Taxi drivers’ opinions usually make for reliable surveys. They run the cities – literally. So, to get a better sense of a town, or city, or region – to better discern the noise behind the noise – I’ll recommend the opinions of cab drivers. It’s an approach that has consistently stood me in good stead in different countries, on different continents. I am back to my old tricks in Accra, Ghana, where I am spending a few days on program management and program development with recent and current CIPE partners. My daily cab driver, while in Ghana, is Frank Addo. Oblivious to it, Frank has been providing me with lessons on Ghana’s political economy as we’ve been driving across Accra.
On our first day of business, I mentioned the fact that Ghana is hailed, in many regions of the world, as a beacon of democratic stability in Africa. Before I could finish making my point and asking for Frank’s opinion, he was snickering dismissively. The beginning of his response was proverbial:
“Sir, you know … in a class that has nothing but ‘F’ students, the ‘D’ student comes off as a genius. In relative terms, Ghana is doing well enough, but that is only because the bar has been set so low. In absolute terms, there is still a lot that we Ghanaians have to improve on. So, those who hold such an opinion of Ghana are only pleasantly surprised by our mediocrity compared to the outright failures of our continental neighbors.”
I pointed out to Frank that since 1993 the country has built a track record of five effectively democratic presidential elections, and two changes in political power between the major parties: the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC). He immediately saw where I was headed with my response and interjected:
“Sir, what you are mentioning so far are the minimal requirements for an orderly society. The fact that people can vote, and their votes will be counted, says little about how effective the society as a whole is being managed … ”
I will wager multiple months of my salary that Frank had no clue that he just reminded me of a fundamental CIPE tenet: democratic elections are at most only as important as democratic governance. In other words, the habit of democratic elections is given most credence when accompanied by that of democratic governance. Frank continued:
” … there are many serious challenges to Ghana. This oil business, the drug problem, unemployment, poverty, and many others! Politics in Ghana has always been tough and rough, but it is now getting out of hand. I suspect this oil thing is making matters worse. Just yesterday, at a biometric registration center in the Odododiodio district, NDC and NPP supporters came to blows with broken bottles, stones, and knives. Two prominent members of the NPP, Abu Jinapor and Ursula Owosu, were attacked and had to be hospitalized. Also, the NPP presidential candidate, Nana Addo, has been inciting violence with his slogan ‘All die be die‘. Ghana is now a major hub for the global trade in cocaine – it comes from South America, through Ghana, to Europe. On a regular basis, there are scandals about the involvement of government officials in the cocaine business. When you look at the poverty and unemployment levels, and you add this cocaine thing to the whole equation, what do you think will happen? No sir, many of us here in Ghana are very worried … very worried!”
I asked Frank what the link was between Ghana’s recently discovered oil wealth and the worsening political discourse in the country:
“Politics has become more bitter, more personal … it was never like this. It was tough, but not wild like it is now. In Ghana, we understand that the oil was discovered back when the NPP was in power. But presidential elections came and the NPP lost to the NDC. So, oil production started after the NDC was in power. Ever since, politics has become a ‘do-or-die’ contest, since each side wants to preserve power by governing during an oil boom period. Why do you think that the NPP presidential candidate has a campaign slogan, ‘all die be die’, which means that either he wins or people will die?
I found myself nodding as Frank spoke. I asked him how the other issues that he mentioned challenge democratic progress in Ghana:
“Sir … these things are all connected. Ever since this oil business started, things are becoming more expensive in Ghana. Everything! Poor people are going to be poorer. Very soon, people without work will look at this drug business and get into it. If government officials are already in the cocaine business, then what more of the poor people, who have less? Our politics has always been along tribal lines, which is why it has always been rough. Now, oil production is making our politics worse. Poverty is still a big problem, but things are becoming more expensive. Then there is this drug or cocaine nonsense that is a huge problem. Sir, we worry a lot! We worry!”
I had stopped nodding long since. I was steadily looking outside the window, inhaling thick plumes of carbon monoxide from the exhaust pipes of the massive fleet of decades-old vehicles in Accra’s traffic. I wondered whether Frank had ever heard of the ‘resource curse’, because he just described some of its characteristics. As if to prove the point in all that he had told me, Frank switched the radio channel to one of Ghana’s numerous radio talk-shows. Nii Lamptey Vanderpuijt, an NDC presidential aide, and Abu Jinapor, the prominent NPP party member who was physically assaulted a few days prior, had called into the radio show. For the following ten minutes, there was nothing but a back and forth of baseless accusations, crude insults, and ad hominem attacks. The discourse was coarse and the venom from both ends was palpable.
Democratically, Ghana may not be far along enough just yet, for significant democratic backsliding to become manifest. After all, a few weeks ago, Mali was considered a thriving democracy as well.