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'Te nycgeyeng gbengbeng!' ('we are holding the umbrella very tight!'): explaining the popularity of the NDC in the upper west region of Ghana.


This article analyses the reasons why, since the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1992, the Upper West Region (UWR) has become one of the strongholds of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) in northern Ghana. In all five general elections to date, the NDC has won more than half of the presidential vote and over 70 per cent of the parliamentary seats. The article explores the factors that explain the NDC's electoral dominance in the UWR. At the regional level the accepted argument has been that the NDC's predecessor extended developments to the area. However, if voting preferences are based on development considerations, why didn't loyalty shift to the NPP? I argue that political loyalty is generational and that the popularity of the NDC in the UWR can be understood through an appreciation of the recent history of the region. On 14 January 1983, PNDC Law 41 decreed the creation of the Upper West Region, carved out of what was then the Upper Region. I conclude that the political and socio-economic opportunities that came along with decentralization are historical memories of high value, which the NDC capitalizes on in its electioneering campaigns.


Cet article analyse les raisons pour lesquelles, depuis l'avenement de la Quatrieme Republique en 1992, l'Upper West Region (UWR) est devenue l'un des bastions du NDC (National Democratic Congress) dans le Nord du Ghana. Sur les cinq elections qui ont eu lieu jusqu'a present, le NDC a remporte plus de la moitie du vote presidentiel et plus de 70 pour cent des sieges parlementaires. L'article examine les facteurs qui expliquent la domination electorale du NDC dans l'UWR. Au niveau regional, l'argument generalement admis est celui selon lequel le parti qui a precede le NDC est a l'origine du developpement de la region. Neanmoins, si les considerations de developpement influencent les preferences de vote, comment se fait-il que la loyaute ne se soit pas reportee sur le NPP? L'auteur soutient que la loyaute politique est generationnelle, et que la popularite du NDC dans l'UWR peut se comprendre par une appreciation de l'histoire recente de la region. Le 14 janvier 1983, la loi PNDC L 41 a decrete la creation de l'Upper West Region, decoupee dans ce qui etait alors l'Upper Region. L'auteur conclut en disant que les opportunites politiques et socioeconomiques qui ont accompagne la decentralisation sont des souvenirs historiques de grande valeur que le NDC met a profit dans ses campagnes electorales.


Since 1992, when Ghana chose the democratic path, five consecutive multi-party elections have been held. During this period, certain regional voting patterns have emerged. The two main parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) have each laid claim to particular regions. The Volta Region has returned impressive majorities for the NDC, while the Ashanti Region has never voted against the NPP. Scholars have described the voting patterns in the two strongholds as block voting or ethnic voting (Jockers et al. 2010; Fridy 2007; Morrison and Hong 2006; Nugent 200la; 2001b). More than half of the eligible voters in the Upper West Region (UWR) have voted for the NDC, both in government and in opposition. The region's unflinching support and loyalty to the NDC is captured in a Waale saying popular among the party's cadres: 'Te nyggeyeng gbengbeng! (1) The defeat of the 'red man's party', (2) as the NDC is known locally, in the 2000 election was seen by some as the beginning of the eventual demise of the party's popularity in the region. Consequently, during the eight years of NPP rule several efforts were made to court the support of citizens, including economic development projects. (3) Nonetheless, it appears that the region ignored the NPP's efforts and held tight to the NDC's umbrella. The failure of the incumbent NPP to narrow or overturn the NDC's popular vote contradicts conventional wisdom, which holds that many citizens make voting preferences based on economic considerations. Didn't the NPP provide economic development to the UWR?

Extensive work has been done on block voting or ethnic voting in the strongholds of the two main parties. However, much of what has been written tends to generalize ethnicity. The issues that inform voter preferences in other non-ethnic strongholds such as the UWR have yet to be explored and answered. How do the citizens of the UWR conceptualize development? Do they think of political parties as patrons? Do local tensions, issues and memories influence voting preferences in the UWR? I argue that the popularity of the NDC can be traced from two angles. First, loyalty to and trust in the party is generational and based on close ties with certain 'favourite sons' of the region, and also with the founder of the party. Second, its popularity is based on past performance. Thus, its electoral dominance of the region can be understood through an appreciation of the history of the region. The electorate and politicians alike are guided by their reading of the past (cf. Nugent 1999). On 14 January 1983 the PNDC regime decreed the creation of the Upper West Region from the then Upper Region. The story we must attend to is threaded through that point.

The article is based on in-depth, face-to-face interviews conducted in four towns (Wa, Lawra, Jirapa and Tumu) of the UWR. (4) The respondents were carefully selected and they included chiefs, community elders, youth leaders, leaders of women's associations and politicians. In each town ten individuals were interviewed, making a total of forty respondents. The interviews conducted in the local dialects (Waale and Dagaare) were transcribed verbatim in order to represent respondents' views accurately. Personal observations also form part of the data. For over twenty-five years I have lived in the area and watched its transformation at close range. I shared in the excitement of the residents when the lights were turned on for the first time, was happy with them when we watched live broadcasts on GTV for the first time, and joined in cursing the government when my mum and many other women died prematurely because there were no qualified medical doctors to attend to the health needs of residents. The argument is divided into three sections. The first section introduces the region and discusses the forms and nature of the agitations citizens waged to have a region of their own. The second frames the discussion within the wider explanations offered for voting preferences. The focus here is on how the empirical literature rationalizes voting patterns in general, and particularly the popularity of the NDC in the UWR. The final section considers the role of historical memory in explaining the NDC dominance in the region. It concludes that the popularity of the NDC is the result of the efforts its predecessor put into what residents term the 'opening up of our hometown'. The political, economic and social developments that came with the creation of the region are remembered by elderly voters and also capitalized on by the NDC in its electioneering campaigns to attract young voters.


