyemang ending up in the same position after the elections – in power but without any power to make the government deliver and to keep Mahama in check as some hope.
John Mahama has said that “the choice of Professor Opoku-Agyemang is over and above affirmative action because she is more than qualified to serve as Vice President.” But it is clear from some of the party’s policies that they’re counting on women and feminists’ support. They have promised, among other things, to allocate 30 percent of all appointments to women, extend maternity leave to four months, and close down all “witch camps,” settlements where women accused of witchcraft flee for safety. The NDC’s 2020 manifesto is filled with a wide range of promises targeted at women and minority groups. But every election year, both parties outline thoughtful promises such as those listed in the NDC’s manifesto, yet minimal changes in the lives of Ghanaian women.
Not all feminists and activists are moved by Opoku-Agyemang’s selection. Many believe that Ghanaian women in positions of power often choose the men who appointed them over protecting women’s rights. They point to the fact that in 2016, Opoku-Agyemang and some prominent NDC women petitioned the president to pardon two pro-NDC journalists who had threatened Ghana’s chief justice, a woman, with rape and murder.
Nonetheless, Naana Jane Opoku-Agyemang has brought enormous credibility to an otherwise dismal presidential ticket. It remains to be seen if she will bring votes of women and the disenchanted to John Mahama.
Note: This piece was first published on theballot.world in October, 2020.