‘An African Election’: Reflections on Ghana’s 2008 Elections

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An African ElectionIf you haven’t already seen ‘An Africa Election’, the documentary on the Ghanaian elections of 2008 in which the NDC opposition narrowly defeated the incumbent NPP, you really should. Along with one of our students, Jonno Jackson, I was lucky enough to chair a film screening and Q&A with the director, Jarreth Merz, at the African Studies Centre, Oxford University. I have never seen a film that better captures the hopes and fears of an African election campaign – you really do feel like you are in the middle of the action. What is particularly impressive is that the film both documents the stabilizing role of the electoral commission – with remarkable footage taken from inside the commission’s own ‘strong room’ – and reveals how close Ghana came to electoral violence and democratic backsliding. We asked two Ghana experts from the University of California, Los Angeles, Sarah Brierley and George Ofosu, to review the film for Democracy in Africa.

‘An African Election’: reflections on Ghana’s 2008 elections.

In less than eleven months, Ghana will be conducting its sixth presidential and parliamentary elections following its democratic transition in 1992. Ghana’s 2008 presidential election was won by a razor-thin margin by the opposition candidate, Professor John Evans Atta-Mills, and resulted in Ghana’s second peaceful alternation of political power since the reintroduction of multipartyism. By this landmark achievement, Ghana retained its democratic reputation on the continent, and restored the faith of the international community in the viability of multiparty democracy in Africa; a commitment that was on shaky grounds following Kenya’s post-election crisis in 2007 and the botched elections in Zimbabwe in 2008. While Ghana’s 2008 polls can be seen as comparatively free and fair, the election period was not without significant challenges and Ghanaians must not sit back and relax if they want to retain their exemplary electoral record. It is now time for all interested actors and stakeholders to look back, reflect, and prepare for what is likely to be a highly competitive election in December 2012, when the political stakes will be even higher because oil rents have started flowing into state coffers.

Fortunately, ‘An African Election’, a newly released documentary on Ghana’s 2008 presidential elections directed by Jerreth Merz, will aid this process. Featuring interviews with presidential aspirants, journalists, political analysts, and ordinary citizens, the film offers great insights into the political atmosphere in the run up to election day. It offers a unique avenue to learn at first hand the joys and trepidation of the political hopefuls and their campaign teams. At the same time, the film well captures the rapture that the electioneering season brings to cities and towns across the country, with constituents decked out in complete party regalia chanting their vision for a ‘Better Ghana.’

Importantly, the film also shows how a largely peaceful and progressive campaign can degenerate in the face of an expectedly tight margin of victory. After neither candidate secured over 50% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, Ghana went to a second round run-off on 28th December 2008. The film reveals that both parties expected to win. Invaluable footage from inside the electoral commission’s “strongroom”, where election results from the districts were faxed for national aggregation, demonstrates the tension between the two sides – the National Democratic Congress (then the opposition) and the New Patriotic Party (then the incumbent). As both sides accused each other of trying to rig the polls, some party leaders resorted to threats of violence should the election be ‘stolen’ by the other side.

During a delay in the official announcement of the results, the media was used by both political parties as a tool of mobilization as Ghanaians took to the streets – and in the absence of widespread respect for the electoral commission the dangerous mixture of confusion, suspicious and mass protest could easily have spiralled out of control – they did in Kenya, which such devastating effect. ‘An African Election’ successfully brings into sharp relief the challenges that Ghana’s democracy faces and the need for immediate steps to ensure a peaceful poll in 2012.

Ghana’s electoral management system is heralded as one of Africa’s most robust, aided significantly by established processes such as visible public counting of the ballots at each polling station and inclusive vote-count authorization at each stage in the process. However, this system can not ensure a peaceful electoral process in the face of emotionally laden and hasty claims of ‘foul play’, accompanied by knee-jerk calls by political actors for supporters to take to the streets.

Ghanaians must work to support the continuation of a peaceful rhetoric throughout the next campaign, and call upon politicians for responsible electioneering. Government, electoral agencies, political parties, civil society, media and security forces may have to double their collaborative efforts and adopt innovative way to secure a calm and credible 2012 elections which will test again the internal strength of one of Africa’s otherwise impressive democratic darlings.

To see the trailer, click here.

For reviews of the film, click here.

For a Q&A with the director, click here.

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