Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
January 8, 2001

EDITORIAL

An African Success Story

In its first two decades of independence, the West African nation of Ghana was an archetypal political disaster, brought low by successive coups and dictatorships, corruption and near total economic collapse. Today, Ghana is a welcome African example of legitimate democracy and successful economic reform. In an unusually peaceful transfer of power, a civilian government that grew out of a military regime has accepted an election defeat and surrendered power to the opposition.

John Kufuor, an Oxford-trained lawyer and businessman, and the leader of Ghana's opposition New Patriotic Party, was sworn in as president yesterday. He defeated John Atta Mills, the incumbent vice president, in an election widely viewed as free and fair. President Jerry Rawlings, the charismatic former flight lieutenant who has dominated Ghana for nearly 20 years, stepped down after reaching a constitutional two-term limit as elected president.

Few would have predicted this turn of events when Mr. Rawlings seized power in a coup in 1981. At the time Ghana was a wreck and millions of people had left the country in search of work. In the two decades since, in close cooperation with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Ghana emerged as a model for free-market innovations in Africa, and now spends five times as much on education and health as on its military.

Ghana still faces formidable challenges ó continued corruption, low prices for its main exports, cocoa and gold, and high prices for imported oil. Moreover, Ghana is located in the heart of one of Africa's least stable regions, with nearby Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea consumed by war and smuggling and Ivory Coast in decline.

Mr. Rawlings is not the only West African leader to surrender power in the past year. In Senegal last March, President Abdou Diouf, who had held power for 20 years, graciously bowed out after losing an election to the opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade. Together these two countries have shown that not all the news of Africa need be bad.

The key to success in Ghana has been creative and enlightened cooperation between international lenders and local officials, combined with Mr. Rawlings's shrewd effort to tame the military and redirect it away from politics. Nigeria, the region's powerhouse, which is now making its own difficult transition from military rule to democracy, can learn from Ghana's achievement.

Mr. Kufuor has said he will introduce a South African-style truth commission to investigate Ghana's violent political past. There are risks in probing deeply into past political crimes. But some form of public accounting for the criminal abuse of power can be a deterrent to future crimes, and thus a source of stability.