The Upper West Region, with Wa as the regional capital, is located in the extreme north-western corner of Ghana. The region covers a geographical area of approximately 18,478 square kilometres. This constitutes about 12.7 per cent of the total land area of Ghana. The region is bordered in the north by Burkina Faso, in the east by the Upper East Region, in the south by Northern Region and in the west by Cote d'Ivoire. The Black Volta River forms a natural boundary in the west. Originally Upper West Region was divided into five districts (Wa, Nadowli, Sissala, Lawra and Jirapa/Lambussie). But three new districts have been added following the census of 2000. (5) The districts are further broken down into eight constituencies. The 2000 census gave an overall population of 576,583 (Republic of Ghana 2005: 8) for UWR, which is predominantly rural (82.5 percent). The region contains 3 per cent of the total population of the country.

The question of socio-economic development is cardinal to understanding grassroots politics of the north in general and the UWR in particular. Here ir is important to examine in greater detail local development concerns and their implication for partisan politics. The history of the region has been one of marginalization and subjugation, even before the arrival of the Europeans in the nineteenth century (Der 1998; Songsore and Denkabe 1995). By the Anglo-French Convention of 14 June 1898 the British secured the area to be known as Black Volta administrative district (Lentz 2006; Wilks 1989). In 1901, the British formally annexed the area as part of what became known as the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast (NTs). For administrative convenience the protectorate was divided into three provincial units. The Wala, Dagaaba, Sissala and other ethnic groups were designated the North-Western Province with headquarters at Wa and with Lawra, Tumu and Wa as districts. The establishment of colonial rule and the emergence of a capitalist economy in the Gold Coast led to the incorporation of the NTs and their populations into the colonial economy. However, British colonial policy as far as the NTs were concerned was one of neglect. The Governor of the Gold Coast, F. M. Hodgson, made this policy very clear: 'I would not at present spend upon the Northern Territories--upon in fact the hinterland of the colony--a single penny more than is absolutely necessary for their suitable administration and the encouragement of the transit trade' (quoted in Wilks 1989: 145, emphasis mine). This policy option wrongly assumed that the NTs did not contain any valuable exportable commodities. Songsore and Denkabe (1995: 10) offer a compelling critique of the policy in their study of rural poverty in the UWR: 'The Colonial State saw resources in the North from the point of view of the needs and interests of capital, already well located in the mining and cocoa production, in Southern Ghana.' There was to be no investment in the economic and social sectors, and so the NTs lagged behind the rest of the country (ibid.). Northern Ghana was designated a 'labour reserve' to be exploited for the benefit of resource-endowed southern Ghana (Songsore 1983; Lentz and Erlman 1989). Contacts between northerners and southerners were generally discouraged and strictly controlled. A policy of separate development for the north and south was meticulously enforced.

The NTs emerged at independence in 1957 as the Northern Region, with its capital at Tamale. Concurrently with the creation of the Central Region on 1 July 1960, a separate region to be known as the Upper Region was carved out of the Northern Region, with Bolgatanga as its capital (Bening 1999: 141-8). These regional reorganizations were highly contentious in the body politic of northern Ghana. (6) From one perspective northern Ghana craved development, and those who favoured the regional reorganizations argued passionately that they would deliver this. Thus the Independent MP for Dagomba North, S. I. Iddrisu, justified the division thus:

The Northern Region of Ghana is a very wide underdeveloped region and it is very likely that it is because of this that the leader of this country feels that this particular region should be divided to facilitate development. It can then be raised to the standard of the other regions. (Ghana 1960: 24 June, column 351)

Other politicians argued against the principles and modalities adopted. In principle, S.D. Dombo (MP, Jirapa-Lambussie) and Jatoe Kaleo (MP, Wala North) were not against the reorganization of northern Ghana per se; but they argued that important considerations such as the geography of the region and the population size were missing from the deliberations. For these two MPs, if these factors had been considered properly, three regions would have been proposed (ibid., cols 344-51 and 354-6). At the other end of the spectrum, some traditionalists argued that the reorganizations would destroy northern solidarity. The Nayiri (overlord of the Mamprusi) was allegedly against the reorganization. He saw the inclusion of his paramountcy in the Northern Region as the virtual dismantling of his kingdom. He was greatly incensed, his pride injured because he saw his influence over the Kusasi, Frafra, Builsa, Nankanni and Kasena ethnic groups diminished by the division (Kpangkpari 2003: 4). Clearly, the demand to have three regions was anchored in historical and development concerns. The issue of economic development had entered the everyday discourse of the people of the area. As interviews with elderly citizens clearly demonstrate, the people were promised 'better living conditions once independence was attained'. 'Our leaders told us that once the white man leaves, we will manage our own affairs and there will be great improvement in our standards of living' (Interview, Kenneth Donzuo, 28 September 2007). Development was thus expressed in terms of citizens having a region of their own and better living conditions, access to locally based educational facilities and health services, and the freedom to travel down south, among others. Nonetheless, the existence of these problems agitated the minds of the people in the upper west area. The chiefs and people were convinced that the teething and endemic development problems of the upper west could only be resolved by the creation of a separate region for the area (Interview, Naa Seidu Braimah, 6 October 2008). Consequently, opposition politicians from the upper west supported the reorganization of the Northern Region in 1960, but Bolgatanga as the choice of regional capital of the Upper Region was fiercely contested. Meanwhile, opposition to the CPP was fiercest in the north-west (7) (Ladouceur 1979). When Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah visited the north-west in 1958, he cautiously indicated that the administrative capital for the proposed Upper Region would be sited at Wa if only the opposition MPs would switch their allegiance to the CPP (Interview, K. W. Kpangkpari, 7 October 2008). The political cost of the refusal to accede to the demands of local CPP activists by the north-west MPs incurred the displeasure of the CPP government. In spite of the cogent arguments against reorganizing northern Ghana into two regions, the CPP government with its parliamentary majority pushed through the bill (Ghana 1960: 24 and 28 June). Bolgatanga won because the upper west area was regarded in CPP circles as 'enemy territory'. Paul Ladouceur (1979: 206) corroborated this when he observed that 'the Regional Commissioner of the Upper Region, Ayeebo Asumda, had a strong dislike for the north-west, a dislike which made itself felt by his infrequent visits to the area and in fact by a tendency to ignore it altogether'. It is common knowledge that the progressive Nkrumah government was generally well disposed towards northern interests; however it emerged in the early 1960s that more development resources were concentrated in the upper east area.

