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Ghana's Flag

While much of the world's attention is on the January 20th inauguration of Barack Obama, there is another presidential inauguration happening TODAY that we should be celebrating: that of Ghana's John Atta Mills. Mills, formerly vice president and a tax law professor (and a fellow SOAS alum), is well respected and seems -- like his opponent, the narrowly defeated Nana Akuffo-Addo -- a good choice for a great country. However, the reason to celebrate today is not his victory per se, but rather the remarkable success of Ghana's democracy.

This was Ghana's fifth consecutive democratic poll, and the country has now had two peaceful transitions from one party to another. Jerry Rawlings won the 1992 and 1996 polls and then retired on time (another reason to celebrate!). John Kufuor, at the time the leader of the opposition NPP, then beat Mills of the NDC in December 2000, and again in 2004. Now the presidency has swung back to Mills and his NDC. This is all pretty impressive and suggests that Ghana is once again the continent’s trailblazer.

If that weren't enough, the race was razor-thin: Mills got just 50.23% of the vote against Akuffo-Addo’s 49.77%. Ghana's electoral commission deserves much of the credit for fixing voter roll problems early, reporting results quickly on its website, and remaining impartial. Akuffo-Addo is also a hero here by graciously conceding. (I'm hopeful that Mills will reciprocate and invite some NPP members into his government.) This all fortunately meant that worries of Kenya-style election violence did not come to fruition (full disclosure: I was among those genuinely concerned about this possibility and probably drove my State Department staff crazy bird-dogging this over the past year. I'll generously assume it helped on the margins.)

What accounts for Ghana's achievements so far? One hint may come from a new (CGD-supported) book by Ethan Kapstein and Nathan Converse, The Fate of Young Democracies. Among their many insights is that new democracies have a greater chance of survival if power is disbursed among multiple actors and, in particular, when there are constraints on executive authority. The growing influence of parliament (which the NDC also narrowly won back), the independence of the electoral commission, and well-established courts all come to mind as factors in Ghana.

Yet, Kapstein and Converse also show that the odds are still stacked against Ghana: 63 percent of African attempts at democracy since 1960 were reversed. Even as we celebrate Ghana, this is a warning that even the success stories demand continued vigilance.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.