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Opinions of Sunday, 23 December 2012

Columnist: Ayelazuno, Jasper Abembia

Kudos to the ordinary Ghanaians

The 2012 Ghanaian election: kudos to the ordinary Ghanaians for preserving the peace

By Jasper Abembia Ayelazuno

Ghana has run another relatively peaceful, free, and fair election, affirming its internationally acclaimed image as a model of electoral democracy in Africa. Though taking off in fits and starts, because of malfunctioning of the biometric verification machines (a new technology adopted by Ghana to enhance voter-identification and the transparency of the polls), the 2012 election was conducted peacefully and successfully. Voting began on the 7th December, and on 9th December, the Electoral Commissioner, Dr Afari Gyan declared the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party’s candidate and the incumbent president, Mr John Mahama, as winner. He obtained 50.70 of valid votes cast (5,574,761 votes) to beat his closest challenger, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), who obtained 47.74% (5,248,898 of valid votes cast). Unlike the 2008 election in which a second (even “third”) round was needed to decide the winner, President Mahama won this one “one touch” (as they say in Ghanaian electoral parlance) because he obtained over 50% +1 votes, the winning criterion stipulated by the 1992 constitution. As with the previous five elections, Ghanaians have again demonstrated maturity in the democratic values of tolerance, compromise, and peaceful transformation of political disputes through legitimate or statutory institutions, mechanisms, and processes.
To be sure, many groups of people and organizations, both state and civil society, deserve credit for another highly successful Ghanaian election. Civil society organisations, the media, the security agencies, the competing political parties and their candidates, and many more, all deserve praise for the success of this election. All these organisations and people played a crucial role in ensuring that the election was free, fair, and above all, peaceful. However, it is ordinary Ghanaians or the subalterns who deserve special praise for not only their enthusiastic participation in the election, but more so, for comporting themselves so peacefully in the face of circumstances unpropitious for peace. The main purpose of this commentary is to pay homage to them: to make them visible because they are always swept to the backwaters of mainstream politics after every election – until the next one, when their votes give them the chance to become the centre of political attention again.
Who are ordinary Ghanaians or the subalterns, and why? They are all the citizens who occupy the socio-economic space below the elite of wealthy business people, politicians and those well-connected to them, and the nouveux middle class of Ghanaians working in the higher echelons of public institutions or non-governmental organisations. In the urban areas, they are the un- and underemployed living in slums and squalid conditions, engaged in all sorts of demeaning jobs and trade in the informal sector as their survival strategies to keep body and soul together. In the rural areas, they live off the land, working at the dreary and back-breaking activities of farming – still dominated in Ghana by rudimentary methods such as slash and burn. Usually suffering from grinding poverty, they are not well-connected politically, and are unlikely to benefit from the political patronage of whichever party is in power. Their life chances are precarious because they suffer debilitating illnesses or health hazards related to their living and working conditions; they often die from preventable circumstances and treatable diseases for which they cannot afford medical help. If electoral democracy is measured by concrete improvements in the wellbeing of citizens (which it is not), Ghana would not be a model; two decades of electoral democracy have not led to any remarkable improvement in the living conditions of these Ghanaians.
In most conflicts in Africa, it is this class of people, especially the young among them, who serve as a pool of ready-recruits from which warlords and disgruntled political entrepreneurs draw their fighters. These Ghanaian subalterns are the invisible heroes of Ghana’s electoral peace. They have preserved the peace in inhospitable political circumstances of zero-sum and do or die politics, including the politicization of ethnic divisions. .
Since the “founding” election in 1992 the underlying quality of Ghana’s democracy, electoral peace , has rested on the political maturity of these Ghanaians. Despite the severe destitution they suffer, they do not often engage in contentious politics such as demonstrations, protests, or even armed revolts – though they would have been justified if they did. Rather surprisingly, they turn out in massive numbers every four years to wait patiently for long hours (sometimes as long as four or more hours) to vote for their parties – mostly the NPP and NDC. Voting begins at 7am in Ghanaian elections, but this year some of them started forming queues at their polling stations as early as 12 midnight or even earlier. This is certainly a mark of political maturity and civic activeness, an indication that as citizens of the state they take their civic responsibilities seriously. More importantly, most of them are prepared to accept the outcome of the polls as announced by the Electoral Commission, whether favourable or unfavourable to the party of their choice. Regardless of the tension that engulfed Ghana in both the 2008 and 2012 elections because of election disputes between the NPP and NDC, the subalterns have comported themselves well.