The coming into office of the Progress Party (PP) government in August 1969 raised the hopes of many upper westerners. The PP was hugely popular in the area and it swept all but one of the six parliamentary seats in the polls. (8) Dr K. A. Busia, leader of the PP, was well acquainted with the grievances of the upper west area. Again, somehow Busia felt indebted to the upper west area politicians for their unflinching loyalty to the United Party (UP) tradition, and for holding the opposition parties together in the face of CPP's aggression in the 1950s and 1960s (Bob-Milliar and Bob-Milliar 2010). 9 Consequently, Chief S.D. Dombo, Jatoe Kaleo and B. K. Adama were rewarded with high-profile cabinet positions in the Busia government. (10) The people of the area felt the time was opportune to have a separate region.

The Progress Party paid attention to rural communities and made rural development its primary concern. However, many obstacles made the goal of achieving a region for the upper west area unattainable. 'The political heavyweights in the upper east and Northern Region would not countenance the loss of any part of their empires, nor agree to cede an inch of land to the new region', observed Kpangkpari (2003: 3). Additionally, internal bickering between the Wala Naa, Bomi II and Lawra Naa Karbo as to which area was the most geographically central, and where the regional capital should be located, also contributed to the delays (Bening 1999: 145; see also Lentz 1995: 404). The hopes held by the people of the upper west of realizing a region of their own went down with the Busia government in early 1972, when the regime was ousted in a military coup by Col. I. K. Acheampong.

The picture that emerged of socio-economic development in the upper west area in the 1970s emphasized an absence of infrastructure. 'Lack of development' and 'total neglect' were issues raised by citizens in their demands for a 'home region of their own and not to be subordinates to the upper easterners'. The development discourse also changed during this period. At a deeper level development for the citizens in the upper west was seen as contributing to a 'sense of self-worth and collective self-esteem among local people'.
   We believed that our problems were as a result of our being placed
   under Bolga. The people in Bolga were not better than us. In fact
   we in the upper west area despite several challenges produced more
   educated people than Tamale and Bolga combined, yet we
   took orders from Bolga. The Wala paramountcy was on the same level
   with those of Yendi and Damongo during colonial days. Therefore the
   subordination of the Wala state under a stateless people like the
   Frafra injured the pride of the Wala royals. Development therefore
   became an issue of self-pride for our chiefs, sons and daughters of
   the land. (Interview, Gloria Kuusale, 23 October 2008)

Thus demand for a separate region was premised on grounds of 'lack of development' in the area. In terms of transport and communication facilities, for example, the area was poorly provided. Of 600 miles of trunk roads in the Upper Region in 1972, only 61 miles were tarred (Republic of Ghana 1972b). The upper west was not connected by tarred road to any of the major towns in northern and southern Ghana. 'It was an island of squalor, darkness, ignorance and deprivation' (Interview, Joseph Dery, 17 October 2008). Many communities were only accessible by bush paths cleared during colonial days. It was virtually impossible to place a telephone call from Wa or any of the districts to the rest of the country, and it took months to receive letters from Bolgatanga or Kumasi. The most frequently used route--Hamile-Wa-Wenchi-Kumasi--had a ferry crossing along the Black Volta at Bamboi. The Bamboi ferry was a great impediment to the smooth flow of trade between the south and that part of the north. The effect of poor communication was that the upper west districts of Wa, Lawra and Tumu were isolated and bereft of information. Teachers, nurses and other departmental personnel travelled at the end of every month to collect their salaries from Bolgatanga. This regular departure from their posts and the refusal of qualified professionals to accept posting to the upper west caused great inconveniences to the people. This problem was succinctly captured by M.A. Seidu when he recalled that 'when I was a headmaster, because of 30-minute meetings, just half an hour, I used to spent two days travelling all the way to Bolgatanga and coming back to Wa' (Interview, M. A. Seidu, 10 October 2008). Again, except for Bolgatanga, there was no electricity in any town of the Upper Region until mid-1970. The Rural Electrification Project started by the PP government was continued and this resulted in the installation of diesel-powered generating stations at Wa (1974) and Lawra (1975).

While in southern Ghana formal education started in the 1800s, the first primary school in the upper west, in Wa to be precise, was opened in 1917. Two years later, another school was opened in Lawra, to serve the then Lawra Tumu District. The area had not a single secondary school, even though it provided the cream of students entering the Tamale and Navrongo secondary schools (Bening 1990). The first government secondary school in the upper west was opened in Lawra in 1968, and sixth-form facilities only became available in the 1976/7 academic year (UWYA 1976). In 1976, the upper west, with a total population of 319,865 (Republic of Ghana 1972a) had three hospitals to serve the whole area, two of which were owned and managed by the Catholic Mission. These health facilities were small and they also lacked basic equipment; further, the poor road network meant that many people could not access even these limited health facilities. In the face of documented discrimination, isolation and age-long neglect, the UWYA observed:

