Fast growth and patience: Ghana’s John Mahama on how demorcacy will take hold in Africa

About the event

The former president took part in a Distinguished Speaker Seminar

Democracy is hard work. It’s also complicated: it develops in different historical contexts, it comes in a variety of forms, and enacting it costs money and demands huge practical and organisational skills.

So when Ghana’s former president and current presidential candidate HE John Mahama visited Oxford Saïd on 10 May 2019 to talk about ‘Democracy and elections in contemporary Africa’ he possibly raised as many questions as he answered.


The era of the African democratic spring

‘Democracy is an antithesis of dictatorship, authoritarianism, tyranny, and despotism,’ said Mahama in his introductory speech. ‘Democracy is a system that promotes the participation of the citizens in how they are governed. It reposes sovereignty in the people on whose behalf leadership is exercised. It is based on the rule of law, respect for rights, and freedoms of citizens.’

‘We are now living in the era of the African democratic spring,’ he continued. Elections are everywhere. There is an extended respect for human rights and freedoms, an expanded media space. Citizens have the ability and the will to force democratic change: ‘Little sparks can trigger a chain of events that end up dislodging even the most entrenched dictator.’

There is no doubt that this is having a positive impact in Africa, with many countries seeing an average GDP growth over the past decade of 4% to 6%, and a rise in foreign direct investment. Telecommunications and IT have developed. The African middle class has prospered, while per capita income has increased for many states. Extreme hunger and malnutrition have reduced and primary school enrolment is up. ‘All these positive developments are the dividends of democracy,’ said Mahama.

Difficulties of democracy

But no one is yet in a position to sit back on their laurels. African democracy is still fragile, he said.

Elections, the heart of democracy, are indeed now common throughout the continent. They are an instrument for the people to exercise choice about who their leaders should be. Unfortunately, he pointed out, they are also an instrument for pseudo-democracies to justify themselves, and to ensure the continuity of power for the sitting regime which may be re-elected on as much as 95% of the vote.

No one is particularly clear on the best way to run elections. Mahama himself questions Ghana’s First Past the Post system, which encourages the development of one or two large parties. The tendency to swing between these two parties can leave projects unfinished when a new government comes in with different priorities. This, he said, in answer to a question from the audience, was the reason the road from Wa to Navrongo was still in such poor condition. 

A particularly vexed subject in Africa is the question of fixed presidential terms and how long they should be. Botswana’s Mokgweetsi Masisi said he was happy with fixed terms when he visited Oxford in 2018; Gabon’s President Ondimba, however, was not a fan, believing that they did not allow enough time to get things done. Mahama seemed to agree with the principle of fixed terms, but thought that Ghana’s current four-year maximum was not quite long enough.

The development of people depends on having a good quality education system; it is based on having a good health system; on having good roads that make it easy to transport goods and people across country; on providing clean water

Meanwhile, the security and transparency of elections are serious concerns worldwide. No sooner had Africa got past the days of ‘steel ballot boxes and district counting centres’ than new fears emerged about cybersecurity and electoral manipulation through social media.

But perhaps most importantly, the benefits of democracy are not obvious to all, Mahama said. The fruits of economic growth have not been shared fairly. In particular, vulnerable groups are losing out, while feeling that the wealth of the newly prosperous classes is being rubbed in their faces. Social safety nets have not been enough to stem the growing divide between the rich and the poor. In the light of this, is it any wonder that many African people question the point of exercising their right to vote?

Where next?

It is estimated that about 12 million graduates are ‘churned out’ every year from tertiary institutions in Africa, but fewer than 5 million sustainable jobs exist at that level. If democracy is to continue to prosper, said Mahama, African nations need to accelerate growth and ensure that there is a greater diffusion of wealth, jobs, and opportunities.

That applies to regions as much as to individuals. Many geographic areas have found themselves marginalised and deprived. This creates the background for dissatisfaction, dissent, and in some cases insurgency. He called for political and economic empowerment at a local level: ‘decentralisation and the fair distribution of wealth are guarantees for stability and security.’

To support this, of course, the continent needs to improve its social and economic infrastructure. ‘The development of people depends on having a good quality education system; it is based on having a good health system; on having good roads that make it easy to transport goods and people across country. It is based on providing clean drinking water, electricity. All of these things also create jobs.’

The paradox is that while Mahama believes that democracy needs accelerating growth and infrastructure to stabilise, it also needs patience. Free speech and a free media have shone a light on instances of corruption, but this has also given rise to the impression that corruption is endemic. And the wheels of democratic justice turn slowly. Mahama detected a somewhat dangerous ‘longing’ in some quarters for the swift repercussions that come with an autocracy.

‘African democracy is blossoming,’ he concluded. ‘It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be consolidated. Africans must accept our new democracies as a way of life. We must create societies that are free, but also that are disciplined and orderly. Democracies must seek to create a decent life for our people in a clean environment that works to protect our climate. In this endeavour we must all be committed to play our part.’


The Distinguished Speaker Seminar was organised in collaboration with the African Studies Centre and the Oxford Africa Business Alliance.