African Election

An African Election directed by Jarreth Merz

Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to gain its independence, in 1957, and remains, despite its share of turmoil, the standard-bearer for political stability on the African continent. Why Ghana? 

An implicit answer is provided by the documentary An African Election, which chronicles the essentially peaceful, if sometimes disruptive, transfer of power that occurred during the 2008 presidential race between leading candidates Nana Akufo-Addo, representing the incumbent NPP (New Patriotic Party) –his mantra is “Are We Going Forward or Are We Going Back?”– and John Atta Mills from the NDC (National Democratic Congress). Simply put, the answer is: Ghanaians ache for democracy. As one interviewee says, “We love our mother Ghana so we want everybody to take part in this election.” 

The Swiss-born documentarian Jarreth Merz, who spent seven of his boyhood years in Ghana, initially intended for the film to cover his sentimental journey back to his roots after an absence of 28 years. (He has deep Ghanaian ties on his grandmother’s side). Once in Ghana, however, the impending election took hold, and, good political journalist that he is, Merz recognized a larger story at work. With his brother Kevin acting as co-director and co-cameraman, Merz, who filmed for over three months and shot over 220 hours of film, moves right into the fray, travelling with both political camps, interviewing people in the streets, in the capital city of Accra, and in the outlying regions. He shows up at the polls, where the mix of jubilation (at the democratic process) and wariness (over the fear that that process will be subverted) is palpable. 

Politics deeply infuses the lives of Ghanaians. A citizen tells Merz, “Politics is part of the human life, even your day-to-life is politics.” Perhaps only a people who have been deprived of political autonomy for so long could feel so strongly about this. The 2008 election was by no means clear-cut ideologically. The NPP is centrist and right-leaning and caters to the conservative middle class, while the NDC, which like the NPP was formed in 1992, is a left-leaning social democratic party. Yet the appeal of both cuts across class and demographic lines. For the NDC, the election was particularly crucial since a second defeat in the presidential elections, following losses in 2000 and 2004, could effectively end the party. For this reason, looming even larger than Mills in the movie is Jerry Rawlings, the charismatic former NDC president from 1992 through 2000, who is still much beloved by many Ghanaians.

Merz films Rawlings exhorting the cause of his party while, not infrequently, masses of ecstatic Ghanaian admirers crowd into the camera frame. (His counterpart, far less charismatic but certainly statesmanlike, is the NPP’s outgoing president John Kufour). Merz captures the tumult and also the comedy, often inadvertent, in this political circus that nevertheless has entirelyserious consequences for both Ghana and for all of Africa. He shows us a pro-Mills TV spot that has a mother counselling her young daughter to avoid a large cobra (presumably Akufo- Addo), in their midst. Overhanging the election is a larger development: the recent discovery of vast offshore oil reserves that Kufuour says will turn Ghana into an ‘African tiger.’ 

Barack Obama’s election to the U.S. presidency occurred during the run-up to the 2008 election, and both Ghanaian political parties, especially the NDC, attempt to draw on Obama’s success and sloganeering. (The NDC proudly proclaims that “Change has come.”) However, when the results of the election are too close to call and a run-off is declared, viewers may be thinking less of Obama and more of George W. Bush vs. Al Gore. Both sides declare they have won. Charges of ballot fraud are rampant. Voters stand beside polling stations and loudly count out the ballots as they are tallied. So-called ‘macho men’ appear intimidatingly at polling stations, some of them on motorcycles, a known conveyance for stolen ballot boxes. 

In the end, it is up to the constituency of a remote region called Tain to decide the election with their votes in favor of the NDC. Catastrophe, which seemed so imminent, is averted. (Compare this to the ongoing uncertainties about the Arab Spring). Watching this film, what stays with you are the chants of the people in the street crying out “We want peace.” Even more, you will remember what a citizen says about the lack of violence: “We were able to talk to each other.”

Peter Rainer