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Ghana elections set pace for West Africa, says IU faculty member who served as monitor

The success of Ghana's recent elections should serve as a model for democracy elsewhere in Africa, said Amos Sawyer, an Indiana University faculty member who helped lead election monitoring teams in Ghana for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

"In my view, Ghana continues to set the pace for West Africa," said Sawyer, a research scholar at the Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU Bloomington.

Sawyer, who served as interim president of the West African nation of Liberia in 1990-94, traveled to Ghana multiple times in connection with the elections. He led a six-member ECOWAS team that monitored election preparations in October, led a monitoring group in northern Ghana for the Dec. 7 elections and returned for a presidential runoff contest Dec. 28.

Ghanaian opposition leader John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress narrowly defeated Nana Afuko-Addo of the New Patriotic Party for the presidency.

"It was very close, and that made it all the more delicate," Sawyer said. "The electoral institutions were seriously tested."

The ECOWAS observers praised the Ghanaian Electoral Commission, political parties and electorate for the conduct of the elections. The Atlanta-based Carter Center, which also sent election observers to Ghana, declared the elections well executed, transparent and relatively peaceful.

Sawyer said the Electoral Commission in Ghana deserved special credit for its competent and nonpartisan administration of voter rolls and polling sites. "They demonstrated personal integrity and institutional integrity," he said.

Furthermore, the voters showed considerable sophistication, he said, with many splitting their tickets between presidential and parliamentary races -- called "skirt and blouse voting" in Ghana.

Ghana, which became an independent nation in 1957, has been a leader in Africa in achieving peaceful democracy, with the two major parties alternately winning the presidency. But 2007 elections in two other African democracies, Nigeria and Kenya, were widely seen as flawed and were accompanied by extensive ethnic violence. The recent discovery of oil off Ghana's coast increased the stakes and led to concerns that the major parties would stop at nothing to win.

"As high as the stakes are in African elections -- and the stakes were pretty high this time around in Ghana -- there seems to have been a resolve among the Ghanaian people to have peaceful elections," Sawyer said. Even in the North, where there had been reports prior to the elections of ethnic fighting, voters insisted on civility at the polls, he said.

Now, Sawyer said, it's time for Ghana to show that close, peaceful elections can lead to cooperative governance with a spirit of bipartisanship. "Elections are not an end in themselves," he said.

He also hopes that the African Union, ECOWAS and other regional organizations can help apply lessons from the Ghanaian elections in other African countries.