AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Ghana’s elections: Back to the future
Dennis Laumann | December 5th, 2012

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The critically-acclaimed documentary “An African Election” is an excellent primer for Friday’s elections in the small, but pivotal West African nation of Ghana. Directed by Jarreth Merz, the film chronicles the final month of campaigning in Ghana’s December 2008 presidential elections which led to a hotly-contested nation-wide run-off later that month, followed by a cliff-hanger vote in a single rural constituency one week later. The film seems to focus on the specters of violence, intimidation, and fraud that hung over the elections like dark clouds, but Ghana’s reputation as a relatively stable, peaceful and democratic nation — within a region characterized by coups, rebellions, and fraudulent polls — emerged intact. Though much has changed in Ghana over the past four years, including the start of off-shore oil drilling, most of the same issues and personalities that feature in the 2008 elections dominate this week’s vote, too.

The 89-minute documentary is largely comprised of contrasting scenes of massive campaign rallies — during which the two main presidential candidates offer endless lists of locale-specific promises met with thunderous approval by throngs of supporters — and analytical commentary by mostly partisan scholarly “experts” and political leaders.

Here’s the trailer:

The film succeeds in portraying Ghana as a lively if imperfect democracy where ordinary voters freely share their strong opinions on camera. While the filmmakers briefly provide some historical context, particularly on Ghana’s first decade after independence in 1957, more attention to the ethnic rivalries, regional differences, and ideological divides in Ghana would help viewers better understand the election’s dynamics.

The foremost presence in the film, even more so than the two presidential candidates themselves, is J.J. Rawlings, Ghana’s larger-than-life former long-time leader. Dismissed by his mainly reactionary opponents as an authoritarian demagogue who came to power through “the barrel of the gun,” he is hugely popular amongst ordinary Ghanaians (as evident in many scenes in the documentary) and widely credited with transforming Ghana into the success story it is today.

When he came to power during the 31st December Revolution of 1981, Rawlings represented a new kind of Ghanaian ruler — a member of a minority ethnic group, not connected to any of the country’s elite families, and willing to get his hands dirty participating in voluntary labor projects. He presided over essential economic and political reforms, first as a revolutionary leader in the 1980s, then as a democratically-elected president and founder of the social democratic National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the 1990s.

In the film, we watch Rawlings stride triumphantly onto campaign rally platforms in far-flung towns, drive his own car through the busy streets of Ghana’s capital of Accra while offering a critique of western imperialism, and receive international election observers at his private residence where he issues dire warnings about the incumbent government’s attempts to steal the election.

In 1998, at the end of his constitutional two-term limit, Rawlings handed over power to John Kufuor, then leader of the opposition right-wing New Patriotic Party. The example Rawlings set – giving up power after nearly 20 years and then staying in the country as his opponents took over — was admired by Africans across the continent who also marveled at Ghana’s economic and political strides during his tenure.

Kufuor’s administration was generally unremarkable, except that it was rife with corruption and ethnic favoritism and very closely allied with the U.S. administration of George W. Bush. The elections documented in the film come at the end of Kufuor’s two terms and while he barely makes an appearance on screen, Kufuor played a key role in maintaining peace during the fervent final days of the extended campaign.

The election pitted the NPP candidate Nana Akufo-Addo, who served as Attorney General and Foreign Minister in Kufuor’s administration, against the NDC’s John Ata-Mills, Rawlings’s former Vice President and a law professor.

The elections, like all of Ghana’s elections every four years, were a re-match between the two dominant parties who claim divergent political lineages and constituencies. The NPP has always been an elitist party of reaction — opposed to Ghana’s founding President Kwame Nkrumah’s demand for independence from British colonial rule in the 1950s, for example — with electoral support almost exclusively limited to the Akan ethnic group. In contrast, the NDC is a national party, drawing support from within and outside the majority Akan areas, and encompassing adherents of the Nkurmah and Rawlings leftist traditions.

When neither candidate received the constitutionally-required “50 + 1” percent in the polls, a run-off election was called by Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, the extraordinarily serene and composed Chairman of Ghana’s Electoral Commission, another star of the documentary.

After another inconclusive result – and viewers are treated to spellbinding scenes in the election commission’s “war room” where representatives of the two parties trade accusations and threats – Afari-Gyan orders a re-vote in the Tain constituency where it was determined there had been problems with ballot distribution.