In the present set up, where the districts of Wa, Lawra and Tumu trail behind the East, they cannot get their proper share of national and regional projects and contribute substantially towards the national effort. This necessarily calls for the creation of an autonomous region for the area, since, regions form development planning units. The social, cultural and economic relationship of the three districts of the upper west makes the creation of a region possible and workable. (UWYA1976: 5)

The chiefs and the people were absolutely persuaded that the political arrangement in place was the problem. The UWYA observed that 'one of the things which make the upper west districts of the Upper Region not receiving its fair share of the fruits and benefits of the nation and not contributing fully to the development processes in the region evolves from the over concentration of the machinery of government' (ibid.: 3). Ali major development programmes meant for the whole of the Upper Region were concentrated in Bolgatanga and its environs. Administratively, the area could not be effectively administered from Bolgatanga because of distance. While there was 100 miles of well-surfaced road between the two capitals of Tamale and Bolgatanga, it took twice as many miles of untarred road to reach Wa. During the rainy season the more direct route--the Wa-Tumu-Navrongo road--was cut off by swollen rivers and weak bridges. This geographical factor, among others, reduced ease of access to the two regional capitals (ibid.). The alleged hostility from Bolgatanga towards the upper west area stemmed from the fact that, historically, the peoples of the upper west interacted more with the people to the north and south than with their eastern neighbours. In this context, the agitations had ethnic undertones. The UWYA summed up these ethnic feelings when it noted that 'the distinctive cultural and social identity of the upper west districts, the discriminating attitude of the successive administrations of the region, make it even more necessary and possible to create a separate region for the upper west' (ibid.).

Concrete steps towards realizing the development aspirations of the upper west were given great impetus during the regime of Colonel I. K. Acheampong (1972-8) (Interview, K.W. Kpangkpari, 7 October 2008). To reduce existing tensions and obtain more solidarity and cooperation, Acheampong's National Redemption Council (NRC) established relations with various civil society movements, including the trade unions, and also with traditional chiefs. The development policies of the NRC were populist and oriented towards the principles of self-reliance and economic nationalism. From 18 July to 3 August 1972, Acheampong embarked on a nationwide tour by road, ostensibly to explain to Ghanaians the rationale for the second military intervention (Republic of Ghana 1972b: 53). On 24 July 1972, the Northern Region hosted the Chairman of the NRC and in a speech be assured all northerners of better times ahead and of equal opportunities for all irrespective of one's ethnic background. He reminded his audience of the age-old southern prejudice against the peoples of the north when he said that 'as most of you may be aware, for a long time people in the north have not had an equal measure of respect and participation in our national affairs ... the days when people in the south looked down on people from the north are gone and gone forever'.

Encouraged by Acheampong's message of self-reliance, an interest group calling itself the Upper West Youth Association (UWYA) emerged in 1975. James Isaac Asamani, an administrative officer, became its president, charged with organizing and sensitizing the youth on the need for a separate region for the upper west area (Kpangkpari 2003: 4). As a member of the Upper Region Development Corporation, Asamani set about rallying support to agitate for the creation of an Upper West Region. In the interest of building up a strong lobby for its cause, the executives of the UWYA travelled extensively to solicit support from all relevant bodies. Other external audiences were sought. In Kumasi the executives met with the Asantehene, Otumfuo Opoku Ware II; as they said, 'we knew ir we got his support we could make a lot of progress in our course' (ibid. ).

On 25 March 1975, the then Head of State, Col. Acheampong, was the special guest of honour at the Dumba cultural festival of the Wala people. The chiefs and people again asked for the creation of a separate region for the upper west area. In a question couched in proverbs, Wala Naa Sidiki Bomi II asked Acheampong through his interpreter:

Ask his Excellency whether he knows what a chimpanzee is. He says, yes, What about a monkey? Acheampong answered, yes. Naa Sidiki then said: both animals like com very much. So if you send com through a chimpanzee to a monkey, will the monkey get it? Acheampong immediately said no, he was sure the com will not get to the monkey. Naa Sidiki then said, we [upper westerners] want development, the people of Bolga [upper easterners] also want development. You have given development to the people of Bolga to bring to us, do you think it will reach us? If you like us give us our own region, no matter how small, whatever you have give it to us and it would be of more benefit to us than giving us development through Bolga. (Interview, M.A. Seidu, 10 October 2008)

Sympathetic to the concerns of the upper west area, Acheampong took immediate steps. The Upper Regional Commissioner, Colonel W. C. O. Acquaye-Nortey, commenced the construction of office buildings to host the regional secretariat (Interview, K.W. Kpangkpari, 7 October 2008). Acheampong gave meaning to the construction of the office buildings by establishing an autonomous administrative area for the upper west by an executive fiat in 1975, and appointed to it J. K. Owusu as the new administrator (Kpangkpari 2003: 5). With the appointment of an administrator, upper west's future as a region seemed virtually assured. Acheampong was enthusiastic about creating a separate region, but 'be was doing it in a clandestine manner because he did not want to offend the people of the east'. (11) Perhaps the dire economic crises the country was going through at that period compelled Acheampong to delay the official decree creating the Upper West Region.

However, in the eyes of many upper westerners the Acheampong regime's efforts were not intended to create a separate and viable region, bur to placate the vociferous youth and chiefs by seeming to respond to their core argument that the area lacked development. 'So they [the government] just wanted to do something to make us feel that we have not been left out' (Interview, M. A. Seidu, 10 October 2008). The removal of Acheampong from office in 1978 and the events of 4 June 1979 temporarily halted the agitation of the chiefs and youth until the inauguration of the Third Republic.

