Monday, January 05, 2009

Peaceful Election!

I am certain that you have heard some news about the Presidential election in Ghana. Here is my first-hand account of these roller-coaster days here in Ghana.

On December 7, there was a Presidential election, with the 2 main candidates receiving 0ver 95% of the total vote, but neither achieving th required 50% + 1. A runoff was declared for Dec 28, ruining the Christmas holiday for everyone.

During the runoff, the election was within 1%. It is a miniscule difference in the vote tally, occurring in a new democracy with a weak judicial system. British Airways immediately took action and re-routed at least one flight into Togo, the country to the east of Ghana.

Suddenly, the runoff results from another region started to magically change in favor of the party in power, the New Patriotic Party (NPP). The radio and TV journalists started screaming about how the party in power is stealing the election and changing vote counts. It was so blatant and obvious that the entire country was outraged, regardless of which party they belong to. One radio broadcast said that emergency law would be in force by nightfall on the day of the runoff, but that did not happen. The air was very tense with rumor and speculation running rampant.

At 1:00 PM on the day of this disputed run-off, all the shops started closing. Even the mall closed. There was great tension in the air, but don't worry. I was always quite safe and knew that nothing bad will happen near me. I live in an area that is perhaps 80% opposition supporters.

The supposed 2PM announcement from the Electoral Commission never happened. It seemed like every journalist and every police officer in the country was at the Electoral Commission. Around 4:45PM all the TV stations started showing music-videos and re-runs of popular reality TV shows, abandoning their near non-stop election coverage. It was very freaky, and for the first time, I thought that something may happen.

Radio Gold, which was one of the more outspoken radio stations said that they would stay on the air talking until the Electoral Commission reports. If you hear music, they said, then we know a takeover has happened. The whole area I am in was just going crazy. Jessie's mom came to the door while we were watching the TV waiting for results and said that guns were being passed out at the NDC party headquarters, the opposition party that was having the election stolen from them. Of course that was just a nonsense rumor, but it shows the type of wild rumors that fly about and inflame people greatly.

Shortly thereafter, election covereage resumed and the Electoral Commission announced the results of 229 of the 230 constituencies in Ghana. The run-off was too close, with the opposition having 50.13% of the vote, and the party in power having 49.87%.

It was like Bush vs Gore all over again. The one outstanding constituency (think Florida) experienced flawed voting. So the Electoral Commission has announced that this one constituency will vote for a third time on January 2 - and that they will decide who becomes President.

At first when the percentages were announced, the entire area erupted with joy. Then as the news conference progressed, indicating that the vote was not over, great anger swept the crowd. The emotions that this election have stirred are intense, but everyone here always talks about making a peaceful election.

I went out with Jessie to walk the streets after the press conference. The streets calmed somewhat. There have been HUGE rallies at party headquarters and at the Electoral Commission. All peaceful. Everyone here is excited and anxious, but everyone also is insisting that this be a peaceful election.

Yesterday was the Tain re-run of the runoff election. Tain is the constituency that has to vote again. A giant throng of people descended on Tain for the special re-vote. Tain is mostly a backwater, so this is more attention than they have ever received. Police, military, media, voting observers, international observers, party officials and party supports from everywhere. It was a complete circus.

In the intervening days between the run-off and the special run-off in Tain, rumors I heard indicated that even NPP supporters in Tain were angry with the NPP's refusal to concede the election and were going to boycott the special re-vote. So the NPP, in it's infinite wisdom, decided to officially boycott the special runoff in Tain and is suing the Electorial Commission. Not one NPP official was on hand at any polling place.

The courts immediately rejected all legal actions brought by the losing party and the result was a devastating loss, with the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) receiving 94% of the vote. Previously Tain was much more evenly split.

The NPP Presidential candidate refused to concede, and again the country was feeling tense. Many of the Ministers of the party in power (NPP) came out and indicated that they support the change in power, most importantly the Minister of Defense. This was reassuring to most people because they took such a message to indicate that if the party in power tries to steal this election, the army will step in to prevent it. The current President indicated that he was ready to hand over power, again reassuring the people.

Apparently only one person in all of Ghana was refusing to accept the results. That is the Presidential candidate himself, Nana Akufor-Addo. I always believed he would do the right thing for Ghana, but the people of Ghana were not so sure. A giant crowd of people carrying sticks went to Radio Gold and surrounded the building. (Guns are illegal to posess in Ghana, and gun violence is extremely rare.) Tension was plenty, but there was no violence.

Finally the day after the Tain vote, the Electoral Commission certified the Presidential vote, and my entire neighborhood erupted. I safely walked the streets and enjoyed the great mass of people and celebration.

Eventually the losing candidate, who's father was once President of Ghana, conceded defeat. All is calm now and the entire country is breathing a sigh of relief. The new President takes office on Jan 7. I hope his transition team is ready! The winning candidate was once Vice-President, so he will be able to assume the office quickly.

In Africa, things are rarely clean and neat, but Ghana should be proud of this wonderful election. Ghana has been able to show the world how an emerging democracy can peacefully handle a crisis. One again, Ghana is setting a shining example for Africa. The journalists here also should receive special merit for their coverage and openness. I believe that it was the free press in Ghana that actually saved the day here.

This has been fascinating and exciting to watch unfold. But do not worry, all is safe and calm and nothing bad is going to happen. As you know, democracy is not always clean, and especially in a very young democracy there will be moments that test the people and her rulers. This has been such a moment for Ghana and I have seen clearly how the people of Ghana, when walking to the brink of anarchy, chose a different path and resolved this crisis with great peace and professionalism. Congratulations to Ghana!


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