ACCRA – Ghana’s highest court will issue a long-awaited ruling Thursday on whether to overturn President John Dramani Mahama’s election win last year on fraud allegations, a test for one of Africa’s most stable democracies.
The lawsuit by the New Patriotic Party, the country’s largest opposition party, over Mahama’s victory in the December 2012 election has been the subject of more than eight months of litigation in Ghana’s Supreme Court.
The sometimes tense proceedings have been broadcast live on radio and television and have been followed closely across the nation of 25 million people.
“Ghana’s elections will never be the same again, irrespective of how the ruling goes,” said Franklin Cudjoe, director of the IMANI think-tank in the capital Accra.
No matter how it rules, the court is likely to issue recommendations, he said.
The nine justices hearing the case have wide latitude to rule: they could reject the case, order that elections be held again, or decide that the electoral commission should overturn Mahama’s win.
According to the electoral commission, a defendant in the case along with the president and his National Democratic Congress party, Mahama took 50.7 percent of the vote over NPP candidate Nana Akufo-Addo’s 47.7 percent in the polls that observers called fair.
The NPP claims they were marred by irregularities, alleging ballot boxes were stuffed, voters were allowed to cast ballots without proper identification, and voting documents were left unsigned.
The case’s outcome is unpredictable and the possibility of a court-ordered change of power presents a high-stakes challenge.
Ghana is west Africa’s second-largest economy, thanks to exports of gold and cocoa along with a nascent oil industry, which began production in 2010.
Since 1992, Ghana has carried out six multi-party elections in a region where democracy remains fleeting for many.
Mahama’s successful campaign was built around his promise to continue the work of President John Atta Mills, his predecessor who died in office in July 2012. Mahama, who was vice-president at the time, took over after Mills’ death.
Akufo-Addo campaigned on a platform that centred on a controversial promise of free high school for all.
“We are confident in the merits of the case,” said Gabby Otchere-Darko, an adviser to Akufo-Addo. “We’re pretty confident that Ghana is on course for a historical verdict for democracy in Africa.”
While the 2012 elections were generally unmarred by violence, many in Ghana are wary of the type of bloody unrest seen after recent elections in Nigeria or neighbouring Ivory Coast.
There have been widespread calls for restraint from politicians and religious leaders.
Meanwhile, the police and military have taken to marching around the capital Accra in a show of readiness for the aftermath of the verdict.
Both parties have said they will accept the court’s ruling, though Ghana’s laws leaves the door open for further appeals.
“We are confident that the (opposition members) don’t have any case,” said George Lawson, an NDC official. “We’ve also advised our people not to engage in any violence.”
Everything from the conduct of the lawyers and witnesses to the quality of the evidence has been debated on the airwaves and written about in Ghana’s feisty press.
In June, irate judges declared that anyone making disparaging public statements about the court could be held in contempt.
Those who ran afoul of the order were kicked out of the courtroom, fined, or, in a few cases, jailed.
Editor of the Daily Searchlight newspaper Ken Kuranchie was jailed for 10 days in July for contempt after publicly criticising the judges.
The jailing sparked debate over Ghana’s contempt laws, many of which date back to British colonial rule.
But as the verdict looms, Cudjoe said the court’s willingness to spend months hearing the case deserves praise.
“Ours is a young democracy,” Cudjoe said. “We will have to see whether all these fine legal arguments that have been made are substantial enough to overturn an African election.”