Observations from the Ghanaian election
The historic victory of Nana Akufo-Addo was a remarkable event, a watershed moment in Ghanaian democracy and a strong message to all those who are sceptical about the impact of campaigns in Africa. Akufo-Addo, a 72 year old competing in his third presidential election, was able to tap into the public dissatisfaction to become the first candidate in Ghanaian history to defeat an incumbent President. Coming soon after the unexpected victory for Gambian opposition leader Adama Barrow and less than two years after Muhammadu Buhari’s victory in Nigeria, this shows that with the right campaign and message, even the most entrenched incumbent can be defeated. As a political consultant operating in Africa, I have seen first-hand the changing nature of the continent’s elections in recent years. From this, and my experience in Ghana, I have observed five trends that I believe are of significance to African political operatives and observers alike.
First is the centrality of the social media to campaigns in Africa. Though some features of the Ghanaian election – the catchy campaign jingles, mass rallies, and villages plastered with party posters – would be familiar to anyone involved in African elections, beyond the surface there was an increasingly sophisticated social media operation at play. An American or European observer would be surprised at how similar much of the Ghanaian election was with what they are used to. Nana Akufo-Addo embraced the power of the new media, using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to communicate with his over one million followers. In particular, he focussed on bringing his events, speeches and press conferences to a large, predominantly young, audience through videos and live streaming. As Election Day approached and fears of a rigged election grew, he increasingly used the social media to push for transparency and vigilance at the polls through his online ‘Adopt a Polling Station’ campaign.
Second, the increased online activity did nothing to take away from the centrality of traditional field campaigning, which was as vibrant and passionate as ever. Driving through villages and towns in the lead up to Election Day, I was struck by the enthusiasm on display and how central the election was to the hopes and fears of the voters. Despite the technological advances, on Election Day I witnessed how NPP field operatives went door-to-door in the small village of Akim Asene in an attempt to turn out each individual voter, much as they have done for decades. Whilst there are those who believe the increasing prominence of the social media renders traditional field campaigns obsolete, this election further demonstrates that only candidates who master both areas can be successful.
Third is the immense potential of a candidate who is prepared to listen to the people, be humble, and learn from past mistakes. The NPP had a leader who was determined to critically evaluate his past two election defeats and make the necessary adjustments. In 2016, Ghana saw a different opposition leader to past elections and voted accordingly, a lesson that many politicians would be wise to heed.
Fourth is the re-affirmation that at their core, elections are referendums on the government.
The NPP was wise to the overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction and desire for change, and managed to tap into this sentiment through their disciplined message that put the nation’s economic difficulties front and centre. In the past, the power of the incumbency, both in its control over the electoral process, and critically, its influence over the state-run media, meant that governments overseeing failing economies could convince the voters to give it another chance. However, Ghana is the latest in three West African elections in which the opposition was able to turn the incumbency into a disadvantage, by laying the blame for the country’s woes at the government’s door.
Finally, I come out of the Ghanaian election with an increased belief in the electoral process in Africa and the potential of campaigns to bring change. Though to some extent optimism about African democracy has receded of late, recent elections give the rest of the continent cause for hope. Ghanaians should be proud of the vibrant, peaceful, issues-based campaign, and this should be used as a model and inspiration for nations such as Kenya, Liberia and Angola who have critical elections coming up next year. I am now more confident than ever in my view that a well-run, organised campaign with a clear strategy and a strong message can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Timor is the CEO of Timor Consulting, an international political consulting.