Ghanian President Nana Akufo-Addo is in Washington this week as the United States re-examines its strategy and engagement in West Africa and the Sahel, which have seen eight coups since 2020. Ghana stands out as a bastion of democracy in this region, where nearly 150 million people are today under the rule of armed forces. Violent extremism is also a major challenge facing the region, with affiliates of the Islamic State, among other terrorist groups, taking root. But Ghana stands in stark contrast to these dire trends, playing a critical role in promoting regional peace and economic development.

A crowd waits for Vice President Kamala Harris’ arrival at Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana, March 28, 2023. (Jessica Sarkodie/The New York Times)
A crowd waits for Vice President Kamala Harris’ arrival at Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana, March 28, 2023. (Jessica Sarkodie/The New York Times)

Donna Charles, USIP's director for West Africa, looks at what the region can learn from Ghana’s democracy and explains why the United States should continue to support its democratic leadership.  

What makes this visit important?

Once relatively stable and projected to experience exponential economic growth, West Africa and the Sahel now face an increased terrorism threat and a tightening belt of new and entrenched military juntas. Ghana’s leadership role — through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the U.N. Security Council and the broader international community — underscores the country’s ideal position to counter the wave of anti-democratic movements and violent extremism threatening to inundate the region. As Washington looks to re-calibrate its policy in the region, Ghana is a vital partner. 

President Akufo-Addo’s visit to Washington, where he will speak at the U.S. Institute of Peace, also opens the door for the United States and like-minded partners to elevate a partnership with a country that has burnished its brand as a strong democracy surrounded by political instability. The key question is whether the value proposition of democracy, particularly as a governance model shaped and exported by Western powers, will resonate with Africans or if the prevailing winds will continue to shift more governments toward autocracy.   

What lessons does Ghana’s history and evolution as a democracy provide to other regional partners?

The Republic of Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from colonial powers in 1957, is one of the most stable democracies on the continent and boasts almost three decades of peaceful transitions of power. Ghana is not unique in the challenges it faces: rising public debt and inflationary woes, questions about its human rights records amid anti-LGBTQI legislation, and growing concerns over violent extremist attacks along the border with Burkina Faso. These challenges present real concerns for Ghana. But the country’s recent history tells a compelling story about how a country emerges from a one-party state to become a multi-party bastion of stability. 

Ghana’s first coup in 1966 emerged because of uncontrolled foreign debt and economic instability. It also faced a fever of coups that did not break until almost 30 years later under Jerry Rawlings, a controversial military officer who led a violent, but failed coup against a previous military junta in 1979, and another successful coup in 1981. Under Rawlings, Ghana weathered severe austerity measures, widespread economic reforms and civil unrest that raised serious concerns about human rights abuses against government opposition. The instability of a junta-led Ghana and an economic crisis in 1983 forced Ghanaian authorities to organize multi-party elections, ushering in a new era of multi-party politics. 

In the long run, Ghana’s strong economic recovery, which started to take shape in 1984 with the help of International Monetary Fund and World Bank structural adjustment programs, helped stabilize the country. Meanwhile, its troop contributions to regional peacekeeping operations in West Africa and the Middle East helped boost its image on the world stage. More importantly, Rawlings and his successors signaled their trust in and support for the people of Ghana, respecting term limits and transferring power peacefully and democratically. 

So, what can other countries learn from this experience? After decades of instability and coups, Ghana’s leaders came to the conclusion that democracy, coupled with key economic reforms, is the best path to stability. Over time, Ghanaian leadership then worked to institutionalize the idea and practice of democracy and good governance for the benefit of the people and the economy over the long term. 

Does Ghana prove that democracy works for Africa? 

By adhering to the social contract implicitly signed by its citizens when they head to the polls every election cycle, Ghana’s elites reassure the people and the international community that they believe in the idea of the country as a democracy more than they believe in themselves. Ghana’s leaders have consistently eschewed the autocratic idea that the country’s destiny is in the hands of one person and demonstrate that they will continue to cultivate the next generation of leaders. 

The recent spate of coups in Africa has raised questions about whether democracy works as a “one-size fits-all” model of governance on the continent, as some would argue the West often promotes. According to an Afrobarometer survey, only 38 percent of respondents from 36 African states are satisfied with how democracy works in their country. While related surveys indicate that most Africans prefer democracy over other systems of governance and embrace multiparty systems and other democratic norms, worrying trends in West Africa, the Sahel and parts of southern Africa suggest growing acceptance of military rule amid of poor governance. These results demonstrate how important it is for aspiring and mature democracies throughout Africa and beyond to demonstrate the value of democracy through basic service delivery, accountability, transparency and inclusion. 

This message resonates in West Africa. After violent pro-democracy protests in Senegal in June, President Macky Sall announced he would not seek a third term. Liberians returned to the polls on Tuesday after experiencing a peaceful transition in 2017. And Nigeria, with low voter turnout and reported voter suppression, violence and other irregularities at the polls, allowed its judicial institutions to arbitrate a contested election in February. Along with Ghana’s strong democratic record, these examples underscore that democracy has worked and will continue to work in Africa if citizens are empowered in an inclusive process that is not concentrated in elite centers of power and access.

Why should the United States continue to support Ghana’s democratic leadership in the region?

Amid a belt of military-led autocracies that spans most of the Sahel region, longstanding U.S. partners like Ghana are increasingly important to Washington. Enhancing this partnership through vocal support for Ghana’s regional leadership role, increased security cooperation and enhancing diplomatic engagement will signal Ghana’s strategic significance to the United States. It could also buttress against the likes of Russia and China, both of whom continue to position for increased influence throughout the continent. If the case for democracy cannot be made in Africa — meaning citizens do not believe that democracies can deliver materially for all people — then the United States, its African partners and other like-minded allies will face serious challenges to securing peace and prosperity. 

Democracy is a prerequisite for engendering public trust and robust civic engagement — and it plays a vital role in allowing economic growth and sustainable development to take root. As of August 2020, Accra, Ghana’s capital, is home to the secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest trading bloc by number of countries in the world that provides a critical opportunity to lift millions of Africans out of poverty. For AfCFTA to be successful, African countries like Ghana must lead the way in helping harmonize trade rules and regulations, establishing trade-dispute mechanisms and reducing the barriers to trade with other regions of the world. According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, trade in goods and services with democratic countries increases a population’s support for democracy and democratic institutions. Economic analysis of free trade agreements also suggests that free trade helps democracies flourish and thrive. 

Washington’s partnership with Ghana means that the United States has a chance to further demonstrate how like-minded partners support and learn from each other in the unifying effort to improve our democracies; the United States must learn from Ghana’s past and present as it learns from ours. Ghana and the United States are linked through strong trade relations, a well-educated and vibrant diaspora and a deep and abiding belief that democracy is the surest path to peace and prosperity. 

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