07/31/2012 03:53 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Does a New President for Ghana Mean a New Direction?


"I will dedicate myself to the service and well-being of the people of the Republic of Ghana and to do right to all manner of persons," reads Ghana's Presidential Oath. "Should I at any time break this Oath of office, I shall submit myself to the laws of the Republic of Ghana and suffer the penalty for it. So help me God."

Only days ago, under the Black Star of African emancipation, John Dramani Mahama spoke these words when he was sworn in as President of Ghana after the unexpected death of his predecessor, John Evans Atta Mills, aged 68.

The late President Mills has been widely, and rightly, praised for his integrity and commitment to a Republic for all Ghanaians. Calm and quiet, he was a powerful and effective force for democracy and peace. Though he is 15 years younger and hails from Ghana's impoverished north, President Mahama is not so different from his mentor. He values dialogue and tolerance, the rule of law, education, innovation and enterprise. Above all, he too values duty to the Republic.

And, happily, so do a critical mass of Ghana's political class. That's what has helped this small, dynamic nation successfully achieve a series of smooth political transitions over the past 20 years: from one governing party to another, from one set of policies to another and now, again, from one leader to another.

And that is why Ghana has been consistently cited as an example of good governance and economic development on a continent that struggles mightily to improve the well-being of its people. That's not to say that Ghana faces no challenges; of course it does.

For one thing, the country is heading into a presidential election only six months from now. President Mills was to be the candidate of his party, the National Democratic Congress. Will President Mahama now become the candidate? Who will be the candidate's running mate for the position of Vice-President? Like most African parties, the NDC is a coalition of factions defined by ideology, ethnicity and geography; resolving these questions will not be simple.

The rival New Patriotic Party, which held power from 2000 to 2008, is running neck and neck with the NDC in national polling. A more pro-business, free-enterprise party, the NPP enjoys support from wealthy donors, especially in the powerful Ashanti region. The NPP could win the election. Both parties have their share of corrupt and volatile opportunists. That's why calm, even boring leadership is essential to the country's continued progress.

Another challenge, a permanent one, is how to spread the benefits of economic growth, including that spurred by Ghana's off-shore oil. The country's underclass, along with a dangerously large pool unemployed young men, demands serious action: where it is animated by the state, the market or civil society, economic opportunity must be created for the millions of citizens still on the economic margins.

And there's more.

Ghana's government must balance its external relations among a triangle that involves China, other new economic powers such as Brazil and India, and the west and its institutions. A fourth node, the Arab world, could be added; the Saudis and the Iranians are investing heavily in the largely Muslim north of the country.

Finally, the state's security agencies must monitor jihadist activity in Mali, Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa, and cooperate with the African Union, the United States and other players to reduce the capacity of terrorist cells in the region.

These are just some of the issues facing President Mahama as he assumes office. What Ghana does next, therefore, matters to the citizens of the Republic. It matters to the African continent. And it matters to the world. The Black Star remains a beacon for us all.