Even in the face of incendiary political rhetoric by some of their party leaders – rhetoric that sometimes reeks of politicization of ethnic and other identity cleavages – they have refused to take up arms against each other. This is not to present a picture of pristine cosmopolitan Ghanaian subalterns who coexist peacefully, seeing themselves as belonging to one nation, Ghana. Far from it! They are loyal to their ethnic groups; and most may even vote on ethnicity rather than on issues. In the aftermath of this election, there have been reports that people of Northern and Ewe extraction living in Ashanti region, especially Kumasi, have been openly chastised by people of Ashanti extraction for voting against their party, the NPP. With the declaration of John Mahama as president, the derogatory ethnic stereotype that “Northerners” (there is no ethnic group like this) are inferior to Ashantis is reported to have been rekindled in the Ashanti region. And people of Northern extraction have been reminded that their traditional professions are sanitary-workers and watchmen, not the highest office of president.
This sort of bigotry is not uncommon among the subalterns but they do not kill each other because of it, especially when it gets politicized during elections. Ethnic politics is real in Ghana but it has not led to bloody electoral conflicts as witnessed elsewhere in Africa, for example, Ghana’s next-door neighbour Cote d’Ivoire. This is what is distinctive about Ghanaian electoral politics and makes Ghana stand tall among its neighbours. But the credit, to reemphasise, belongs to ordinary Ghanaians.
Yet the claim made at the outset that the 2012 election was free, fair, and peaceful is controversial for two reasons. First, the post-2012 election period looks like a tinderbox. There are media reports of incidents of violence in various parts of the country, including attacks on journalists and media houses. Supporters of the main opposition party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), are allegedly the main perpetrators of these attacks; but there are also reports of reprisal attacks on NPP supporters by NDC supporters. Media reports indicate that some victims of the violence have suffered serious injuries, and even death. Second, the post-election period is characterized by mounting political tension because of the NPP’s rejection of the presidential results, alleging the election was systematically rigged by the governing and victorious NDC party. Indeed, at the time of writing, the NPP was preparing to go to court to contest the presidential results, claiming that the rigging deprived their presidential candidate, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, of a clear victory and the presidency – or at least, a runoff which would have favoured their candidate.
All these are serious issues deserving serious attention and measures to address, if Ghana’s democracy is to live up to its image. Otherwise, they threaten to call into question the international acclaim that Ghana is a pacesetter of peaceful, free and fair elections in Africa. However, they do little to refute the claim that this year’s election – like the previous five elections – was free, fair, and above all, peaceful. For one thing, in other African countries (Cote d’Ivore, Kenya, and Zimbabwe) where there have been similar electoral disputes – where the vanquished refused to accept defeat alleging massive electoral fraud – things took a turn for the worse. They degenerated very fast to bloody clashes between supporters of the opposing parties . So far, this has not happened in Ghana. Rather the contrary: with the exception of the isolated incidents of violence (mostly in the capital city of Accra), the whole country is peaceful and the political system looks poised for a peaceful transition to a new government.
Additionally, the isolated incidents of violence notwithstanding, by no stretch of interpretation can they be said to be worse in the 2012 election than the other five elections before it. The fact is , despite the high reputation of Ghanaian elections, incidents of violence have always been recorded, mostly in post-election, but sometimes pre- and during elections. Similarly, allegations of systematic rigging are not new in the history of Ghanaian elections, despite the progressive improvement on the transparency of the procedures and processes of the polls from one election to the other. For instance, the 2008 election was not free of violence during and after the polls; nor was it free of allegations and counter-allegations of vote rigging by the two leading parties, the NPP and NDC. However, the difference is that, like the “founding” 1992 elections, the NPP believes this is another “stolen verdict” by the NDC, and its presidential candidate has not only refused to concede defeat, but has rejected the presidential results totally.
Yet there is near-unanimity by both local and international observers of the election that it was relatively free and fair, and above all, peaceful. For example, as reported by Graphic Online (one of Ghana’s flagship newspapers),“The Head of the AU/ECOWAS Observer Mission, Olusegun Obasanjo, has described Ghana's election as free, fair and peaceful”. We should also not forget that the NPP has not rejected the parliamentary results, which saw the NDC gaining a convincing majority. Furthermore, the NPP has officially chosen to follow due process - the rule of law - to contest the results and has appealed to its supporters to be calm, to desist from violent acts, and to support its legal strategy for contesting the presidential results. All flaws considered – and we should bear in mind that there is nothing like a flawless election anywhere in the world – the 2012 Ghanaian election was relatively peaceful, free, and fair.
Thus, the upshot of this commentary is that the political maturity of Ghanaian subalterns, specifically their civic activeness and their peaceful comportment, is the foothold of another successful election in Ghana. They deserve special recognition: ayeekoo (congrats) to the Ghanaian subalterns! Your counterparts in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Cote d’Ivoire should emulate your example. You deserve a better model of democracy than the prevailing electoral one: a model of democracy that transcends the four year ritual of queuing and voting to improving your socioeconomic wellbeing in concrete terms. Whether you are a supporter of NDC or NPP, the failure of Ghana’s democracy to improve your wellbeing defies party cleavages; and you should unite after every election to mount pressure on whichever party comes to power for the government to improve your wellbeing. This will make Ghana’s democracy a real model. At the moment, it is an empty model, lacking substance in human development terms.