On a bright summer’s day, the grand Independence Square Arch against a backdrop of the Gulf of Guinea is all you need to reflect on how far Ghana has come.

“Yes, we are open to maintaining cordial relations because frankly, we could use your knowhow on a lot of things. This sturdy edifice right here though, this will serve as an acknowledgement and reminder of Ghana’s colonial past for generations to come.”

That’s what I imagined Kwame Nkrumah thought during Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to the newly inaugurated Independence Square in 1961. Since then, independence square, one of the world’s largest city squares, has become the site of major national public gatherings, festivals, military parades, crusades, and concerts.

Mid-September 2019, the atmosphere surrounding this historical monument was different. A glitch in the computerised senior high school (SHS) placement system left over 20,000 students without a school, causing panic for parents and students alike. The long lines meandering around the historical square and bouts of chaos from parents, students, and caretakers trying to get their wards placed into a senior high school was a sight to behold. Free SHS was not just election propaganda; it was a plan that was promised and delivered, along with a host of kinks and teething problems of course.

In Africa, elections are often steeped in ethnic loyalties. It is one of the reasons why African political institutions are far from stellar and largely underdeveloped, by Western standards at least. As elections approach, many politicians rely on the vagaries of ethnic rivalries to secure electoral candidates. To the voter, all the candidates typically look more or less the same (and possibly just as bad), and as such may feel that they might as well toe the line of historical political affiliations and ethnic loyalties. At least then, there is a chance that such loyalty could pay off and the politician will help.

One might wonder then, is it simply inevitable that, in developing countries, voting will end up being dominated by political identities or ethnic loyalties? Some scholars are of the view that it is. Ethnic loyalties are believed to form the basis of traditional societies and as a such are sure way to govern political attitudes. Ghana’s 2016 election, however, challenged this view. It showed, perhaps unintentionally, that even with ethnic loyalties and political strongholds, people do not feel particularly strongly about clientelist ethnic votes.

At 20:45pm on December 9, 2016, history was made in Ghana. The incumbent National Democratic Congress (NDC) candidate lost to the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate, the first time a sitting president of Ghana had failed to win a second term, and by an unprecedented margin of defeat. How did this happen? Some have pointed to regime fatigue and the political psyche of the Ghanaian electorate which is accustomed to a two-term regime cycle of change. Others account for NDC’s misfortune as an outcome of economic depravity including the protracted erratic power supply, high levels of unemployment, plummeting cedi value, declining GDP growth rates, actual and perceived corruption, and a perceived insensitivity to the plight of citizens – a compelling narrative to vote the alternative.

There is truth to both, but another important factor reared its head this time that many may have taken for granted. NPP crafted a message of hope backed up by specific proposals behind which people could rally.

NPP campaigned on ‘change, job creation linked to the industrialization of the economy and the modernization of agriculture’, the ‘incompetence of the Mahama-administration’ and the flagship Free SHS program (NPP-Manifesto 2016). Alternatively, the NDC campaigned on ‘continuity’, ‘unprecedented infrastructure achievements’ and ‘changing lives and transforming Ghana’. The differences between the messages were quite telling.

Even then, one may ask why the more elitist NPP could be trusted to cater to the average Ghanaian? Core to NPP values is the belief in education and a thriving private sector. Their proposal, audacious as it seemed, was in alignment with a general need of the population thus making their appeal much more settled than the counterfactual. Certainly, all this is not to claim that the NPP-led administration was good for all Ghanaians, the point is to emphasize that even sometimes, good intentions can motivate political choices. Banerjee and Duflo in Poor Economics find that despite self-interest, the motivations of political elites can be multifaceted enough that it may, at a particular time and place, be in their interest to execute policies that happen to be good for the larger population, and poor especially.

The NPP victory was a result, among a plethora of others, of a credible message that convinced voters to ballot in favour of general-interest policies, especially one that could impact the lives of their children and their future income. For the Ghanaian, the equation is ‘school today = job tomorrow’.

There is a lesson in this that should inspire three sets of people.

Politicians need to understand that if you deliver, people will trust you and give you the space to undertake more far-sighted projects. All of Ghana’s issues have not been solved, and current economic conditions have not been generous to the average Ghana in the past four years but, a level of trust has been built that can easily be capitalized on. They promised and they delivered, despite the challenges and pointed criticism by naysayers.

Opposition parties need to understand that to win is to come up with actual solutions or proposals that benefit the people and that they can hold government accountable to.  Assuming a stance of being an enemy with or without cause does not always work and elections are too expensive to take that chance.

Citizens must also understand that taking politics seriously means putting pressure on governments to deliver, rather than tapping out or voting unthinkingly along ethnic loyalties or age-old political identity. The current president has shown that government can deliver and that, ought to be the basis of citizen engagement with political candidates – both at the national and sub-national level.

As Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings once said, ‘Democracy is not realised merely by having a machinery for registering voters and getting them to vote every four years, but also by there being a machinery for identifying the needs of those voters in between the election periods and monitoring the realisation of those needs.’ Put differently, free and fair elections involve more than what happens on election day. It also encompasses what happens between elections. NPP studied what the pain-points were, communicated that and won on the back of these findings – that was the real tipping point.

If the NPP wants to win again, they must do more of this: outlining clear solutions and an agenda that is in line with the needs of the population. If the NDC wants to win, they must consider taking a page out of NPP’s book and show Ghanaians what exactly they plan to do and how, because for now, people do not know really what their game plan is. An understanding of the motivations and the constraints of the population is the way to generate policies and institutions that are better designed, and less likely to be warped by a dereliction of duty or corruption.

Today, the physical, social and economic costs of COVID-19 are concerning. The aftermath is likely to be devastating and calls for firm, well-thought-out and decisive leadership with a concern for popular welfare. What Ghana will need is a contest of minds to find the most resilient and impactful ways to revive the Ghanaian economy, amongst others. Perhaps that’s what future candidates ought to build their proposal around.

Marie-Noelle Nwokolo is a research consultant at the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. She writes in her capacity as an inquiring Ghanaian.

Email: marie.nwokolo@thebrenthurstfoundation.org