Dr Hilla Limann, leader of the Accra-based Northern Study Group and a native of Gwollu near Tumu in the upper west, was nominated as the presidential candidate of the People's National Party (PNP) in February 1979. Dr Limann made the creation of the region a local campaign issue. In fact he claimed he entered national politics basically to further the development concerns of the upper west area (UWYA 1981: 2). However, once elected into office, President Limann was thwarted by a constitutional provision which made the creation of a new region almost impossible. Nevertheless, he did a number of things to further the cause of the administrative area. First, he chaired and hosted several meetings of the UWYA and personally drafted some of the petitions (ibid.). Second, the government separated the finances for administration of the upper east and upper west areas for the 1981/2 fiscal year (ibid.). Third, a principal secretary was appointed and the name Upper West Sub-Regional Administrative Area was adopted. Finally, the Wa district treasury was upgraded into a regional treasury (Kpangkpari 2003: 6). The Limann administration did not last long, and was replaced by the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) on 31 December 1981.

When the PNP government fell, we were sad and some of us even contemplated joining underground resistance movement to restore the PNP. Even though there were widespread economic hardships, for us in the upper west area ir was a dream cut short by military adventurers. Our son's government had been toppled by the military; nothing could assuage our collective disappointment. However, there were hints that the new military government would free us from the domination of Bolga and grant us our long cherished dream of a region we could proudly call our own. (Interview, Moses Jaari, 17 October 2008)

Once again, the chiefs and peoples of the upper west intensified the search for legal backing to the processes that had been started during the Acheampong and Limann regimes. The philosophy of the PNDC and the populist ideas of its Chairman about developing Ghana coincided with the interest of the area. In May 1982, the PNDC formally declared its commitment to decentralization based on its populist slogan 'Power to the People'. This official declaration marked the operationalization of the platform slogan into the administrative concept of decentralization. Part of the policy guidelines noted that 'The assumption of power by the people cannot be complete unless a truly decentralized government was introduced' (PNDC 1982: 88). Lentz (1995: 395) noted that the attitude of the regime towards youth associations was very fluid. She argued further that 'The self-help philosophy of the associations was quite close to the government's populist concept of grassroots democracy and the principle of self-reliance.' Within thirteen months of assuming office, Chairman Rawlings signed a decree (PNDC Law 41) on 14 January 1983 declaring the existence of the autonomous Upper West Region. Nonetheless, because of the dearth of information technology in the area, ir took several days before the people learnt of their new status. I turn next to the discussion of other explanations of voter behaviour in the literature.


For many mature democracies, especially in the Western world, the issue of electoral preferences as surveyed by various writers has centred on the ideologies, philosophies and programmatic agendas advanced by the major political parties. However, voting behaviour in Africa is predominantly explained by factors such as ethnicity, personal linkages, and clientelism (Nugent 2001b; van de Walle 2003). Ghana has functioned virtually as a two-party system, privileging its two major parties--the NDC and the NPP (Whitfield 2009; Morrison and Hong 2006). Electoral support in the ten administrative regions varies from 'strong one-party-like to almost three-party systems' (Morrison and Hong 2006). Indeed, some regional party strength has shifted from election to election, and it was just such shifts that made the party alternation possible in 2000 and 2008. Academic commentators have noted that the NDC under President Jerry Rawlings won the rural vote in the general elections of 1992 and 1996 partly because of the impact of the PNDC's socio-economic policies in those areas (see Nugent 1999; Bawumia 1998; Green 1995; Jeffries and Thomas 1993). Accordingly, the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) (12) was favourable to many rural households. Bawumia argues that the cost of adjustment was borne disproportionately by urban dwellers, hence the rejection of the NDC in a number of urban centres in the 1992 elections.

Green (1995: 578) noted further that the 'politicization of adjustment' in Ghana by the PNDC enabled the NDC to capitalize on a rural-based political strategy to rally popular support for its electioneering in 1992. He observed that in Ghana's largely rural, agrarian economy, a 'rural bias' in economic policy as favoured by the PNDC created a rural support base and this served as the basis for a coalition of NDC supporters at election time. Ayee (1997; 1998) later noted that the explanation of the popularity of the NDC under Jerry Rawlings in the 1996 elections in northern Ghana could be sought in the extension of the national grid and the provision of other infrastructure. Embedded in the above rationalizations is the question of economic development and how the NDC or its predecessor extended benefits to the region. Arguments of this kind are often marshalled to explain political behaviour: economic voting has been heavily studied (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2007). The conclusion usually drawn is that economic evaluations by voters generally have a significant impact on government support. Adopting a rational choice perspective, Downs (1957) argued that as rational beings who seek to maximize their utility, voters choose a party or a candidate on the basis of the benefits that are likely to accrue to them when that party or that candidate takes power. The electorate of the UWR has continued to evaluate the NDC positively, and perhaps voted for it on the basis of past performance.

