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Ghana Joins Some Elite Democratic Company

February 11, 2001|George B. N. Ayittey | George B. N. Ayittey, a native of Ghana, is an associate professor of economics at American University and president of the Free Africa Foundation. His new book "Why Africa Remains Poor" will be published this summer

WASHINGTON — In light of Africa's tabloid of horror stories in recent years--famine, civil war, wanton carnage and destruction--it's excusable to cheer about good news, which the Western press often misses. Last month, Ghana carried out a successful democratic transition, closing the darkest chapter in its post-colonial history.

The 19-year rule of Jerry J. Rawlings, who seized power in a 1981 coup, was often marked by brutal repression, extreme cruelty and vindictiveness. Although the retired flight lieutenant often stated his contempt for multiparty democracy, intense domestic and international pressure compelled Rawlings to organize elections in 1992. He ran for president, arguing that his previous 11 years in office should not count toward the two-term limit he wrote into Ghana's constitution. He "won," but electoral irregularities were so widespread that opposition parties boycotted parliamentary elections for four years. The result was a one-party state.

Rawlings won reelection in 1996, firmly establishing the "Rawlings model of self-succession" in West Africa: A military adventurer seizes power in a coup, organizes fraudulent elections to ward off nosy Western donors and returns to power as a "civilian president." West Africans call this "civilian-ization of military rule." By 1998, military despots had successfully shed their uniforms for civilian clothes in 10 West African countries.

Ghana's economy was the chief victim of Rawling's rule. A self-styled Marxist- Leninist revolutionary, Rawlings early on imposed heavy restrictions on commerce and the economy. By 1982, more than 1 million Ghanaians had fled to Nigeria, and the economy had reached its nadir.

Unable to secure help from his friends--the then-Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany and Libya--Rawlings went knocking at the door of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which he had denounced as "imperialist." Seduced by his charisma and rhetoric, and the chance to snatch Ghana from the Soviet orbit, the West poured in billions. The World Bank, in particular, pumped more than $4 billion into Ghana, declaring the country an "economic star of Africa" in 1992. But by 2000, Ghana's economy was again in a coma, and the World Bank-sponsored Economic Recovery Program a miserable failure.

Inflation raged at 60%; unemployment hovered around 30%; interest rates had reached nearly 50%, and Ghana's currency, the cedi, had virtually collapsed. Before Rawlings took power in late 1981, the foreign exchange rate was 2.75 cedis to the dollar, and income per capita was $410. In 2000, the exchange rate was 6,800 cedis to the dollar, and income per capita was $360.

At least 40% of World Bank and IMF loans and Western aid was squandered. The regime, which preached the World Bank gospel of "accountability" and "transparency," never accepted responsibility for its failures, choosing instead to blame foreigners and "external factors" for the country's worsening economic crisis and corruption.

Ghanaians, however, never accepted Rawlings' self-serving claptrap. Fed up with rampant corruption and years of economic mismanagement, they vowed electoral retribution at the polls, scheduled last Dec. 7. But the Rawlings regime was determined to hang on to power--even at the risk of bringing about an implosion.

Rawlings' reluctance to relinquish or share power is all too typical in Africa and helps explain why the continent is in the deadly grip of cycles of chaos, carnage, senseless civil wars and collapsing economies. The abortion of the democratic process or the refusal to hold elections plunged Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and Sudan into civil war. Hard-liners' manipulation of the electoral process destroyed Rwanda (1993) and Sierra Leone (1992). The subversion of the electoral process in Liberia (1985) eventually set off a civil war in 1989 and instigated civil strife in Cameroon (1992), Republic of Congo (1992), Togo (1992) and Kenya (1992). The military's annulment of electoral results sparked Algeria's civil war (1992) and plunged Nigeria into political turmoil (1993).

This pattern was recently repeated in Ivory Coast, which had been the bastion of stability and prosperity in a region wracked by carnage. Last Oct. 22, Ivorian junta leader Gen. Robert Guei, who had seized power Dec. 24, 1999, stood for election. When early returns showed that he was losing, Guei sacked the electoral commissioner and sent in his military goons, armed with bazookas, to take over the vote count and declare himself the winner. Angry Ivorians poured into the streets, seized the state-owned television station and drove Guei out of office. He fled the country in a helicopter on Oct. 25, leaving behind a state of chaos.

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