Ghanaian president-elect Nana Akufo-Addo’s family is such an institution in the West African nation that his father’s portrait is printed on its currency. So is his uncle’s.
A lawyer and former foreign minister, Akufo-Addo has always been a public figure. He won last week’s election against incumbent President John Mahama after vowing to create jobs, encourage mining of untapped bauxite deposits and boost agriculture in the impoverished north by building irrigation systems. He says these measures will lift an economy that required a bailout of almost $1 billion from the International Monetary Fund and is recording its slowest growth in two decades following a spate of 24-hour power outages that crippled small businesses and pushed up prices for food and fuel.
Akufo-Addo’s father Edward and his uncle William Ofori Atta were members of the so-called Big Six, a group of political activists who led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957, the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to do so. A former chief justice, Edward Akufo-Addo briefly served as non-executive president under a parliamentary system until a 1972 coup. Akufo-Addo has always said his family’s prominence and wealth meant he didn’t seek power for money.
Nothing to Lose
“Nana Akufo-Addo has spent most of his adult life in public service,” Emmanuel Darkwah, an analyst at Songhai Advisory LLP, said by phone from Accra, the capital. “He has authority and would be able to get people back in line. He’s a 72-year-old man from an affluent family who has nothing to lose.”
Compared with the easy-going charm of his 58-year-old predecessor, Akufo-Addo failed in two previous presidential bids to win over skeptics who derided him as out of touch with the large mass of unemployed youth. Born into privilege and speaking with a distinctive British accent — ‘Big English’ in Ghanaian parlance — his critics said he felt entitled to positions of power due to his elite upbringing.
If that worked against him in 2008 and 2012, he managed to counter that perception this time around, said Samuel Ntewusu, a Ghanaian history expert who is currently a visiting professor at the Africa Study Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.
“During the campaign he turned to objects of consumption that are associated with ordinary people: he drank water from a plastic sachet instead of a bottle, locally brewed kalypso instead of wine, and he went to the rural centers as opposed to cities,” he said. “It worked.”
Despite his family’s heritage, the two political parties that dominate Ghanaian politics since the return to civilian rule in 1992 remain perhaps more important to voters than the individuals that lead them, with policy issues playing a key role this year.
“This election was determined by policy objectives,” Darkwah of Songhai Advisory said. “Among other things, Mahama didn’t fight corruption as people expected he would. There have been several high profile cases of corruption that the government was very slow in prosecuting and the public was unhappy with that.”
Inflation was stubbornly high under Mahama, with prices for everything from cooking oil to tomatoes to gasoline increasing almost every month as the cedi depreciated by almost a third over two years. His government struggled to solve a crippling energy crisis that resulted in planned 24-hour power outages out of every 36 hours while a global slump in commodity prices weighed on income from gold and oil.
Last year, floods in Accra sparked an explosion at a gas station that killed more than 150 people, the worst disaster since a 2001 stadium stampede.
After his Jan. 7 inauguration, Akufo-Addo will face the challenge of delivering where Mahama fell short.
“Akufo-Addo’s abilities as a decision-maker are doubtful,” Malte Liewerscheidt an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said in an e-mail. “Divisions within his New Patriotic Party could impede his ability to govern.”
Akufo-Addo’s victory marks the end of the eight-year reign of the National Democratic Congress, which was voted into power after the rule of his New Patriotic Party.
“What we’re beginning to see is that Ghanaians have a habit of changing their government after eight years,” said Ntewusu. “Maybe it doesn’t matter the kind of policy that you design, it doesn’t matter what kind of infrastructure projects you implement, after eight years you’re going to be voted out.”