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A Tale of Two Africas

Author: Stephanie Hanson
January 16, 2009


Within hours of the president of Guinea's death on December 22, the country was taken over by a military junta (AP) and the constitution was abandoned. Ghana held the second round of its presidential polls one week later. Analysts celebrated the lack of electoral violence and the peaceful post-election transition. "Africa needed a decent election in one of its leading countries-and a loser who would concede defeat," noted the Economist following the voting in Ghana, where the opposition candidate was elected by a razor-thin margin. Is Ghana a hopeful example of a trend toward good governance in Africa, or is the continent more accurately represented by the political turmoil in Guinea?

While the trajectory of democratization and state stability in Africa are controversial, experts agree that other African states are surely watching events in Ghana and Guinea closely. There is historical evidence that political events in small countries on the continent ultimately influence larger political trends. As such, the nature of each country's political evolution bears examination. At independence, Ghana and Guinea were quite similar. The small, resource-rich countries "virtually started on the same path," writes journalist Kofi Akosah-Sarpong in But "while Ghana is progressively learning from its years of misgovernment, Guinea appears held back," he argues. Ghana emerged from military rule into multiparty democracy. Meanwhile, Guinea's natural resources enriched its leaders, not the population. However, both countries rank near the bottom of the UN's Human Development Index; Ghana stands at 142, and Guinea is 167 of 179 countries included.

A recent large oil discovery in Ghana has the potential to consolidate the country's governance gains and improve the well-being of its population, but it could also breed corruption (Oxfam). "Geology is not destiny," concludes a December 2008 working paper from the Brookings Institution on the challenge of diversifying African resource-rich economies. It argues that though such economies are at a disadvantage, smart public policy decisions will enable African governments to avoid the natural resource curse. According to the International Monetary Fund, Ghana is actively pursuing policies that encourage sound fiscal management. The new military ruler of Guinea has pledged his intolerance for corruption. "I want to warn anyone who thinks they can try to corrupt me. ... Money is of no interest to us," he told the Associated Press.

African leaders have long been loath to criticize one another's democratic credentials. But following the coup in Guinea, the continent quickly moved to condemn the military takeover. The African Union suspended Guinea's participation on December 29, and ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc, followed suit (IRIN) on January 12. There was an exception: Senegal's president skipped the ECOWAS meeting and  threw his support (VOA) to the military junta. The bloc's current head, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua, was himself brought to power in a 2007 election widely criticized as marred by corruption and fraud.

The United States, meanwhile, was quick to condemn the coup in Guinea and suspend foreign aid. Under President George W. Bush, foreign aid to Africa has been linked to governance benchmarks through the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Despite high expectations,  U.S. policy toward Africa is not expected to shift dramatically under incoming President Barack Obama. In her confirmation hearing on January 13, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton said she planned to "sound the alarm" (BBC) on the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, though it's unclear how much leverage the United States has there. The Sudanese government has thus far remained largely immune to U.S. pressure, but some analysts believe that African leaders might be more susceptible to criticism from Obama because he is African-American.

Quantitative data shows a mixed picture on governance in Africa. Freedom House's 2009 survey of global political rights, Freedom in the World, shows a significant decline in freedom across sub-Saharan Africa (PDF). Roughly one-quarter of the countries in the region experienced setbacks in 2008, after several years of positive gains. Other measures show marked gains in governance across the continent. The 2008 Ibrahim Index of African governance, which ranks countries in five categories including sustainable economic opportunity and rule of law, shows that almost two-thirds of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa recorded improvements in governance (PDF). The Freedom House survey is based on the evaluations of regional experts, whereas the Ibrahim Index uses quantitative data from 2006, the most recent year with complete data.

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