Before Nana Akufo-Addo’s inauguration as Ghana’s new President, the Financial Times sent its Africa correspondent to interview him. Akufo-Addo won Ghana’s presidential elections, on December 7, 2016, by a wide margin over incumbent John Dramani Mahama. The Financial Times report follows the typical prescription for foreign-correspondents-commenting-on-African-elections. Read it if you are bored. With slight condescension it uses the specter of corruption to frame the country’s political legacy. It wonders-warns about how the new leader will fare in a climate of political uncertainty. It fake-commands that he “must make good” on his promises. Mahama’s National Democratic Congress (NDC) is glossed as “left-leaning” and Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) as a “center-right wealthy technocrat,” who is too rich to be corrupted. The backhanded endorsement of Akufo-Addo comes not because of his skill or political courage, but because he already has enough money, which seems a willfully simplistic misunderstanding of the links between aesthetics and politics. The Financial Times’s focus on the personal characteristics and power of individuals and outdated tropes of African political fragility distract from the structural conditions of the Ghanaian state and, globally, the increasingly tenuous relationship between electoral politics and economics.
As both presidential candidates themselves pointed out, Ghanaian political-economic actors are limited in their ability to change conditions because of massive debt and the influence that foreign investors and loan-makers have over national production, consumption, and infrastructure. Even for the Financial Times, all that matters are macroeconomic indicators of fiscal stability. Understanding its ability to service debt and return on investment are the main reasons that most foreign observers are interested in Ghana.
There are substantive differences between Ghana’s two main political parties rooted in their respective histories, but to call the NDC left-leaning and the NPP center-right today distracts from the global power of free market thinking. Akufo-Addo’s NPP is the political descendant of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), which invited Kwame Nkrumah to lead the independence movement against British rule in the 1940s. The NPP follows its forebearers’ legacy with its explicit orientation towards facilitating free market capital through a decentralized state.
Nkrumah’s radical call for “Self-government Now” led to a split with the capitalist oriented UGCC that continues today. Nkrumahists wanted a centralized, socialist state; this radical position was later taken up by NDC founder Jerry John Rawlings, who led two coups d’etat in 1979 and 1983 and was later elected president in 1992 when Ghana returned to democratic rule. But Ghana entered into a Structural Adjustment Program in 1983, when Rawlings was still a purportedly left-leaning military leader. And since then state policy under various governments has been shaped by the goals of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) which advocate trickle-down development – making the country appear as a reliable place for foreign investment and loan repayment.
Despite their differing rhetorics, the two main political parties both valorize neoliberal economic policies focused on building a good global image and middle-class consumption practices as engines of progress. Indeed, as the 2016 elections have shown, Ghana’s main political-economic split has become a disagreement about how to gain advantage in the global free market with a clear recognition that, by design, post-independence international finance has disadvantaged Ghanaian economic actors at all levels by limiting border crossings and hampering access to capital.
The NDC folks are embarrassed by their candidate’s loss in 2016: the first time an incumbent president in the country’s history has been voted out of office. One party insider tells me that they should have won, but were arrogant and got complacent. Mahama seems more sanguine. In his farewell address, he stakes his legacy on his infrastructural successes. He marks his greatest accomplishments as developing roads, schools, electricity and water access. But for many, the beginning of the end of the Mahama regime was the crippling electricity load shedding by Electricity Corporation of Ghana (ECG) that went on for several years.
State policy since the 1980s – shaped by IMF and World Bank agreements – mandated privatizing state resources. Electricity, like other sectors, has been caught in this process: not fully state-run and not totally private. Unreliable power has harmed local businesses; and even when electricity is available most residential and commercial clients cannot pay market rate. But the Ghanaian state has seemed unconcerned, rather prioritizing state fiscal discipline and maximizing productivity of resources. As a World Bank official pointed out, more than 30% of electricity is lost in its circulation. Rather than focusing on providing cheap electricity to all, they advocate fighting illegal hook-ups and encourage policies that squeeze every last resource out of the poor to service state debt and make private profit. The ECG struggles to regulate its product, and is under pressure to make money and streamline service delivery; people’s needs drop out of the equation.
When Ghana recently attained lower-middle income status it increased its exposure to repaying loans. In a country rich in oil and gas resources, many blame inefficiency and corruption. But even with revenue from natural resources, the state is increasingly tied to the dictates of foreign capital. The state is forced into short-term borrowing to pay civil servant salaries and service older debt instead of investing in local people’s long-term productive capacities, creativity, health, education, and infrastructural needs.
Ghana is not exceptional in this regard. Nations like Ghana aspire to self-sufficiency but find that domestic policies and institutions are structured with an eye to marketing the nation to foreign investors whose goals are extracting resources and selling commodities rather than creating self-sufficient industries through long-term investment.
