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Democracy’s gold standard — who sets it now?

Where were you on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, when president Donald Trump directed a soon-to-be violent mob to Capitol Hill to halt the counting of the Electoral College certification for president-elect Biden?

Like when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 26, 1985, and two jetliners hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, I will always remember where I was when this national tragedy struck.

Even with a new president, it’s worth remembering. 

I was in Accra, Ghana, for the inauguration of Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s second presidential term and the seating of its eighth parliament of Ghana’s Fourth Republic. The ceremony would take place the next day on the grounds of the Parliament House, a COVID-19 modification to the mass public gathering usually held at Independence Square. I was there as an invited guest of the Ministry of Finance, to which I’ve been a long-time consultant.

It was approximately 3 p.m. in Washington, when my adult son Andrew called and said, “Mom are you seeing this?” He then sent me several tweets showing footage of the U.S. Capitol Building being breached by a mob of angry Trump supporters.  

Jet-lagged and fatigued from 24 hours of masked international travel, I did not take in the gravity of the situation until waking the next morning. Andrew was still up.

Five people had been killed, including a Capitol police officer. The mob was amped-up by Trump’s claim of election fraud, and his appeal to ‘take back their country.’

I wondered if Trump knew what he was unleashing that morning at his rally. “Does it really matter at this point?” replied Andrew, sounding both exhausted and despondent.    

Ghana is celebrated as the gold standard of democracies on the African continent. Its December 2020 national elections represented another milestone for the country and also symbolized a glimmer of hope for an increasingly vocal activist African generation during a year of pandemic and democratic backsliding.

As is usual in Ghana, this was a competitive presidential contest, with Akufo-Addo winning by 500,000 votes, with 51.49 percent of the vote. The turn-out among the 17 million registered voters was 79 percent.

And like in the United States, Ghana’s democracy was stress tested by this election. The similarities were striking. 

Five people were killed in election-related violence in Ghana, and — as of this writing — the National Democratic Congress (NDC), and its standard bearer, former president John Mahama, had yet to accept the certification of Akufo-Addo’s victory by the Electoral Commission, making unproven allegations of fraud. Meanwhile, the balloting left a hung parliament between the opposition NDC and Akufo-Addo’s ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP).

On inauguration eve in Ghana, almost in synch with the drama playing out on Capitol Hill, the newly-elected NDC and NPP legislators set off on a 13-hour marathon session to elect a Speaker of Parliament. It included scuffles, body tackles, a snatched ballot box, and finally security forces arriving to calm down tempers. All streamed live.  

The ruckus concluded moments before the inauguration, with the speakership going to the NDC. The parties exited the chamber. Political theatrics aside, the center of Ghana’s democracy held.

At approximately 2 p.m., President Akufo-Addo was brought forward by the Chief Justice for his formal swearing in, a moment two hours delayed by the legislative antics. Ghana’s president wore a dark western suit, opting out of the traditional Kente cloth he donned in 2017. He appeared subdued, and impatient to get the ceremony out of the way.

For once, I was glad to have a cloth covering my nose and mouth as I felt protected from forced conversation. I was saddened for the loss of life, property and the desecration of a sacred place back home; shamed that a U.S. president had brought out the worst in Americans. I worried that the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump would feel even more aggrieved and was concerned that America’s ability to project democracy was now weakened at a time when democratic advocates were under siege around the world. I wondered when hope — not fear — might emerge again as the driving force in American politics.

I wondered if President Akufo-Addo would use this opportunity to interject his views on events in America like so many other world leaders had done that week. It must have affected him deeply, given his 45-year career in law and in public service championing democratic freedoms.

Not surprisingly, he chose a path of reconciliation and scripted his words carefully. 

President Akufo-Addo opened by disarming his political opponents, most of whom chose to boycott the swearing in, by congratulating his ‘good friend and colleague’ of the NDC for securing the role as Speaker.

Then, with an eye towards the events of the past night in Ghana, and possibly what transpired in the United States, he said:

“The Ghanaian people have manifested their determination to build a free, democratic, peaceful nation, which is respectful of individual liberties and human rights, the rule of law, and the principles of democratic accountability.

“A governance structure built on the separation of powers provides the best vehicle for the protection of these values, with a well-resourced Judiciary and Parliament as the principal accountability organs of the State.”

And with those remarks, Akufo-Addo reminded the world again why Ghana is the democratic gold standard in Africa, if not for the world.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags African democracy American democracy American influence biden administration Capitol breach Capitol riots fallout claims of 2020 election fraud democracy promotion Donald Trump Ghana Gold standard Inauguration Joe Biden Nana Akufo-Addo peaceful transfer of power

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