For a few days following the elections in Gambia and Ghana at the beginning of December, it seemed that the political landscape in West Africa would change in an unexpected way.
On 1st December, Gambia’s strongman, Yahya Jammeh, who took power in a military coup in 1994, surprisingly conceded the country’s presidential election to former retail shop security guard Adama Barrow. Meanwhile, when Africa’s democratic poster child Ghana held its general election six days later, the country’s electoral commission’s website was hacked and the result delayed by three days. Opposition figures and social media users in Ghana voiced concerns that the incumbent, President John Dramani Mahama, was plotting to rig the election and deny the veteran Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo the presidency at the third time of asking.
In a reversal of pre-election expectations, it was the ballot in Ghana – which had previously held six peaceful presidential elections since the end of military rule in 1992 – that was being scrutinised for signs irregularities. Meanwhile, the Gambian election was being lauded as a blueprint for a peaceful transition from an authoritarian leader to democracy. President Jammeh had won the country’s previous four elections but observers have questioned the fairness of those ballots.
But, just 10 days after Gambians went to the polls, President Jammeh had reversed his decision to concede defeat and was calling for fresh elections, while Ghana was in the process of another peaceful handover of power as president-elect Akufo-Addo, who won the election by 9.45% of the vote, joined forces with President Mahama to create a transition team.
The status quo had been restored. But while the votes in Ghana and Gambia reflected the best and the worst of elections in Africa, the ballots also demonstrated a desire for change in both West African countries. While no singular reason can be attributed to the unexpected election results in the two West African countries, it is clear that the state of the economy in both nations was an important consideration.
Gambia is still recovering from the impact of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The virus did not spread to Gambia, but tourists stayed away from the region and the country’s economic growth fell year-on-year from 4.8% in 2013 to 0.9% in 2014. Growth has since rebounded to 5% but the effects have not trickled down to ordinary citizens.
Meanwhile, Ghana’s economic growth has fallen sharply, from a record high of 14% in 2011 to 3.9% in 2015 on falling commodity prices and a three-year-long electricity crisis, which has crippled industry and forced some factories to shut down. Barring a violent escalation of the situation in Gambia, ensuring that ordinary citizens in both countries benefit from any economic recovery will define the legacy of the incoming presidents.