Ghana Succeeds Where Kenya Failed

Published on 13th January 2009
“We talk about integrity, integrity, integrity…” It is 72 hours before Election Day in Ghana, and Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan the Chairperson of the electoral commission has been asked to contemplate the demise of his Kenyan counterpart, Samuel Kivuitu.

“We are here distinguishing between the integrity of persons and the integrity of systems,” he says.

A veteran of democracy in Ghana as the chairman of its electoral commission, Afari-Gyan has gained international acclaim for his role in presiding over the country’s highly publicized 2008 presidential election. The election was concluded peacefully after a tense runoff between the ruling NPP's Nano Akufo-Addo and NDC opposition candidate John Atta Mills, who finally won.

In light of this success, comparisons have been drawn to the myriad failures of Ghana’s African neighbors, with Kenya’s electoral debacle often topping the list. Before its violence and fraud-ridden 2007 election, Kenya received praise as a beacon of democratic hope in East Africa as Ghana has received for its example in West Africa. Citizens across the continent are now asking how Ghana managed to elude Kenya’s dark political path, and what can be done to bring the star of the East—along with other struggling African democracies—back to the light.
President John Atta Mills
For many Kenyans, the question of what went wrong in 2007 has been a painfully personal one, with one man, ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu, standing visibly at the crux of the crisis. Parliament voting overwhelmingly to disband the electoral commission has re-ignited the national blame-game, with many pointing fingers at Kivuitu for his role in the chaos.

In some eyes, Samuel Kivuitu’s is the story of a man who brought the system crashing down with him. But others (including Kivuitu himself) see a vilified victim, a scapegoat for deeper problems created by what the Kriegler Report termed a “culture of electoral lawlessness”—an endemic national penchant for impunity and calamity from which all Kenyans suffer together.   

In contrast, Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan is a man who seems to stand above this kind of fray, a man who believes it is upon the strength of institutions, with their constitutional mandates, stringent array of checks and balances and tediously constructed technical know-how, that democracy in Africa may finally make its stand.  

“There are always challenges connected with the organization of elections,” Afari-Gyan says. Adding that in 2008 the electoral commission fought a tough battle with the bloated voter register. Nearly two million new voters joined the list over the summer, believed to be populated systematically by minors, foreigners and the dead.

“This year, those challenges are heightened because of the general tension surrounding the election,” he continues. Ghana has just discovered oil, which should begin pumping in hefty state-managed royalties by 2010. Both the NPP and NDC parties have had eight years in power since the country returned to multiparty democracy in 1992, endowing 2008 with turning point status. Rising food prices, domestic inequality and a shattered global economy have all added to the precarious balance.

Afari-Gyan has led the EC since its inception in 1993, following the previous year’s constitutional referendum, which he also helped oversee. During his tenure, the country has navigated five multiparty presidential elections and two peaceful transfers of executive power, including President John Kufuor's handoever to John Atta Mills. The chairman is now an internationally respected consultant and author of several books on electoral management. He credits his commission’s success to its well-defined constitutional independence and close collaboration with civil society, international donors and political parties.  

“I can tell you that political parties are more involved in the electoral system in this country than in most countries,” he says. “We have established a system of dialogue with the political parties. All the time, whether there are elections or no elections, we talk. And as a result of that, we have been able to build some consensus, particularly where there are grey areas in the law.”
In 2001, Samuel Kivuitu submitted a report to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission highlighting several grey areas in Kenya’s electoral law that he recommended should come under revision. Among these were the mode of appointment, basic qualifications, tenure for electoral commissioners, and the parliamentary funding scheme. Kivuitu wrote:

“An elections commission, as an election management body, must be competent, efficient and impartial in the execution of its electoral functions. Impartiality is most times a matter of perception, and perception in politics is endemic. It is for those reasons that it is essential for any reviewer of a country's constitution to look hard at these issues.”

By 2007 none of these issues had been addressed and political perceptions had run wild. Kenya’s electoral commissioners still carried renewable five year terms were appointed by the president without consultation, and parliament maintained control over ECK funding.

The Kriegler report later found “material defects” in this constitutional framework, including a legal lacuna regarding ECK operational guidelines and “conceptually defective” systems of vote tabulation, law enforcement and dispute resolution. There was “no effective communication between the ECK and political parties, observers, the media or the public.”
For Afari-Gyan, these constitutional flaws are the basic foundations of a failing system. “When we talk about integrity,” he says, “remember that Kibaki was able to remove about 16 of his commissioners” just before the 2007 election.