Ethnicity has also featured prominently as an explanation for voters' preference in Ghanaian elections. Horowitz (1985) has noted that parties which have established an ethnic base are more likely to succeed than parties which have no such base. With respect to electoral mobilizing, several scholars (see, for example, van de Walle 2003; van de Walle and Butler 1999) have noted that political parties rely on ethnicity for mobilizing electoral support, 'especially when they are organizationally and programmatically weak, as they are in many African countries' (van de Walle and Butler 1999). Similarly, in an article that addressed the compatibility problems of economic reform and democracy in developing countries, Kohli (1993: 684) noted that under conditions of economic orthodoxy the relevance of ethnicity as a pole of mobilization in elections is especially likely to increase. He posited that where both incumbents and opposition leaders recognize the constraints of economic orthodoxy, policy issues and broader ideological debate will be irrelevant for the differentiation of candidates and the mobilization of constituencies. In this context, he observed, 'attention may well shift to non-economic appeals as mobilization tools. Religion, ethnicity and other forms of sub-national tension provide prime candidates.' Several scholars, among them Nugent (2001a; 2001b) and Lindberg and Morrison (2008), have examined the relevance of ethnicity in electoral mobilization in Ghana. Jonah (1999: 229-56) notes that 'irrespective of what different observers think about ethnicity in Ghana's politics it is a fact that ethnicity is a major factor that influenced Ghanaian voters in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections'. He adds forcefully that 'to ignore the ethnic factor is to ignore a major key to understanding the mind of the Ghanaian voter'. Similarly, Fridy (2007) has suggested in a study that in Ghanaian elections ethnicity matters far more than socio-economic variables. He posited that Ewe and Asante voters are likely to vote for the NDC and NPP, respectively, regardless of who are on the ticket. Nonetheless, the findings of two empirical studies have contradicted much of the mainstream literature and conventional wisdom about the role of ethnicity in electoral mobilization in Ghana. In their survey Lindberg and Morrison (2008: 96) concluded that 'only about one in ten voters is decisively influenced by either clientelism or ethnic and family ties in choosing political representatives, while 85 to 90 per cent behave as mature democratic citizens'. The authors argued emphatically that 'ethnicity is not a key factor in determining the vote in Ghana, and clientelism, when it appears, is furthered by intense competition, resulting in a dilemma for new democracies'. Ethnicity is employed daily in political discourse and constructed for its supposedly instrumental value in electoral politics.

Oelbaum (2004) also argues that both popular and academic ethnic interpretations of electoral mobilization and outcomes in Ghana have been exaggerated. The numbers of constituencies simply won or lost may easily mislead. Indeed, mapped election results which are the basis of conclusions drawn by Nugent (2001b) and Fridy (2007) do not capture the dynamic of change in the ethnic voting patterns in Ghana, neither do total vote tallies necessarily tell the whole story when it comes to examining ethnic levels of support for competing parties. Oelbaum (2004: 259, 268) cautions against excessive concern with ethnicity because it has the potential of blinding 'us to the important fact of the increasing appeal of the NPP both north and south of Ashanti'. He argues that the notion that the NPP is an Akan party has some merit, 'but it is widely overstated in current analyses, particularly by those with overt sympathies for the NDC'. Consequently, scholarly obsession with ethnicity tends to blur the real motives of Ghanaian voters. For instance, how could one use the ethnic explanation to account for the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996 in which Jonah asserts ethnicity played a major role in the UWR?

Programmatic voting is as evident in Ghana, and ir appears as voting based either on evaluation of the incumbent's past performance in terms of public programmes or on the candidate's publicly declared policy intentions if elected. In this context, one can argue, the voters in the UWR make their evaluation based on the past performance of the NDC's predecessor in terms of the socio-economic development it provided. Thus, for many voters in the region, the PNDC and the NDC are one and the same, and the policies of the PNDC are also credited to the NDC.


How do the citizens of the UWR conceptualize development? Development is expressed in political, economic and social terms. It means different things for the different social groups in the area. For example, for Lobi men and women development means being freed from the bullying tactics of Wala businessmen or women. For others, development means having their self-esteem and pride restored by the creation of the region; for others again, development means the redistribution of wealth, educational reforms, infrastructural development, rural electrification, and the availability of health facilities. Economic empowerment of marginalized groups is also used in the development language of the people of the region. A respondent succinctly captures this when he said:

Until the 1980s the upper west, even though territorially part of Ghana, was disparagingly referred to as 'overseas', and when people were travelling down south [to Kumasi and Accra] they would say they were going to Ghana, because it was an impoverished village. It lacked motorable roads; no hospitals, no electricity until the PNDC government came. The PNDC government under Rawlings gave us a region, roads, built hospitals, schools, 'Akosombo' [electricity].... We feel indebted to him, so when he formed the NDC we just join, because he will continue to provide development. (Interview, Emmanuel Deribaa, 20 September 2007)

Clearly, the people believe that loyalty to political parties will always be rewarded in development terms. The NDC and its founder, J.J. Rawlings, are inseparable in the UWR. Former President Rawlings is fondly remembered in social terms as the 'only Ghanaian leader who respected and dignified the people of the region. J.J. made us feel we are also Ghanaians.' The all-inclusive government of the PNDC included favourite sons from the region. The late Nandom Naa Polkuu Konkuu Chiiri II was the first person from the region to be appointed Secretary of Defence in the PNDC government in 1982. He was replaced by his naval officer cousin, Rear Admiral C. K. Dzang, in 1983. And in 1985 Dzang was succeeded by another son from Wa. Alhaji Mahama Iddrisu is Ghana's longest-serving Defence Minister. Other people from the region served in other senior capacities during the regime of Rawlings. For many people in the region, 'it is only when a man can trust his neighbour that he allows him to accompany his wife to the river side to fetch water'. In other words Rawlings kept faith with sons and daughters from the region and not only assigned them high-profile portfolios but also entrusted the entire security of the nation into their hands. Serving in govemment had its added advantages to the local people. As a Wala proverb has it, 'when one's mother is in the funeral house one is certain of being served when the food is shared'. Having sons serving in govemment in cabinet positions ensured development projects got to the region.

One 'son of the region' whose name everyone knows is Alhaji Mahama Iddrisu. His position in the PNDC government enabled him to offer assistance to UWR natives who approached him. As one respondent recollected:

Once you have a problem just find your lorry fare and get to Accra. Once in Accra get to Alhaji's house and all your problems will be solved. His house was always full with people from the region. Some of them wanted to travel abroad, others wanted admissions into the universities and jobs, yet others wanted financial assistance to start their own business. Ali of these people Alhaji catered for them in one way or the other. Even if he could not personally assist you he would direct you to other places where you could get help. Many people owe Alhaji a debt of gratitude, so we just followed him into the NDC without questioning his past association with the UP tradition. (Interview, Issifu Yaya, 25 September 2008)

The assistance Alhaji Iddrisu offered the natives of his region helped weave a mantle of trust around his leadership. Indeed, he enjoyed a large following among his Wala ethnic group, and was able to capture the UP support base among the Wala when Ghana redemocratized in the early 1990s. (13) Ethnicity was not a problem initially, as long the NDC delivered the goods; however, as Alhaji's power and influence waned in the NDC many in his ethnic group started questioning the changing fortunes of the Wala and are returning to the NPP. The people in the Wa East constituency, for example, have since 2000 voted for the NPP's parliamentary candidate.

