This feature is part of Blavity’s African Spotlight series which highlights heads of state, as well as other politicians and societal leaders, who are currently in power or influencing change on the continent. African leaders are making significant impacts both in their own countries and internationally. Growing diasporas and increasing interconnectivity make developments on the continent more relevant to Black America and people everywhere than ever before.

One word has been repeatedly used to describe both Ghanian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and the nation's December 7 presidential race: boring.

Though this adjective may be pejorative, it is not an insult, but rather a compliment to Ghana’s successful democracy and the man who leads the country. But after a peaceful and uneventful campaign, various incidents of violence between Akufo-Addo and Mahama supporters tragically left a total of five people dead. Although observers have deemed the vote free and fair, as has been the case with Ghanaian elections for decades, Mahama has so far refused to accept the results of the election, alleging that they were "fraudulent" and threatening to challenge them. Yet observers expect that even if Mahama takes his issues to court, the dispute will be conducted peacefully and all sides will respect the eventual outcome. This expectation largely comes from the example set by Akufo-Addo himself when he lost a close election to Mahama in 2012.

There were many other notable and important implications for the December 7 election in Ghana. The election was the third electoral contest in a row between current President Akufo-Addo, who has been in office since 2017, and former President John Dramani Mahama, who was in power from 2013 to 2017. The December poll determined who would control a country that is one of the world’s top producers of both gold and cocoa and has more recently become an oil exporter as well. The vote was also the first to feature a woman on a major party ticket, with Mahama choosing a female academic as his running mate.

As president, Akufo-Addo has had a mixed record when it comes to keeping his campaign promises. Under his leadership, Ghana, a country with more than 30 million people, has responded well to the COVID-19 pandemic, boasting a low death toll with 323 recorded deaths as of December 1. During his first term, Akufo-Addo also expanded school access to high school students and made some progress towards his promise to bring at least one new factory and one new or renovated hospital to each of the country’s 216 districts, but neither pledge from his first campaign has been fully realized. He also struggled to fight corruption, a shortcoming that his predecessor had as well. However, Akufo-Addo was able, for the second time in a row, to convince a majority of Ghanaian voters that he was a better choice than Mahama. With a second term, Akufo-Addo has pledged to fulfill his previous promises while leading the country's economic recovery from a pandemic-induced slump.

To understand Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo and the importance of the election he just won, it is important to look briefly at the history of the country, which went from Africa’s shining light to political collapse and back to being an example for the continent and the world. Ghana, previously known as the Gold Coast, is widely celebrated as the first Sub-Saharan African country to gain its freedom, becoming independent of Britain in 1957 under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. Locally, Nkrumah was a member of the "Big Six," a group of independence activists who became known as the founding fathers of Ghana. Internationally, Nkrumah was at the time a leader of the Pan African movement and a hero to Black people around the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was among many dignitaries who attended Ghana’s independence day ceremony in 1957, and W.E.B. Du Bois decided to live his final years in the country being led by his longtime friend, Nkrumah.

Nkrumah inspired independence movements across Africa but developed an authoritarian government at home, leading to his overthrow in a military coup in 1966. The country would spend the next twenty-plus years going through a series of military dictatorships, culminating in the rule of flight lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, an Air Force officer who briefly took power in 1979 and again took control in 1981 through 2001. For the first half of his time in power, he was a military dictator. After internal and international pressure forced him to democratize, Rawlings transitioned the country to a multi-party democracy in the 1990s and launched his own party, the National Democratic Congress, or NDC. In the process, he won two additional terms as an elected civilian leader but respected the new constitution by retiring when his second term ended in 2001.

President Akufo-Addo's family was a major influence in the political developments within Ghana, and the future president was shaped by these previous events and rulers. Nana Akufo-Addo comes from literal and political royalty –“Nana” is an honorific in Ghana which can be roughly translated to “chief” or sometimes “king.” His grandfather, Nana Sir Ofori Atta I, had been an Okyenhene, the title for the monarch of the centuries-old Akyem Abuakwa kingdom, and was also knighted by the British Empire. Akufo-Addo’s father, Edward, was one of the Big Six and later occupied a number of political roles within Ghana, including chief justice and ceremonial president. Akufo-Addo’s uncles, J.B. Danquah and William Ofori Atta were also members of the Big Six and leading figures in political opposition during their former friend Nkrumah's presidency.

Akufo-Addo’s own career began as a lawyer and opposition figure, as he advocated for human and civil rights against various military regimes. He helped organize and lead the Alliance for Change movement against the Rawlings government. Once opposition parties were legalized, he became the first national organizer of the New Patriotic Party and was elected to Parliament several times. He sought the presidency multiple times on the NPP ticket while battling an image of having a privileged background and an aloof personality.

Akufo-Addo was lauded for maintaining peace in 2012, when he lost to Mahama by 300,000 votes, by not calling for mass protests and ultimately accepting the outcome after failing to overturn the result in court. Among other honors, Akufo-Addo was a recipient of the 2016 Mother Theresa International Memorial Award for Social Justice “for sacrificing his political ambitions for the sake of national peace and reconciliation.” He finally won the 2016 election against President Mahama by hammering the then-incumbent over failures such as frequent power outages in the country; as president, Mahama had earned the nickname “Mr. Dumsor,” which roughly translates from the local Twi language as “Mr. Off/On.”  

Once the disputes around the most recent election are sorted, expectations are that ordinary life for most Ghanaians will remain more or less the same. This, again, is generally seen as a good thing. As voters across Africa have long known – and those in the United States have realized as President Donald Trump continues to fight the results of the U.S. election and generally sabotage the country for his successor – elections are not always the end of bitter political rivalries. And attempts to circumvent or overturn election results can create instability or even violence.

Voters want peaceful and fair elections that are decided by voters based on reasonable debates over clear issues by candidates who respect the process and accept the results. Ghana has had seven peaceful and fair elections in a row, going all the way back to Rawlings’ victories in the 1990s. Despite the personal rivalry between Akufo-Addo and Mahama, the two candidates joined religious officials, traditional leaders and international observers to sign an agreement promising to conduct the election peacefully. Akufo-Addo has demonstrated in the past that he respected the political process and was willing to put his interests behind those of the country, establishing a precedent that Mahama and future candidates will be expected to follow.

As Nigerian human rights activist, Chidi Odinkalu said to the Financial Times regarding the Ghanaian election, “If you look across the continent, this is the least dramatic and the most boring election — and that is an absolutely great story.”

Building on the legacy of his family, President Akufo-Addo has been an important part of Ghana’s continuing “great story.”