The meaning of party politics in Ghana’s urban neighborhoods

Why do so many of the urban poor support John Mahama and Ghana's opposition National Democratic Congress?

Then President of Ghana, John Mahama, addressing the UN in September 2015. Image credit Cia Pak for UN Photo via Flickr (CC).

On February 23, many Accra residents excitedly posted photos of Ghana’s former president John Mahama across Facebook after his primary victory. “God Bless Ghana!! God Bless the NDC!! God Bless Our Flagbearer!!!,” read one of posters by the NDC Youth Wing. The NDC is the National Democratic Congress. The Youth Wing also posted the flier, “The Return of #JM To Restore Hope For a Better and More Prosperous Ghana.”

The NDC’s John Mahama was the country’s president from 2012 to 2017 before he lost the presidency to Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). The two will compete again in the 2020 election. And just like the United States, the race for the presidency is on. Campaign season has come early. What does the upcoming campaign mean for young people in Accra, and why do so many of the urban poor support Mahama and the NDC?

For many poor urban Ghanaians, especially those who hail from the historically marginalized rural areas outside the Ashanti Region, the NDC signals hope for a better life. It offers a voice for people at the grassroots; a space for uneducated, informal workers to enter the power structures through its local “branches,” and access higher-ups in government who are actually making decisions.

This highly structured political apparatus has its roots in the campaign strategies of its founder Jerry John Rawlings in the 1980s, as well as the successful mobilization tactics used by Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah. Rawlings was known to visit local neighborhoods and participate in communal labor exercises. He took cues from Nkrumah, who built an Independence movement with the support of “verandah boys,” a collection of young people in organizations like the Young Pioneers and Builder’s Brigade who sought control over their lives outside colonial rule, but also outside the traditional leaders and elite who dominated public life.

For many poor urban Ghanaians, especially those who live in its squatter settlements or “slums,” the governing NPP represents the opposite. Many residents tag NPP politicians as arrogant and distant, who speak “big English.” In the NPP, the youth must “wait their turn,” and that turn never seems to come. This is despite the fact that many of their public policies—universal public education and improvements in healthcare benefits—are quite similar.

Mobilization at the grassroots

It is in this context that we should understand Mahama’s return to Ghanaian politics. Mahama isn’t an ordinary candidate. He has returned to Ghanaian electoral politics just two years after being ousted from the Presidency after one full term as president. In 2016, a poor economy, massive electricity load shedding, and rampant corruption allegations doomed his re-election campaign. But since then, he has rebuilt his image by traveling the world and leading election observer teams across the continent.

He has returned in full force at the grassroots: he won the NDC primary in overwhelming fashion, defeating six other candidates with more than 95% of the vote. One particularly revealing victory was his landslide win in Odododiodioo in downtown Accra—the one where the NDC Youth Wing put up a poster, “The Return of #JM To Restore Hope For a Better and More Prosperous Ghana.” Mahama won the NDC primary with 97.09% of the vote. Residents here see Odododiodioo as the heartbeat of Ghanaian politics. They are proud of their politics and enthusiastically declare, “If you win Odododiodioo Constituency, you win Ghana.”

Odododiodioo is where Kwame Nkrumah first served as Member of Parliament, while leading the Independence movement. In a surprising shift, the constituency broke with the NDC in 2000 and voted for the NPP—ushering in a new era of democracy. The constituency is the stronghold for the nationalist wing of the Ga, the ethnic group that is indigenous to Accra. Powerful Ga families inhabit and govern the oldest quarters of James Town and Ussher Town. But the constituency also encompasses the country’s largest squatter settlement Old Fadama, where the majority of residents have migrated from regions of the North, in addition to the thousands of migrants coming from other regions.

It is the past and future of Ghanaian politics.

NDC organizers—often deemed foot soldiers in the public discourse—come from all walks of life. They are market-women, fisherfolk, keep-fit club members, boxers, rappers, biker boys, fishmongers, assembly persons, footballers, macho-men, land guards, fetish priests, tailors, and imams. They gain recognition from the political parties, aim to raise their status in their communities, and often gain valuable resources and government contracts. The NDC relies on them for their ability to mobilize votes, but also legitimate their authority at the grassroots.

NDC organizers today are quick to forget the disappointments of the 2016 campaign, and celebrate the development projects in the constituency that were completed under Mahama’s watch, including the Bukom Boxing ArenaMudor fecal treatment plant, the Korle Lagoon dredging project, and numerous schools. “The list goes on an on,” youth organizer Nii Addo Quaynor says.

