A Nation United in Grief

07/25/2012 03:29 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

"This is the saddest day in our nation's history. I never imagined that one day I'll address our nation in such circumstances." These were the words of the new President John Mahama when he delivered his first address to the nation after the death of President John Atta Mills on Tuesday, July 24. The late president's death was announced at 2:15pm GMT and by 8pm GMT the same day, the vice president was sworn in as president.

In a region where the death of a president has been used as an opportunity to organize coup d'etats, the smooth and peaceful transition was unprecedented and further strengthened Ghana's democratic credentials and reaffirmed its status as a beacon of hope for Africa. Immediately after the the president's demise was announced, Nana Akufo Addo, the opposition leader, suspended his presidential campaign. Ghanaians from diverse political and ethnic backgrounds stood united during the nation's greatest hour of sorrow.

As we reflect on this event and what it means for the future of democracy in Africa, the question i have been pondering on is, "How did a country that was under a military dictatorship less than three decades ago develop such a strong democratic foundation?" My answer is that the growth of a vibrant civil society in Ghana is largely responsible for this rapid change. In the last two decades, the number of civil society organizations have grown significantly and this has in turn resulted in stronger civic engagement. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker, was among the first scholars to do a comparative study of the connection between democracy and civil society. After visiting the United States in 1803, he published his major work, Democracy in America, in which he analyzed the various forms of political association in America and commented that "Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America."

Robert Putman, in his widely read book Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, wrote:

For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved. When economic and political negotiation is embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced. At the same time, networks of civic engagement embody past success at collaboration, which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration. Finally, dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants' sense of self, developing the "I" into the "we," or (in the language of rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants' "taste" for collective benefits.

I believe that the emergence and growth of Ghana's civil society will enable the country to consolidate her democracy and serve as a positive example for other African countries to follow.