Similarly, loyalty to J. J. Rawlings across generations also explains the NDC's popularity. Many voters grew up knowing Rawlings as the only leader. The loyalty of that generation has been transferred to the NDC. The fanatic loyalty of the revolution generation was the result of his down-to-earth and populist leadership style, admired by many people in the region. Rawlings is the only Head of State who visited the region regularly and extended courtesies to lesser-known traditional leaders and ordinary citizens. In this way, the PNDC accumulated huge moral capital in the region and the NDC is able to draw on this memory bank. By contrast, the NPP demonstrated that it had no respect for the people of the region when former President John Kufuor refused to appoint any person from UWR as a cabinet minister. In early 2001, when his attention was drawn to the fact that there was no representation from the Upper West in his cabinet, he said he did not find 'any qualified or suitable' person in the region to appoint as a cabinet minister. (14) The President's refusal to appoint a native of the UWR not only denied the region a chief patron; the people also felt insulted and alienated by his comments. Many people linked the comments to Asante prejudices against northerners. Secondly, the comments reinforced the popular notion in the region that the NPP is an Akan party which serves the interests of southern Akans. This enables the NDC to stress that it is an all-inclusive party, with egalitarian principles that appeal broadly to voters in the region.

The voters evaluate the past performance of the NDC's predecessor in the area of transport and communication. A situation of mostly impassable roads was inherited by the PNDC in the UWR. In order to open up the numerous food-growing areas in the region and also make the transportation of food crops to the market centres safer and reliable, the PNDC constructed and rehabilitated urban, trunk and feeder roads in the region. Not only were roads provided, but passenger transportation also improved greatly with the launching of the Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU). Formerly the few public passenger transport services available made travelling outside the region extremely difficult. A respondent recounted the problems people encountered before the liberalization of the transport sector:

Travelling to Kumasi was very difficult. There were very few vehicles plying the Wa-Kumasi route. The state transport buses occasionally came and there were also the private vehicles of the Isshaque brothers from Wa, Aminu from Lawra and the Gandah brothers from Babile. And the few [buses] that did [come] frequently broke down on the way and sometimes it took people a week to get to Kumasi. Others travelled to Kumasi on articulator trucks carrying cattle. But the introduction of the popular GPRTU '18 condemned buses' (15) made travelling to Kumasi reliable and a bit comfortable. (Interview, Amina Seidu, 24 October 2008)

In the area of communication, prior to the 1980s the region was inadequately provided with telephone and radio facilities. Telephone and postal services were unreliable. It was almost impossible to make calls from the region to other parts of Ghana. The region had only six telephone lines, operated on a network of manual switchboards, and the problems its residents encountered making and receiving calls still drew derisive comments in contemporary times. 'We queued for days just to get a slot to make important calls to Accra.' Attempts to extend digital telephone facilities to the region began in the mid-1990s and in September 1996 the Wa digital telephone exchange was commissioned.

The Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) had no presence in the Upper West Region until 1991. In the same year a colour TV transmitter with output power of 5 kilowatts was installed at Han. The installation and the transmission of live programmes were very timely. For the first time, it enabled the inhabitants of the region to watch the live football matches of the African Cup of Nations, with the Black Stars representing Ghana in Senegal, that year's host nation. (16) The impact of the live transmission and the football tournament were phenomenal and a life-changing experience for many inhabitants; a TV became the thing that every home must have.

The NDC is also remembered as the government that brought 'Akosombo' to the region. Several decades after the commissioning of hydroelectric power at Akosombo, more than half of the northern sector of the country, including the Brong-Ahafo Region, was not connected to the national grid. UWR was connected in October 1995. The extension of electricity to district capitals stimulated the growth of cottage industries in various locations. Sawmills, metal fabricating workshops, agro-processing shops and several entertainment centres (cinema centres, drinking bars, ice-cream parlours) sprang up. The electrification of the region was phenomenal: an elderly resident recalling social life in his community prior to electrification said:

In the past our sources of entertainment were limited: in the dry season our only form of entertainment after 6 p.m. was family story telling or engaging in cultural dances in the village centre when the high moon shone brightly. In the rainy season we spent most of our evenings in darkness. Now there is electricity and at least most homes have a TV or a radio set for free entertainment. (Interview, Lucas Dery, 18 September 2009)

The provision of other social services such as schools, clinics, health posts and potable drinking water in rural communities is another positive memory of the NDC's predecessor for voters in the region. Even though the NPP regime has a track record of having implemented some of the best social policies in the health and educational sectors, UWR voters have simply ignored such social intervention and stuck with the NDC. The alternation in power in 2000 and 2008 has convinced some voters in the region that political parties are trustworthy patrons, loyalty to whom will always be rewarded in development terms. 'We never for once thought the NPP would ever win political power in Ghana, but the fact that it did in 2000 demonstrates it pays to remain faithful and loyal. The NPP rewarded its supporters and strongholds, which means that loyalty to political parties is very important.'

