The 59-year-old, who suffered a stunning defeat at the hand of Nana Akufo-Addo in the 2016 election, officially launched the process of giving the presidency another shot.
Defying calls by some high-profile Ghanaians for him to retire from active politics, the former president wrote officially to the National Democratic Congress (NDC) to confirm his participation in the party’s presidential primary.
The highly anticipated move came after nearly two years in which Mahama refused to publicly commit to a 2020 run. Until now, he had stated that he favoured helping to unite a fractured NDC and building an electoral machine that is capable of challenging the New Patriotic Party (NPP) before mulling a 2020 run.
"If you ride a lame horse into a race and you lose the race, your priority must be to cure the lameness of the horse and not about who will ride the horse,” he told former members of his administration in Accra last year.
But sources say Mahama had been privately working towards contesting in the 2020 election, since he came to terms with his defeat in 2016.
And in the absence of credible opposition within the NDC, Mahama will be the hot favourite to win the party's primary and land the coveted nomination.
In a sign of what is to come, Mahama's 2020 announcement quickly sparked mockery and derision from some Ghanaians, especially supporters of the governing NPP.
It also set off a debate on social and traditional media platforms on Mahama’s suitability for another term in office.
In a passionate appeal that quickly went viral on Facebook, Kojo Yankson, a former minister and popular educationist, called on Mahama to abandon his second term bid and retire gracefully.
“From my knowledge of history, no leader of any country has been able to solve all the problems of that country,” he wrote.
“John, my humble request is for you to give a second thought to your decision.”
For many NPP supporters, the decisive win Akufo-Addo secured over Mahama in the last election, makes a second term victory for his predecessor in 2020 unlikely, if not impossible. (The president secured more than one million votes more than his predecessor in that election.)
Echoing that view recently, Reverend Isaac Owusu Bempah, a popular pastor and friend of Akufo-Addo, said that Mahama was "finished" politically and would never win an election in Ghana.
"Bring him [Mahama] a thousand times and he will lose a thousand times," Owusu Bempah said of the former president.
"He is done with his job ...God removed him from the presidential seat and he is finished”.
But is Mahama really finished politically? Can he mount a solid opposition to Akufo-Addo in the 2020 presidential election? For an incumbent, Mahama's performance in the last election was poor and unexpected (many polls had predicted a close race).
And the current government and its supporters have good reason to be confident going into the 2020 election.
However, there are several reasons why Akufo-Addo and the NPP must take Mahama's 2020 ambition seriously.
1. Unprecedented win, unprecedented expectation
Akufo-Addo achieved such an overwhelming victory in 2016 because many people were disappointed by Mahama’s performance as president. The former president had a lot of support going into the 2012 elections. He was considered a youthful president who would affect quick and positive change. But, for many people, he did not meet this expectation.
Under Mahama’s watch, the economy underperformed - the cedi, for instance, declined against major international currencies; Ghanaians endured a power crisis, although Mahama eventually fixed the problem; corruption allegations and scandals like the "Brazil 2014 fiasco" and the “bus branding scam” buffeted the administration and damaged the then-president’s reputation. Even the “Ameri” and “Karpower” deals the administration signed in an attempt end the power crisis attracted their own allegations of corruption.
Mahama was increasingly seen as corrupt by many people, a charge that was viciously promoted by the then-opposition NPP. He was also deemed to have treated corruption allegations against his ministers casually, choosing to post some of them to the presidency instead of investigating the allegations against them and possibly dismissing them. (In this respect, President Akufo-Addo has laboured to distinguish himself from Mahama by investigation corruption allegations against his appointees and taking punitive action against them.)
Mahama's decision to suspend allowances for nurses and teachers in training was also seized upon by his political opponents to portray him as insensitive.
Akufo-Addo, on the other hand, presented himself as an incorruptible candidate who would eradicate corruption and oversee the transformation of the country from a mainly raw material-producing economy to an advanced economy.
He promised to create jobs, implement “Free SHS” and build factories in every district in Ghana, among other pledges.
Ghanaians voted overwhelmingly for Akufo-Addo because they trusted him to deliver quick, decisive and visible change. Their expectation of the president is extremely high. This level of expectation is probably unprecedented in decades. And roughly two years into his administration, the jury is still out on whether Akufo-Addo has given a good account of himself as president.
While many gains, including the implementation of “Free SHS” and appointment of a special prosecutor, have been made by the current government, many Ghanaians, including prominent NPP members, have recently begun to complain of failed promises, job losses, cedi depreciation, transport fare hikes and general economic hardship.
