The two leading contenders for the presidency opened their campaigns with sharply differing assessments of the country's health
It was a foretaste of what is set to be the country's most fiercely contested election against a backdrop of the worst austerity since the 1980s. On 25 February, a smiling President John Dramani Mahama strolled into Parliament in Accra sporting a well-tailored red, blue and white dashiki shirt, to deliver a three hour State of the Nation Address. Expertly scripted and orchestrated, with citizens from the public gallery brought in as witnesses, the Address turned into the audio-visual version of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) manifesto.
Striking a jocular and conversational mood, Mahama reeled off his government's claimed successes in health, education, housing, agriculture and food security. 'Actually, these are all our achievements, Ghana's achievements… improving lives one at a time…' he insisted, in studiously non-partisan tones. It was all, according to cheering members of parliament from the governing NDC, evidence-based.
For the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), this was sleight of hand bordering on downright deception. Holding aloft red cards calling on Mahama to quit before the elections due on 7 November, the opposition barracked the proceedings throughout. What kind of success was Mahama talking about, with inflation at 17%, interest rates at 30% and chronic job losses? they shouted.
Opposition MPs were particularly incensed when Mahama wheeled on Naomi Appiah Korang, a teacher and NDC supporter from Kyebi, Eastern Region, to extol the virtues of the government's water supply programme. Kyebi is the home base of NPP flag-bearer Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. Yet Ghana's parliamentary etiquette held back the insurrectionary tactics seen in South Africa's National Assembly during state of the nation addresses. Angry as they are, the NPP is the centre-right pro-business party and is not much given to mass demonstrations.
So it was entirely consistent with tradition that the NPP delivered its own assessment of the nation's condition on 29 February, when Akufo-Addo dissected Mahama's claims, almost line by line. The NPP modestly dubbed it, 'the real State of the Nation'. Midway through his peroration, Akufo-Addo triumphantly announced that Salaga Hospital in Northern Region, far from being 'almost complete' as Mahama had claimed, 'has been fenced, sealed and forgotten.'
All these disputed claims have at least provided work for Ghana's legions of civic activists and journalists to investigate. Parties, their manifesto claims, their organisations on the ground and their probity will all come under unprecedented scrutiny in the coming elections, via the full panoply of social media platforms, smart-phones with video and small groups of dedicated fact-checkers.
Generally sceptical of the claims of both parties, the Accra-based Imani Centre for Policy and Education applauded the government's progress on water and sanitation, although the opposition said most of the programmes had been started by the last NPP government. Imani warned strongly, though, about the production crisis in the cocoa sector, where young people are leaving the farms, frustrated by a lack of investment and modernisation.
Others remembered the catastrophic flooding in Accra last year, when about 25 people drowned and a further 200 were killed when a petrol tanker exploded as a result of the floods. Successive parties in power have promised a comprehensive overhaul of Accra's flood defences but none has delivered. On the face of it, Ghana is enjoying a building boom as cranes loom across the skylines of Accra, Kumasi and Takoradi, the oil capital.
On closer inspection, this is a rather rarified boom, mostly luxury houses and offices for the 'one per cent' as the Occupy Ghana activists describe the new elite. Some ask more searching questions about where the cash is coming from: several emigrés from Nigeria, close friends of its former President Goodluck Jonathan and Oil Minister Diezani Allison-Madueke, have pitched camp in Ghana. Some of their funds are almost certainly being machine-washed through some of the more spectacular building projects in Accra.
Communications, one of most dynamic and business-dominated sectors of the economy, is thriving. Progress on education and health is much more contested. Government investment in social projects has been held back by its obligations to fund an expensive restructuring of pay grades within the civil service. The plan was to fund the extra spending through the launching of commercial oil production: that was when the world price was US$130 a barrel; now it is $28 a barrel and state revenue has slumped.
Ghost workers on the state payroll – fake names whose salaries are diverted into private or party pockets – have been whittled down, says the International Monetary Fund, by the use of biometric employment records. Finance Minister Seth Terkper, who is short of friends on both sides of the parliamentary divide, has proved adept at shoring up state finances with a campaign of creeping taxation, often paid in advance, such as the ubiquitous withholding tax.
Within government circles, Terkper is sometimes known as 'Seth the unsackable'. This is partly because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of state finances and contracts but mostly for his rapport with the IMF, which he has cannily used to win an endorsement of the government's economic programme, get cheap loans from the Fund and float a sovereign bond. In its latest country report, the IMF approvingly notes that Ghana is to float another sovereign bond this year, of $750 million-$1billion, taking its indebtedness to well over 70% of gross domestic product.
As the NDC insists it is borrowing for tomorrow, to pay for new power-generation (see Feature, It's the contract election), the NPP insists it is driving the economy into the ground, dragged down by a debt crisis. Yet both sides concede the picture could be very different in five years' time, when two massive new oil and gas projects come on stream and if the oil price picks up.
For most of the people who spoke to Africa Confidential, the elections will not be about which version of the State of the Nation Address they believe but a simpler measure: do they feel better or worse off than they did four years ago? Accra looks set to deliver a resounding 'no!' but beyond the capital, the picture is much more mixed, with the prospects of another presidential election going right down to the wire.
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