For a very a long rime many rural communities had limited contact with the state. Indeed, the state was an abstract concept to many rural communities until the arrival of the PNDC. Through the work of its Committees for Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), the PNDC brought the state to the doorstep of many rural communities in the region. Decision making became collective and all voices counted in the development process. The PNDC gave marginalized and ethnic minorities a voice in the decision-making process. 'Power to the People' was defined in concrete terms. Associations, especially women's groups, were empowered with economic resources to chart independent lives. As interviews with those who had taken out loans from some of the women's associations affiliated with the 31st December Women's Movement (31st DWM) clearly demonstrate, access to and use of these loans have had an unquestionable impact on the activities of beneficiaries. Women farmers and traders who were members of the some of these women's groups were able to increase their crop production beyond consumption needs and sell some surplus in the market, thereby generating more income. Similarly, pito brewers and petty traders who have used loans from the associations for buying and selling clothes are generating enough surplus to improve their economic conditions and the well-being of their children. The vast majority of women interviewed indicated that, generally speaking, such loans had improved their socio-economic situation. 'What we witnessed in the past is what is influencing our voting patterns in the region. We have not seen any party that is better than the NDC to enable us to change our minds,' noted Hajia Hawa Seidu.


In this article the case has been made for the history of the region to be considered when attempting an explanation of the voting behaviour of its citizens. The undeveloped nature of the Upper West area compelled its chiefs and youth to agitate for the creation of a separate region. All post-independence governments have offered one form of development or another. However, the populist development philosophy of the PNDC coincided with the aspirations of the upper westerners and authoritarianism allowed the PNDC a relatively free reign in its management of politics and economics--hence its ability to decree the creation of the region. This is at the root of the NDC's popularity in UWR. The NDC's predecessor accumulated a cross-generation following which is still loyal to the party. Loyalty is traced to some prominent sons of the region and also to the party's founder. The NPP is making inroads into the region but not enough to overturn the NDC's popular vote.

The NDC's popularity in the region, considered as a vote proxy, is significantly driven by development considerations. This however, does not imply that other factors play no role in explaining its popularity. The NDC poses as the party of grassroots development, and in that sense has made a considered pitch for the support of a poor region. Socio-economic investments in the region were certainly important in helping the NDC win elections in the region. In election campaigns, the NDC could point to projects in almost every district. In short, under the Rawlings government the system of local and regional administration expanded considerably, creating opportunities for broader segments of the population; in return, the inhabitants have remained loyal to the party in Ghana's Fourth Republic.


Thanks are due to K. W. N. A. Kpangkpari, for permission to use documents of the Upper West Youth Association. A version of this article was presented at the Faculty of Social Studies, University of Ghana, 4th Annual Colloquium, 9-10 December 2010. The author thanks the participants, Kojo S. Amanor and the two anonymous reviewers of this journal for their helpful comments.


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(1) In Waale the literal meaning is 'We are holding it very tight.' This is in direct reference to the symbol of the NDC, the umbrella.

(2) Because of his light skin colour, the founder of the NDC and former President J. J. Rawlings is locally called dao gyie ('red man' or 'fair man').

(3) Several projects started by the NDC were completed during the NPP's rule, including the Bole--Bamboi road and construction of the University for Development Studies, Wa campus.

(4) The study draws on data collected during ongoing PhD research in the region which investigates the motivational basis for political activism in the two main parties.

(5) The three new districts are Wa West, Sissala East and Lambussie/Kami Districts.

(6) Bening's excellent study (1999) has chronicled the emergence of regional boundaries in Ghana. In fact, almost all regional partition encountered some form of opposition.

(7) 'North-west' also refers to the upper west area.

(8) E. K. Mumumi, MP for Tumu constituency, was the only independent candidate elected in the whole country. The remaining five MP were: S. D. Dombo (Jirapa-Lambussie), J.N. Momori (Wa East), B. K. Adama (Wa), Jatoe Kaleo (Nadowli) and S. E. Sanziri (Lawra-Nandom).

(9) When Busia as the opposition parliamentary leader fled into exile in 1959, it was his deputy Dombo who held the opposition groups together.

(10) Dombo was made Minister of Home Affairs, Kaleo took Labour and Social Welfare, and Adama the Parliamentary Affairs and later Defence portfolios.

(11) One such high-profile personality was Colonel Roger J. A. Felli (1941-79). He was Commissioner for Works and Housing and later held the Trade and Industry, Finance and Economic Planning, and Foreign Ministry portfolios. It was alleged that Col. Felli vowed to thwart any effort to separate the upper west from the upper east.

(12) Ghana's version of structural adjustment was launched under the name Economic Recovery Programme starting on 21 April 1983. The ERP was launched in two phases: the first phase, ERP I (1983-6), was the stabilization period; the second phase, ERP II (1987-9), focused on structural adjustment and development.

(13) In the 1979 elections Alhaji Mahama Iddrisu was the running-mate of William Ofori-Atta of the United National Convention, an offshoot of the UP tradition.

(14) Much later, in a cabinet reshuffle in October 2001, the Deputy Minister of Lands and Forestry, Professor Kasim Kasanga, was made the substantive minister, and in 2005 became Minister of Environment and Science. No other person from the region was appointed a cabinet minister during Kufuor's eight years in office.

(15) The Ghana Private Road Transport Union (GPRTU) is the largest road passenger transportation union. The '18 condemned buses' were Nissan Uvan buses that seated eighteen passengers. However, the accident rates were so high and in the serious cases all eighteen passengers sometimes perished. People from the UWR nicknamed the buses '18 condemned'.

(16) The 1992 competition was the eighteenth African Cup of Nations, the continent's football championship. It was hosted by Senegal. Cote d'Ivoire won its first championship, beating Ghana 11-10 on penalty kicks after a goalless draw on 26 January.

GEORGE M. BOB-MILLIAR is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana. Email:

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Author:Bob-Milliar, George M.
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Date:Aug 1, 2011
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