Driving through the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra, a couple of weeks ago, on the way from the urban center to the slum district of Ashaiman, a trick question nagged in my head. It was a question that had popped up a few times in the previous days on a visit that had taken in fact-finding meetings with politicians, pressure groups, donors and entrepreneurs, journalists and professors all talking about Ghana’s future. The question was this: “What does transparency look like?”
One answer, it seemed, on that journey through Accra, at midday on Aug. 29, was: empty streets. The normally clogged and inch-forward roads to Ashaiman were traffic-free. There was a reason for this. It was, as the Accra Daily Graphic had it, the Hour of Judgment, high noon.
Last year Ghana narrowly re-elected its center-left President John Dramani Mahama. However, for the past 10 months that result has been the subject of legal challenge by the opposition center-right party because of alleged voting irregularities. The unprecedented court case to determine the truth has been shown live on television most afternoons of those months, a painstaking democratic drama with a cliffhanger ending.
The previous evening everyone I met in Accra told me two things: First, that they have no idea which of three ways it will go — ratification, a rerun or victory for the opposition. Second, that I should not go out in the markets the following day in case of violence after the result. Some people, remembering contested elections of the past, have stocked up on food and locked the doors. Hence the empty streets.
In Ashaiman the verdict eventually crackles through on the car radio tuned to Joy FM. After considering the evidence the 11 judges have decided that the technical problems with the vote helped neither party and the original result should stand. The opposition leader, Nana Akufo-Adda, who has fought the most determined of battles to remove the president, immediately comes out to endorse the judicial verdict. Mahama himself suggests that the waiting is over and his term of office can finally begin. And then: nothing. No protest, no unrest. People slowly come out to the markets, to go shopping. Ghana gets on with business.
Inside the Ashaiman regional assembly hall, a room with bare walls and floors, and a broken ceiling fan, local people — representatives of the assembly, leaders of women’s groups and youth groups, farmers and small businessmen — are gathered round a TV whooping and cheering at the result. They are, they explain, cheering not for any partisan cause, but for the openness of the process itself, of justice for once being seen to be done. “Ghana is the winner!” “Ghana has won!” You might say it is a triumph for transparency.
When that excitement has died down the people in that assembly hall sit to discuss another form of transparency, this one somewhat more opaque. The headline story of Ghana is of growth and transformation — in the financial pages the country is one of the “lions” of sub-Saharan Africa, with an economy expanding at 7 percent or more and, after the discovery of major offshore oil reserves, promises of prosperity and an aid-free future in the pipeline. Still, in a place such as Ashaiman, home to 200,000 people with nonexistent roads, squalid housing and drainage, brutally under-resourced education and healthcare, that promise seems a long way off.