John Mahama: Ghana's 'Mr. Power Cut' attempts a return to office

by Kent Mensah with Louise Dewast in Abuja
·3 min read

Known as a man of the people, former Ghanaian president John Mahama's strong sense of humour rounds off his reputation as a skilled communicator -- a handy asset for any political campaign.

Mahama, head of the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), is running again to lead the West African nation despite his mixed track record, and is armed with fresh and ambitious promises.

During Mahama's time in office from 2012 to 2016, the global commodity rout hurt Ghana, known as an exporter of oil, gold, and cocoa, and the government went on a spending spree that ballooned debt.

Electricity shortages were an unfortunate hallmark of Mahama's administration and led the former president to be nicknamed "Mr Dumsor", after a term in Ghana used to describe power cuts.

"Even though people criticised him for bad economic management and a level of corruption, some now seem to think that he wasn't that bad after all," said Kwesi Jonah, a senior research fellow at Ghana's Institute for Democratic Governance.

Mahama was born in Damongo, northern Ghana, in 1958. His father was a wealthy rice farmer and teacher, before becoming a member of parliament and later on, a presidential adviser.

As a young man, Mahama studied in Moscow in 1988, where he is said to have grown disillusioned with socialism.

He returned to Ghana to work in diplomacy and then for a non-governmental organisation.

Though raised a Presbyterian, Mahama said he became a member of the Assemblies of God Church, a Pentecostal denomination.

His political career started in 1996, when he became an MP, and culminated in 2008 when he was chosen as vice president by John Atta Mills.

When Mills died suddenly in 2012, Mahama became president. Later that year, elections were organised and he won.

The results were contested unsuccessfully by Nana Akufo-Addo and his New Patriotic Party (NPP).

- Graft cloud -

While in office, Mahama and his close advisers faced a series of corruption accusations. The recently deceased Jerry Rawlings, ex-president and founder of the NDC, described the regime as "greedy".

More recently, Airbus, Europe's largest aerospace multinational, was fined for paying bribes to officials in order to secure contracts in Ghana during Mahama's administration, but he has always denied being involved.

"JM", as he is referred to affectionately by his supporters, has managed to remain above the fray, campaigning hard, before and during the coronavirus pandemic.

His party's red, white, green and black flag -- all captured in its umbrella symbol -- is a popular sight around the country.

Among his flagship promises, the most ambitious is his plan to spend $10 billion (8 billion euros) –- in what he has called "The Big Push" -- on expanding infrastructure across the country, but analysts have questioned how he would fund those projects.

"I cannot foresee how he can borrow more money," said Jonah. "Even though he has been in power before, he must think that the more promises made, the more attractive you are to the voters."

- Pro-women wave -

A smart move might have been his pick for running mate, Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang, a former education minister and the first woman on the ticket of a major Ghanaian political party.

That selection has swept a pro-feminine wave into Mahama's camp, but it could also prove decisive on other fronts.

"His choice of a female professor who wasn't very well known or liked in the party was excellent," said Jonah, "because she is not deemed corrupt."

But the way to victory is uncertain for Mahama, the only incumbent ever voted out of office in Ghana's political history.

With an election taking place days after his 62nd birthday, Mahama is seeking to inflict the same fate on Nana Akufo-Addo, in what will be the third successive showdown between both men.

Win or lose, the accomplished writer, who has five children with his wife Lordina, will likely continue being seen riding his motorcycles around the capital Accra.

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