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A Ghanaian election

How much do you remember about the Ghanaian presidential run-off of 2008? Hm? No? Fair enough. Me neither. And there’s a reason for that. But Jarreth Merz does. The Swiss documentary-maker spent three hectic months on the campaign trail, the better that we might understand – and he’s put it all down in his film, An African Election.

It is a luxury (perhaps) for documentarians that you can still just about recap the whole story of post-imperial Africa as background for a film like this. To darn, in shoddy order, the ravell’d sleeve of Ghanaian independence (from Britain, as it goes), in the little over 50 years since Kwame Nkrumah’s ground-breaking election as Africa’s first black prime minister, Ghana has been through five military dictatorships and four republics, a record which makes revolutionary France look positively boring and which would embarrass many of Ghana’s continental neighbours if only they’d troubled themselves with the four republics.

The most notable figure in all this chequered history – perhaps more significant even than Nkrumah himself – is Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, who seized power from the senior brass in 1979, executed his predecessors in what he openly termed “housecleaning”, returned government to the people within months, then took it back in disgust two years later when he saw what they did with it. By the lights of African military dictators Rawlings ran a pretty decent show; and in 1992 (under international pressure, admittedly) he took the leash off Ghana’s democratic process and held legitimate elections – which he won. Twice. In 2000, at the end of his second term (a limit imposed by the constitution he himself had signed into law), Rawlings handed over power to John Kufuor’s New Patriotic Party – the first and only time Ghana had witnessed a peaceful transition from one ruling party to the next.

So, there’s your context, and that brings us pretty much up to date. The only remaining question being: would it ever happen again?

In an effort, perhaps, to let the tale of Ghanaian democracy tell itself, An African Election does not quite present this in so succinct a manner. Like all good political stories, Ghana’s has at least two and a half sides. Additionally, Merz is keen to frame the electoral process against the background of widely broadcast post-election violence in Kenya and Zimbabwe (to name just two…) and the recent discovery of oil in Ghanaian territorial waters, which those of a cynical bent would say raises the stakes when it comes to control of the national purse. But we’ll come back to that.

Although there were 15 candidates in total, this was essentially a two-horse race: for the NPP, Nana Akufo-Addo, former Minister of Justice and Minister of Foreign Affairs under Kufuor; for Rawlings’ party (the National Democratic Congress), Professor John Atta Mills, Rawlings’ former VP.

Thanks to the natural characters of the loud-mouths and braggarts who populate presidential politics, Merz has no trouble getting continued access to key players. Predictably enough, the policy wonks and journalists (all Ghanaian) bang on about “good governance” and “due process” and the like, while the politicians – who actually have to get elected – talk about “peace” and “the people”, “increased production”, “education for all”, “bringing technology to Ghana”, “going forward”, and you’re never quite sure when this is just code for “our turn at the trough, thanks”. (Call me contrary, but I’d love to see a documentary about people openly opposed to the democratic process.)

There’s plenty of talk about the “privileged few”, and mostly it’s coming from the mouths of foreign-educated politicians with cut-glass English accents. And why are they all speaking in English, anyway? Is it the anthropological warp of the cameras? Or the context of Ghana’s history? This was not clear.

And then there’s J.J. Still in rude health, and casting a substantial shadow, Ol’ Drawlin’ Rawlings is repeatedly captioned as “Campaigning for John Atta Mills”; but when the man being voted for is his former deputy, and when there are spontaneous crowds gathering round Rawlings’ 4×4 shouting “Jerry Jesus”, it doesn’t take much to infer that, in reality, he’s Mills’s boss. (Rawlings amiably calls him “Prof.”, but it doesn’t exactly sound like he’s down on one knee.)

In the end – after a hung first round, a second-round run-off, contested results, angry rhetoric, and yes, the army on the streets – the election was decided, thanks to the shepherding of the imperturbable election commissioner, Dr Afari-Gyan, by the constituents of the rather small and far-flung Tain District, who had, due to an administrative glitch, been unable to finish voting in the second round. Cue curious footage of villagers stepping over their goats to decide the nation’s future, and all’s well that ends with a new president who doesn’t have a rank for a first name.

This is a cheery narrative conclusion (certainly better than any of the alternatives), but it leaves the film looking dangerously like it has sexed up and oversold its main premises. First, that there might be a brutal post-election scrum over power and oil wealth (when it turns out that Ghanaian politics is, now anyway, after five consecutive “free and fair” elections, really very much like our own). Second, the persistent and ill-argued notion that Ghana is somehow Africa’s political barometer (hence the concern, if its democratic processes go up in smoke once again). In fact, the latter starts to look downright paradoxical if Ghana could have gone the way of Zimbabwe and yet didn’t because they have the more mature democratic system. In the circumstances, presenting it like it “might have” is, well… a bit shifty.

Nor was there discussion of why democracy has struggled across Africa as a whole (and no: the answer isn’t “the CIA”), or – a related topic – the oft-lamented love of the Big Man in African politics, an omission worsened by the fact that the film gives no information on how the presidential campaign locks in with, say, the election of parliament, underscoring the impression that African politics is all about the bloke at the top. This is fundamental to the Rawlings phenomenon, and although Merz gives Rawlings more than enough rope to hang himself, the footage of him is so extended (presumably because he was the most keen to talk) that it hints at a kind of journalistic Stockholm syndrome. Letting Rawlings’ ominous remark, from a dark corner, that “They must not push the country” go un-noted (he is not referring to politicians in general but to the opposition party) is perhaps Merz’s idea of showing not telling; but for my money there should have been more telling.

In short, there were too many politicos, and too much of their car-salesman’s bullshit, and we didn’t hear enough from the people whom they claim to represent. What should politicians do to make the country better? one farmer is asked in a rare vox pop [sic.]. Simple, he says: “If only they stopped to tell lies.” Well, fair enough; but putting a camera in front of them weeks before an election doesn’t seem the best way to wean them off the habit.

That said, the film does a good job of keeping the story moving, a tough one for documentaries when you already know what’s happened (if all you know is that Ghana didn’t implode), and the quietly emergent hero is – and I mean this sincerely – the democratic process itself. A peaceful handover of power from one elected party to another is a tragically rare occurrence in Africa, and this one ought to be celebrated.

For – in abridged formtheartsdesk

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