State and World Bank policy makers rely on macroeconomic indicators that see timely return on foreign investment and debt repayment as engines of growth. Macroeconomics also validate growing class divisions by celebrating the rise of a small entrepreneurial middle-class as an engine of national growth. Accra’s art and music scene and digital industries receive attention from global hipsters, tourists, and even the New York Times. Foreign investments fund highly-visible flashy infrastructure projects, with most construction done by multinational corporations who are locally criticized for importing skilled workers, equipment, and materials and leaving few resources behind. Meanwhile most working people in urban Ghana, such as traders, civil servants, laborers and teachers, do not benefit and cannot afford basic food, shelter, transportation and utilities with their earnings.
As wealth disparities grow in Ghana, and elsewhere, questions arise about the long-term effects of policies that focus on building unsustainable service and consumer economies. We continue to imagine nations as discrete entities that aim for state fiscal efficiency; but the lives of the nation’s citizenry are controlled through global financial networks. Rather than making sustainable conditions for people, policies reinforce growing inequality and continued dependence.
As the 2016 global cycle of elections shows, this is a moment of political anxiety. Elections in many locales mask finance capital’s influence by exacerbating national, racial, cultural, gender and class differences, rather than recognizing historical connections. Electoral politics create the illusion that a national populace shapes state policy, though publics are increasingly uncertain. The United States and Britain threaten to close borders due to racist and xenophobic fears over resource and job losses. A large segment of American voters are so alienated along race and class lines that they identify themselves in the anger and incoherence of demagoguery, turning to an irrational charismatic pundit who talks of fantastical past greatness to address anxieties about an uncertain future. Great Britain votes to remove itself from its closest economic allies, undercutting the flows of goods, resources, and labor that have built its economy in favor of a nostalgia for an ethno-nationalist singularity that also never was. These politics of nostalgia are forms of collective forgetting that erase histories of struggle and inequality.
But whereas in the U.S. and Europe there is a turn to isolationist national rhetoricians who dream on non-existent past glory, in Ghana, where the state is supposedly less stable and less in control of its borders and economic fate, people elect someone deemed a “technocrat” from an old political family, a lawyer who explicitly represents multiple fluencies and access to the power of finance capital. While Ghanaian governments have been forced to navigate an exploitative global financial landscape, perhaps their history of dealing with foreign influences can help reimagine a sustainable political future both within and against capital.
Supporters of the NPP are ecstatic at last weekend’s inauguration in Black Star Square. One campaigner explained to me they were in opposition so long that they had forgotten what being in power was like. Many people are grateful that the elections were peaceful and, as one Mahama voter told me, “we are now just proud to be Ghanaian.” As he takes the oath of office, Akufo-Addo looks the part of national leader. Although he has long been criticized for being overly western, always wearing a business suit, white shirt and cufflinks, he is resplendent in his chiefly regalia and elegant Kente cloth emblazoned with symbols of power and lineage. He carries the presidential sword, raising it above his head, a sign of his office.
From first president Nkrumah’s time, state ceremonies were modeled on the symbols and procedures of an Akan chief’s court as a way to blend established African ideas of sovereignty into the nation-state form. As Nkrumah was opposed to the power of Akan chiefs, he posited appropriating the nuanced ceremonial force of his enemies to help bring Ghanaians of all cultural-linguistic heritage together into a centralized socialist collective. Akufo-Addo, being of Akan royal heritage, dresses for power in a double sense, drawing on a centuries-long history of Akan political order and its more recent reinvention within a Ghanaian national idiom.
Akufo-Addo’s speech struck a presidential tone. But immediately after the ceremony, videos and memes start circulating of his speech intercut with speeches from which he seemingly plagiarized lines by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, with Bush’s speech having drawn on one by Woodrow Wilson from 1913. When I first saw the video sent to me on WhatsApp, I was struck by how the elegance of Akufo-Addo’s delivery was enhanced, as his lines were immediately repeated by footage of Bush and Clinton from years earlier. This doubling created a rhetorical continuity and traces political connections to Clinton’s free trade doctrines and Bush’s neo-imperialism all put in the language of citizenship.
The sutured, cut-and-paste speech blended Akan, Ghanaian, and American signs of political power in a pastiche that announced the obligations and privileges of Ghanaian citizenship. Perhaps unintentionally the speech showed how in both the United States and Ghana ideological differences – Democrat and Republican, NPP and NDC – blur in the face of the power of the free market to shape worldviews; purportedly rational discourse is in fact a play of aesthetic differences. A further irony in drawing on Woodrow Wilson to celebrate Ghana is that Wilson’s political internationalism was underpinned by support for racial segregation and justifications for slavery. This has led to recent calls for the removal of his name from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. African nation-states were never supposed to be equal players on the global stage, but now claim sovereignty in the language of international finance; in this case literally doubling the speeches of American leaders that link citizenship to financial domination at the root of the free market. While American and European electorates rush to forget a past in which national wealth came through violences of the slave trade and imperial conquest, Ghana calls forth global linkages in the voice of Empire.
The inauguration captured how Ghanaian politics blends various traditions of rhetoric and sovereignty into a new mix. We cannot be distracted by the intents of charismatic personalities, but should ask ourselves what political aesthetics tell us about future alternative economic configurations dressed in the attire of the free market.