What Ghana teaches us all about stealing, and not stealing, elections

Wednesday March 21 2012

As the temperatures rise in Kenya over the date of the next election, I got round to watching An African Election, a documentary on the 2008 Ghana election that I got two weeks ago.

It is a very revealing story by Swiss-Ghanaian filmmaker Jaretth Merz, who had unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to all the candidates and key political players.

He even filmed inside the house of Ghana’s controversial former President Jerry Rawlings. As a result, he offers us some of the most intimate peeks into what kind of person Rawlings is.

It also partly explains why, as a military leader, Rawlings ushered in multiparty democracy and accepted to hand over power in 2000 when he was defeated by John Kuffuor, yet he remained on the sidelines, being a menace to the very democracy he ushered in.

Rawlings is a tough guy who not only seized power by the gun, but had all Ghana’s former military dictators tied to barrels on the beach and executed. He always did and still does, breathe revolution.

However, there is a scene when he returns home after campaigning for John Atta Mills, the candidate of the National Democratic Congress, the party Rawlings founded.


Former First Lady Nana Rawlings is doing a jig in front of the TV watching her husband campaign with Mills, when Rawlings walks in. Mills is shown thanking Rawlings and his wife for establishing the foundations of present-day democracy. Rawlings, who has endured a lot of criticism since he left office, sits down and breaks into tears.

I was quite surprised how hysterically popular Rawlings remains with Ghana’s underclass.

Shot in 2008, it will come as no surprise that both in the opening tags, and in comments in the documentary, Kenya is cited as an example of how an election can go wrong.

This is because of the 2008 post-election violence following the disputed December 2007 election, was still fresh. In fact, Kenya is routinely cited along with Zimbabwe as being among the African countries where politics had gone terribly wrong.

For that reason, the next election is not just about choosing a new Kenyan national leadership under a new Constitution, but also removing Kenya from the “hopeless” category in African political narrative, and moving it to the “hopeful” or “promising” one.

Make no mistake, the 2008 Ghana election had its chaotic moments, and the same old fear-mongering and voter-bribing – all of which An African Election captures beautifully.

In the end, Mills defeated the well-spoken Nana Akufo-Addo, candidate of the then ruling New Patriotic Party.

So how did Ghana still manage to pull it off? First, the Electoral Commission chairman, Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, was strikingly cool-headed and, actually, had a philosophy of organising elections.

He argued that because you cannot expect the thousands of election officials you need to organise a poll to be honest, “you build integrity in the system itself”.

In Kenya, once the results arrive at the electoral commission’s headquarters in Nairobi from the various tallying centres, because the various party agents will have signed them off, they are good to go. In Ghana, the party agents are there to sign up on the “final” results at headquarters too, before they are made official.

Secondly, while there are funny scenes showing the candidates promising exactly the same things at rallies (free education, modern agriculture) – the point being that there is little policy variation among them – the main parties have clearly different ideological roots around which people still rally. The NPP is notably conservative, and is the businessmen’s party. The NDC is more populist, Nkrumahist, and left-leaning.

Thus, at least part of the contest in Ghana is around ideological issues. In Kenya, the ideological lines have blurred to a point, according to most commentators, where they don’t exist.

Watching the documentary, I finally figured out why African elections tend to end in violence. Our polls are never just about who becomes president and which party rules. No, they are part carnival, part theatre, part ritual, part wresting match, part civic duty, part robbery.

When people wear their Sunday best to go and vote; wait for 12 hours to cast their ballot; and dance all night when their candidate wins, you know it’s not just an election you have on your hands. Beware.

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