The development projects are central to building Accra into a modern city. But each of these projects also has a history of contentious struggles between neighborhood residents, traditional institutions, local leaders, politicians, and government agencies. For example, the Korle Lagoon dredging project coincided with the eviction of thousands of people in Old Fadama. Many Ghanaians only know the settlement by the name of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the longstanding eviction notice against the neighborhood is one of the most politicized subjects in local political discourse. Alternatively, the Bukom Boxing Arena celebrates Ghana’s rich history of successful boxers, but also appeases members of the indigenous Ga ethnic group where boxing infuses the cultural and social life of the community.

Controlling the city

The distribution of state resources and services are embedded in broader struggles over control and authority in the city. For many native Ga, the development of Accra into a superstar city is synonymous with the strengthening of the Ga people and its social institutions. While the Ga make up less than half of Accra’s rapidly growing population, they still hold the most important positions in city government, or Accra Metropolitan Assembly.

These positions have significant national electoral consequences. For example, former appointed Municipal Chief Executive of Accra and James Town native Alfred Oko Vanderpuije used his close connections with chiefs and local landowners, as well as his position as mayor, to gain international notoriety and secure investment opportunities. This helped him build power and support at the grassroots, where he is able to influence who becomes branch executives. He parlayed this into his current position as MP of neighboring Ablekuma South Constituency. During the recent primary, his influence went a long way to mobilize support for Mahama.

The rapid growth of the city—one that has seen the city grow from under 1.65 million in 2000 to more than 4 million today—has placed new pressures on the indigenous population, and has sparked a nativist backlash against some migrants as they are viewed as a threat to the Ga ethnic homeland.

For migrants to the city, on the other hand, democracy and its ensuing distributive politics offer residents a claim to Ghanaian citizenship, but also rights to the city of Accra. These claims often challenge Ga authority over the city, and many natives worry that squatters threaten the status quo. Migrant opinion leaders gain authority in their neighborhoods by starting new businesses in enterprises like scrap dealing, operating private toilets and showers, and butcher shops. For others, migrants confront extremely dire conditions. Young girl head porters called kayayei live in dense quarters and often face physical and emotional abuse. The hustle and bustle of the big city—with its intense cash economy—brings new challenges and stresses to migrant populations.

Party politics in an urbanizing society

Party politics in Accra, therefore, is best understood in this context of rapid urbanization, and the contentious struggles for citizenship and rights. This is something that Mahama and other NDC candidates understand well. Mahama has deep ties to Odododiodioo constituency that extend at least as far back to his time as Vice President and President of Ghana. His name resonates throughout the streets of Accra, where he developed a robust organizational apparatus deep into the neighborhoods of the city. For example, between 2011 and 2016, the NDC inaugurated more than a dozen new local organizational structures, called branches, in Old Fadama, doubling from 11 to 27. His partnership with popular MP Nii Lantey Vanderpuye, who has close connections with local assemblypersons, also helps.

An NDC youth organizer, who has ties to Old Fadama, explains, “It is generally believed that he is the most popular candidate in the NDC and can lead us to victory in 2020. Related to this belief is that he has the resources to campaign, and his name is a household name.” While it is unclear exactly where Mahama gets his financial support, he has alleged ties to Lebanese and other Asian businessmen, and his brother is one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country. These powerful businessmen are likely seeking influence so as to gain government contracts if Mahama comes to office.

“His former appointees who have resources and are the real power brokers on the ground are still loyal to him,” explains the youth organizer, “and advise their ‘clients’ to vote for him.” Former government appointees like the former mayor Vanderpuije, but also other MPs and Ministers of State, are able to rally support on his behalf.

“As for the people of Old Fadama,” the organizer explains, “they are hungry for power to the extent that they don’t even care about the past. The past doesn’t matter to them especially now that Mahama is assuring them that he will not repeat his past mistakes.” But this is not only about power for power’s sake. Many residents complain that the NPP government has affected their businesses. In particular, they complain of harassment by the security forces and Ghana Police Service. These state bodies are accused of protecting NPP party organizers, who sometimes use violence and coercion to control the neighborhood.

Like politics everywhere, candidates don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be better than the other guy. As a previously disappointed but recently elected NDC party officer explains, “I am now a party officer and hence must work only for my party’s victory. Since Mahama was elected as our flag bearer, I must work to bring him (with my party) to power. Otherwise I am still disappointed in him.” This is true for many activists—and political operatives across the world—who remain loyal to the party in order to establish their own political careers.

Despite very diverse interests that are often in competition with one another in everyday life, urban poor indigenes and migrants look to the NDC as a way to claim citizenship, gain social recognition, and improve their lives. While political scientists often reduce these practices to neopatrimonialism or “competitive clientelism,” the urban poor understand them as central to how democracy works in the country.

And for the residents of Odododiodioo? They are hoping that their Member of Parliament will be named Mahama’s running mate.

“But it is just a dream,” the NDC organizer explains with a smirk.

Further Reading