More important, however, is the flurry of corruption allegations that have buffeted the Akufo-Addo administration in key government agencies such as the energy ministry and BOST.
The public repulsion and outrage sparked by those alleged corrupt acts have already led to the sacking of Boakye Agyarko, a top ally of the president, from his position as minister for energy.
Akufo-Addo himself had his integrity questioned when former GFA boss, Kwesi Nyantakyi, asserted in an investigative video released by Anas that the president was open to collecting bribes from investors in exchange for giving them contracts. Although, the president rigorously denied the claims, the episode did not help the image he has sought to project as an incorruptible politician.
In 2020, therefore, Akufo-Addo will be a "tainted" candidate just like Mahama was in 2016. This will play to the ex-president's advantage.
Given the sheer weight of expectation, if Akufo-Addo turns out to be a disappointment or a mediocre, business-as-usual president, his support among Ghanaians will dwindle sharply, creating an opening for Mahama.
Mahama's loss in the 2016 election was a clear indication that that no president is entitled to an automatic second term.
With the exception of Atta Mills, who died in office, Mahama, in 2016, became the first Ghanaian incumbent to lose a reelection bid. This means that a loss for Akufo-Addo after just a term is possible.
NPP supporters will, however, be encouraged by prevailing precedent that the NPP and NDC each govern for two terms or eight straight years whenever they win power.
Despite his stunning loss in 2016, Mahama still remains a widely popular figure in the country.
Recent social media polls suggest that many NDC supporters favour his return 2020. And, should he win the primary, a key advantage is that he will not have to spend much money marketing himself.
In Mahama, the NDC will have a candidate who is already known nationally - someone whose popularity matches Akufo-Addo's.
4. Financial muscle
The cost of contesting for Ghana's presidency is extreme high. As president, Akufo-Addo will indisputably have the stronger financial backbone going into the 2020 elections.
But, as former president, Mahama will have the financial muscle and connections required to put together a financial war chest that will rival Akufo-Addo's.
5. Record vs record
The 2020 election will pit Akufo-Addo's record in his first term against Mahama's four-year record. If Akufo-Addo's performance is not demonstrably better than Mahama's, the 2020 election will be more competitive than many anticipate.
6. Enthusiasm gap
A comparison of the 2012 and 2016 presidential results shows that while Akufo-Addo was able to maintain - and in many cases exceed - the votes he got in 2012, Mahama saw a sharp drop in his votes from 2012. Consequently, while he secured 5,574,761 votes ( (50.7%) in 2016, he could only manage 4,713,277 votes (44.4%) in 2016.
This represents a difference of 861, 484 votes. Essentially, 861,484 people who voted for Mahama in 2012 did not vote for him in 2016. Akufo-Addo, on the other hand, garnered 5,248,898 votes (47.7%) in 2012 and 5,716,026 votes (53.9%) in 2016. This represents a gain of 467,128 votes. So, although Akufo-Addo got one million more votes than Mahama in 2016, the president added only 467,128 votes to his 2012 figure.
One of reason for monumental decline in Mahama's 2016 figures is that many independent voters who had backed him in 2012, switched their support to Akufo-Addo.
Another key reason is the enthusiasm gap between his supporters and those of Akufo-Addo before the election. Having been in opposition for eight years, Akufo-Addo's supporters were highly enthusiastic and desperate to affect change, so they turned out to vote in large numbers.
Many Mahama supporters failed to turn out, however, because they were depressed by the negative stories about their candidate. Many of them also felt that Mahama had not done enough to earn a second term.
In 2020, enthusiasm will likely swing in favour of Mahama's supporters. A mediocre performance by Akufo-Addo will depress his supporter's turnout and lend an impetus to Mahama's campaign.
Conclusion If Mahama lands the NDC nomination, the 2020 election will be an unprecedented showdown.
It will be the first time in Ghana's history that a former president will be contesting the presidential election. Two popular leaders of the two leading parties in Ghana will be competing on their individual records.
Ghanaians will be forced to decide whether to make a change or to maintain the status quo. In 2016, Mahama lost after just one term in office.
This suggests that a more sophisticated and increasingly impatient Ghanaian electorate is prepared to vote out underperforming leaders even after just a term.
This, therefore, imposes an inescapable responsibility on Akufo-Addo to deliver decisive change or answer to voters in 2020. It is incontrovertibly within this context that Mahama's 2020 bid must be taken seriously.
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