The bulk of Ghana’s electricity is generated by the Akosombo Hydroelectric Dam on the Volta River. This means that as the Volta’s water levels rise or fall, so to does the availability of electricity throughout the country. Generally speaking, there isn’t enough electricity to go around.
During my semester at the University of Ghana in the fall of 2006, one of my program coordinators explained that the entire country was broken up into a grid and that depending on where you live, you would lose electricity for 12 hours every 72 hours. And that was pretty much how it worked. The worst part about the power outages was that they water pumps are also powered by electricity. So when the lights would go out, we knew that we had about an hour or two before we lost water. My time here in ’06 coincided with a drought which not only made the power outages more frequent and less predictable, it also meant that while you might lose power for 12 hours, you could lose water for up to 48 hours. That meant 48 hours that you couldn’t shower, 48 hours that you couldn’t wash your hands in a sink, and, worst of all, 48 hours that you couldn’t flush the toilet. Living in a college dorm/hostel of about 200 people with shared bathrooms, things could get pretty gross. But for the most part it was bearable. Ghanaian students helped us international students figure out how to manage the lack of water. Plus, I knew that as I was living not just on the University of Ghana’s campus but in the International Student Hostel, I was insulated from the worst of the power and water outages and that most of the country had it a lot worse.
My first 4 or 5 weeks in Kasoa have confirmed that I was in a privileged location in 2006 and most of the country deals with much worse power outages. There have been times when the power has gone off and on 4 times in one day. Power outages have seemed completely random and there is really no telling how long they’ll last. Along with other standard office supplies, the office where I volunteer is equipped with a gasoline powered electricity generator so that work doesn’t have to stop when the power flow does.
But for the last 2 weeks or so, there haven’t been many power outages. When the power has gone out, it’s only stayed off for a few hours at most and then comes back on. I’m writing this on Wednesday morning and I don’t think it’s gone off for about a week and officials say that it won’t go out again until after the election. Why? Because Ghana’s elections are on Friday and the government wants to make sure that the electorate is happy, comfortable, and non-critical of the current leadership.
Actually, the official explanation for the next few days of uninterrupted electricity is to ensure that the biometric verification machines that will be used on December 7 to verify voter identities work properly and that power outages aren’t used strategically to disenfranchise regions that are traditionally loyal to one party or another. But that doesn’t explain why power hasn’t gone out for the last week. Most Ghanaians interpret the last week of uninterrupted energy as a political ploy on the part of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the current ruling party.
Another NDC ploy to which I’ve been privy has been the servicing of the major dirt roads that run throughout Peace Town (my neighborhood in Kasoa). When I got here about seven weeks ago, most of the dirt roads between my house and the paved roads that run through Kasoa’s main market area were severely eroded; with gullies, dips, potholes, and exposed rocks which made it difficult for motorists to travel much faster than 10mph without risking serious damage to their vehicles. But about two weeks ago, I left for work and saw that the main dirt roads had been considerable smoothed. Over the last two weeks, Peace Town residents have seen huge bulldozers clearing away debris and evening the roads. Again, everybody recognizes that this is a political move by the NDC. And as transparent as these tactics are, they may work. In one community that I often visit for work, residents will tell you that they are “voting for the road.” In other words, they’re voting for the NDC because it was under the NDC’s administration that a major road in their community was finally paved.
But tactics like these, that deal in such surface level issues, could backfire. Now that Peace Town’s roads are smoother, vehicles are able to travel at much faster rates. As a result, huge clouds of dust are kicked up by every car, motorbike, and trotro that passes by. Some pedestrians are avoiding the main roads because the dust and dirt are so bad and some cab drivers who have to travel the route often are wrapping t-shirts around their mouths and noses to try to keep from breathing in the dirt. In addition, as there is no real waste disposal system to speak of in Ghana, people throw their trash everywhere. When the bulldozers came through and smoothed the roads, they inadvertently churned up years of garbage that had been buried under the dirt. The roads in Peace Town are smooth now, but they’re also lined with mounds of newly visible waste.
As the government sponsored bulldozers have churned up garbage that had been hidden, these surface level electoral tactics have churned up criticism of the NDC and government in general. The roads had needed servicing for years. The government waited until 3 weeks before the election to do anything about it. People see through this and it creates resentment. Some people may vote for the road. But others may vote for the New Patriotic Party (NPP) (the main opposition party) because they feel that the NDC has failed to address important issues over the last 4 years. Others still (especially young people) will vote for the Progressive People’s Party (PPP), a newly minted political party which stands no chance of winning the presidential election this cycle but could be a force in 4 or 8 years, because people see it as a new and powerful alternative to the politics as usual personified by the NDC and NPP. And some won’t vote at all; fed up and turned off by a self-serving politics that is not limited to the NDC, Ghana, or Africa at all for that matter.