“I can tell you that Sam Kivuitu wanted to resign,” he continues, with a twinge of remorse in his voice. He is good friends with “Sam” and seems genuinely disturbed by what happened to him. “It was Raila who convinced him not to resign… So his integrity was not in question at all. But when you have brought in so many people—to do what? What were those new commissioners doing there at that time?”  

“If you look at our system, what happened there is almost impossible," Afari-Gyan concludes.

“We as a body, as an institution, have been very jealous of our independence,”he says, explaining that Ghana’s electoral commissioners are appointed for life. Ghana’s EC is funded directly from the Consolidated Fund, not Parliament. Its mandates and procedures are clearly defined by the constitution. “And that is very important,” he concludes. “Nobody can tell us what to do.”

Ghana’s EC has enjoyed increasingly faithful public support for its effort to live up to this mandate over the past two decades, but this year something was different.

Speaking in Accra early last month, board members of Ghana’s Center for Democratic Development (CDD) attempted to explain how the Kenyan experience was affecting faith in Ghana’s electoral institutions.  

Questions had been raised by the opposition about the independence of the judiciary, the board said. If something were to happen during the election, NDC officials wanted to know how it would be resolved. This anxiety had been heightened by what one member termed the electoral commission’s “clumsiness in trying to find a balance between complacency and paranoia after the Kenyan incident.”
Raila and Kibaki
For Ghanaians, the “Kenyan incident” was most poignant in its suggestion that a system formerly thought to be on the right track could easily be brought down by the indiscretions of a few men.
Comparisons often made between Ghana and Kenya have rested on an unnerving recollection of the hope that emerged in Kenya following its successful December 2002 election. The Daily Nation wrote in January 2003, “Africa is a continent where elections have become synonymous with violence and bloodshed. However, Kenyans have in their landmark political transition, stood out as a beacon of democratic principle and proved cynics and other prophets of doom wrong.”

With the 2005 constitutional referendum, the ECK enjoyed a deepening public respect for having presided over two successful polls in a row.  And then it all came crashing down.

Ghana had already achieved five successful elections by 2008, but in the weeks leading up to the first December 7 polls the EC faced its harshest criticism in years. Afari-Gyan and his team were prodded with questions and accusations by an edgy opposition and an anxious public hoping to avoid the disastrous political path followed by their Kenyan neighbors.

Despite this anxiety, Afari-Gyan remained calm and confident. Throughout the grueling electoral process he professed in action and speech the full faith of a man who does not doubt the ability of a system he helped reform and entrench to deliver a trouble-free poll, which is just what it did.
In the aftermath, many have pointed beyond the system to the chairman himself as the reason for Ghana’s success, others to the tenacity of a nation committed to its own democracy. Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, executive director of Ghana’s CDD maintains it is a collective resolve that has allowed his country to escape a dark fate: “We’ve had military coups upon military coups,” he said during an interview in early December. “We’ve had short lived democratic experiments. Coming into this republic, there was a sense of determination on the part of the Ghanaian public and Ghanaian politicians that we would make this work.”

It is exactly this communal sense of democratic willpower that the Kriegler Report accuses the Kenyan body politic of lacking: “Whereas Kenyans and their leaders were content to go through the motions of a democratic election, they knew in their heart of hearts that they did not care to guard this democracy,” the report charges and continues: “Was this happening because there is no legal framework in place to govern such conduct? Of course not… Public opinion cheered the impunity on so long as it seemed to benefit the side they supported.”

Which begs the question, as Kenya considers now how best to rebuild: does the country need a better system, a more committed public or simply some responsible, visionary leadership?

In line with its sometimes schizophrenic conclusions, the Kriegler Report notes that while Kenya’s inadequate electoral framework was largely to blame, there were many sound laws in place by 2007 that the ECK chose not to follow.   

A man once hailed for his staunch independence from political powers, Samuel Kivuitu has parlayed that obstinacy into a relentless refusal to recognize any wrongdoing. In his eyes, it is the system that has failed, the politicians who incited violence, the public who went along with all of it.

In Ghana, since the successful completion of the runoff, national confidence has returned in force; for some it never faded. For Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, it is a time for reflection. Amidst his mantra of systemic integrity he also values personal responsibility and democratic duty:  
“What does an election stand for?” he asks and answers:  “An electoral year is the time to give the people at large an opportunity to make choices and this opportunity comes once in so many years. So it is important that you accept the responsibility to preserve those choices. If you do anything else, you’re interfering with the will of the people. That’s why it is important to get it right. And it’s not easy, given the number of people that are involved in an election. That’s why it’s important to build integrity into the system itself.”

Rachel Keeler
Rachel is a freelance journalist living in East Africa. She holds an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics

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