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Ghana's Former Dictator Blazes Unlikely Trail to Democracy

It was, both friends and foes of the president agreed, a defining moment - not only for their country, but also for their continent. In the West African state of Ghana this week, the original dictator-turned-democrat, Jerry Rawlings, embarked on his fourth term as head of state.

Now victorious in two multiparty elections, the former fighter pilot - who first seized power in a violent coup in 1979 - has become something of an inspiration to military rulers across the region - who have in recent months abandoned the uniforms that caused such unease in the West, only to stay in power as heads of newly civilianized governments.

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Last month's poll was praised by monitors from the United States and Europe as a lesson in democracy, maturity, and optimism for a continent often riven by images of violence and despair. About 75 percent of voters turned out for a contest acknowledged even by the losers as largely free and fair. "We were deeply impressed," said observers from the Commonwealth of former British colonies, "and wish to commend the strong commitment of the people of Ghana to the democratic process."

"We have shown the world," Mr. Rawlings declared at a celebratory rally in the capital, Accra, last month, "that we refuse to be a Liberia or a Rwanda. This is a triumph for democracy, a triumph for Ghana, and a triumph for Africa."

But Rawlings's victory may soon test the democratic credentials of a politician who is already his country's longest-serving head of state. His National Democratic Congress won a sufficiently large majority in parliament to change provisions in the Constitution - which he approved in 1991 - preventing presidents from seeking a third term.

Whether or not he encourages his party to do so, his decision will be closely watched, and not only in Ghana. Present at Tuesday's swearing in was Gen. Sani Abacha, military ruler of the region's superpower, Nigeria. There is speculation that he, too, may resign from the Army only to participate in elections intended to mark his nation's scheduled return to civilian rule next year.

Rawlings, however, is focusing on Ghana's more immediate problems. He has urged his country to follow political success with economic gain. "I expect more dedication, more application, and more innovation," the president says. "We are declaring war on poverty, injustice, and laziness."

Rawlings - initially a radical populist who ordered the execution of three former heads of state when he first seized power in 1979 - plans to pursue that goal by accelerating the policies of economic reform he pioneered 13 years ago, which are now copied in most African countries.

In addition to promising further aid to the agricultural sector, the president has also offered to help the Ghanaian business community, which he has traditionally regarded with suspicion. "We will do everything possible to help you to help us," he says, pledging a full policy review toward small and medium-size enterprises.

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It is a message firmly endorsed by Joe Abbey, who heads the Center for Policy Analysis, an independent think tank in Accra. "We have to acknowledge the constraints on the public sector," he argues. "Only by attracting private capital will we generate the growth this country needs. Tough decisions will have to be taken."

With the elections out of the way, the West is eager to see such decisions taken. "Despite all the reforms, this country is still heavily dependent on cocoa farming and gold mining," says one diplomat. "We see great opportunities for ... exports like cotton, but government has to facilitate the process. If not, investment capital will go elsewhere."

Pressure on Rawlings to move swiftly will not come from the opposition. Routed in both the presidential and legislative elections, the opposition's Grand Alliance split up amidst acrimony and recriminations last week. "We never stood a chance," says one activist. "He had the money, he could tap into the state, he was controlling the game. It's progress, but it's not democracy."

Such sentiment is dismissed by the Rawlings faithful. "Ghana was the first country in black Africa to win its independence, and again we are blazing a trail," says Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Chambas. "Rawlings was the first leader in 40 years to complete his constitutional term in office without a military intervention, and now we have had the most free and fair elections in our history. It is excellent news."

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