To say that all eyes were on Tain is an understatement, as the Ghanaian media descended on the remote district where the NDC had an electoral advantage. After the special vote, Afari-Gyan declared Mills the winner by less than 1% and NDC supporters hit the streets in ebullient celebration.

Behind the scenes, and the film suggests this, sources claim Akufo-Addo refused to accept the result. It was then that his former boss, outgoing President Kufuor, convinced the NPP flagbearer to gracefully accept defeat and concede to the Mills. Thus, even his opponents conceded that Kufuor emerged as a true statesman at the end of his tenure, if only because he was fearful his party’s notorious “macho men,” taking their cue from Akufo-Addo, would incite violence and thus tarnish Ghana’s image.

Remarkably, this week’s elections were supposed to be an exact re-match of the 2008 race, pitting Mills against Akufo-Addo once again, but the Ghanaian president tragically died in July. Mills’s Vice President, John Dramini Mahama, who was sworn into office as president hours after Mills’s death, now faces Akufo-Addo in Friday’s polls.

Like the recent American elections, the Ghanaian media claims the vote will be too close to call, but NDC supporters are hopeful Mahama will prevail since support is particularly strong in rural areas that have benefited from aggressive development programs over the past four years. Polling by neutral bodies suggest Mahama has a slide lead over Akufo-Addo.

In many ways, Akufo-Addo is the Mitt Romney of Ghana: he has been running for president for years, his support base is very limited, and he represents the interests of the wealthy.

Regardless of political affiliation, Ghanaians are hoping for a “one-touch” result, meaning one candidate wins outright this Friday thus avoiding a run-off, and most importantly, a peaceful election.

To get a crash course in Ghana’s politics, and to appreciate why Ghanaians want to avoid a repeat of the 2008 elections, “An African Election” certainly is an entertaining and informative documentary.

* Dennis Laumann is associate professor of history at the University of Memphis. The post first appeared in People’s World.

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Dennis Laumann

Dennis Laumann is Associate Professor of African History at The University of Memphis, regular contributor to www.peoplesworld.org, and author of Colonial Africa, 1884-1994 (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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7 thoughts on “Ghana’s elections: Back to the future

  1. Africa is A Country has set a standard that we as readers have come to expect. Instead of gross generalisations and shoddy research, – incisive, sharp, critical, and well-researched pieces, so I ask myself what is this piece doing here? It is so badly researched, so inaccurate, so full of glossing overs of complex issues that for a moment I thought I was on the wrong website. Rawlings was a charismatic, passionate leader, but the ongoing impact of his military regime and his present attempt to lead the country from behind the scenes are not mentioned in this hagiography. The author also states that the NPP was against Nkrumah’s fight for independence, when the NPP did not exist in the 1950s, (I’m assuming he means the UGCC of which Nkrumah was originally a member and which did want independence, though in a more conservative way). He characterises Kufuor’s regime as rent with corruption without mentioning the ongoing, documented charges of corruption brought against the NDC in recent years (incl by Rawlings) and during this election. Africa is A Country, this article does you injustice and misrepresents my country entirely! There are so many writers in Ghana that have a far greater grasp of the complexity of issues, problems, policies, and situation (there is not one hero or nor one villain in this election, and to play into this narrative is not only misleading, but dangerous), please have one of them write on what is going on, if only to counter this one-sided and frankly incompetent author. And, you would have a far more insightful, balanced and in-depth article in the bargain. What we need is less of this, and more of what you usually do

    • The NPP has been known by various names over the decades of its reincarnations – National Liberation Movement, Progress Party, Popular Front Party, NPP, all claiming descent from the so-called Danquah-Busia tradition – and in the years leading up to independence, its leaders lobbied the British imperialist government against independence, then its supporters waged a terrorist campaign – including bombings and murders in Kumasi and elsewhere – when Nkrumah ruled a free Ghana.

      • What are you a CIA/DIA agent or just willfully ignorant? Please stop spreading historically inaccurate misinformation about my country in public forums. One thing I hope more than anything post these elections is that my people stop giving space and honour to people like you just because of the colour of your skin. If you wrote the same kind of tripe and were Ghanaian, you’d get taken apart in print by academics and journalists. Shame on Ghana for allowing someone with this level of ignorance to pass. Shame on Africa is A Country for printing and promoting this

  2. It’s time for the Elephant to move things Forward with it’s strength>>>>
    NDC has got no chance again in the future of Ghanaian Politics >>>I wish Nana Addo all the BEST >>>THE BATTLE IS THE LORD’S>>>>

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