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An African Election: A Film to Inspire Democracies?

Think Africa Press interviews Jarreth Merz, director of An African Election, a film charting Ghana's tense 2008 elections.
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Poster for An African Election

“My dad said to me once: ‘has anybody ever made a documentary about an election?’”

This was Jarreth Merz’ inspiration for directing the film, An African Election. Every film needs a good story and the main contenders of Ghana’s 2008 presidential election, where the final margin of victory was just 40,000 out of ten million votes cast, provided Merz with exactly that.

The long road to change

During Merz' 28 year absence from Ghana the country had changed considerably. Traditionally Ghana, like Nigeria, was associated with the ‘revolving door syndrome’, where there was a seemingly constant rotation between military and civilian rule. However, the reintroduction of democracy in 1992 proved more resilient than previous attempts, and 2008 was the fifth presidential election of the Ghanaian fourth republic.

In his interview with Think Africa Press, Merz noted that there had been progress and was particularly impressed by “a young generation that was actively involved in politics and the discussion going on over the airwaves…it was really exciting”. Despite this, he stressed: “the level of poverty struck me as absolutely unacceptable.” In stark contrast to the West, where “we’ve been numbed and we live in a bubble”, Merz felt a sense that Ghanaians “really went over to the polls to change their conditions”. His observations were based on a trip around Ghana that lasted just over three months, during which he visited all ten regions of the country. The contrasts, even for a man with experience of the country were striking, from the “most vibrant” capital Accra to “remote areas in the upper West of Ghana”, which “feel like the Middle Ages – they are still very, very traditional”.

Friends in high places...

One of the most noteworthy things about the film is the level of access Merz is afforded to the key political players in the election, especially during particularly tense moments. In explaining this, he points to his background – he has roots in Ghana and lived there for seven years. However, his long absence from the country meant he was simultaneously perceived as “one of you, but not one of you – I was seen as a link between the worlds”.

Equally important, Merz could count both Ghana’s post-democratisation presidents, John Rawlings and John Kufuor, as “friends of our family”, leaving him well-placed to conduct interviews. And Rawlings - the revolutionary military coup leader in 1981, who then democratised the country in 1992 before leaving the presidency in 2001 - features very prominently. He was “one of the most exciting, vibrant characters to film” according to Merz, even in political retirement “when he shows up, he commands the masses”.

Tit for tat and its potential to incite violence

Rawlings however, is a man with a “very populist rhetoric that at times could be dangerous”. Indeed rhetoric, from both Kufuor’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) and Rawlings’ New Democratic Congress (NDC), “was not always very responsible” during the 2008 elections. Due to the “desperation of parties”, they “reverted to certain tactics and strategies that were potentially dangerous” – essentially accusing the other side of cheating in a bid to drum up their own support, a tactic that can too often lead to violence in African elections.

At one point in the film, there is footage of a journalist asking about the possibility of the military “sorting out” the situation - confusion engulfs the country before the announcement that neither party secured a large enough majority of the vote and a second round of voting was necessary. Merz says such a risk “was real – when Ghanaians were asking these questions, there was so much insecurity within country. People believed it was an option, so it was an option. The media were asking about the military: ‘Are they firing into the air or are they firing at the people?’…it was wild”.

Thankfully the fears proved unfounded, and power peacefully changed hands. This begs the question: why was the violence that marred the Kenyan and Zimbabwean elections in the 12 months prior to the 2008 Ghanaian election absent? Merz credits the outgoing President Kufuor who “didn’t give any signs his party were going to hold onto power no matter what”, thereby facilitating a smooth democratic handover from the incumbent NPP to the NDC after eight years of power. He also emphasises that with the level of intermarriage across regional and ethnic lines “Ghanaians are one people”, there is “a culture of inclusion and not exclusion”. But most important was Merz’ “secret star of the film” – the president of the Electoral Commission, Dr Afari-Gyan.

The watchful eye of Afari-Gyan

The topic of electoral commissions would probably serve as an excellent insomnia cure for many. Yet they are critically important: had Ghanaians “not believed in the integrity of Afari-Gyan, the worst could have happened”. That much is hinted at by the violent scenes in the Electoral Commission ‘strong room’ during vote counting procedures, where both sides had aggressively accused the other of fraud. With the tension generated by a second round of elections, it was “important to have an arbiter who is bullet-proof and who has a clean record – Afari-Gyan proved to be exactly that”. After originally planning to retire after 2008, Afari-Gyan was coaxed into monitoring the 2012 elections. After this, the challenge to find someone with “the same authority and neutrality” will resurface.

Nevertheless, Merz does not believe the 2008 elections were completely fair: “Someone will always try and cheat.” In particular, he points out that “lots of chiefs are struggling financially – they can be manipulated to certain extent… Did people buy chiefs and pay for their votes? Possibly so – but I don’t have any proof.” Ultimately Merz is adamant that “elections are not about how perfect elections are, but are all players willing to accept the results as they stand? Are they good enough to pass for everyone? The results were good enough to accept and move on”. As he points out, in the 2000 US Presidential Elections, the “Supreme Court decided who will be the next President – is that democracy?”

A political safari: Hope for other democracies

Merz is clearly “very, very happy this film turned out to be an African success story,” and it is one he hopes others will learn from, as he has taken the film around the world – including Kenya and Zimbabwe, countries with sadly too little experience of non-violent elections. This is part of a project called 'A Political Safari': “We travel with the film, especially to countries with impending elections and use it to engage people in a creative discussion about elections and democracy in Africa,” hoping “local filmmakers will do something similar”. Such has been the reaction to the film that there are plans to cover the 2012 and 2016 Ghanaian elections in similar ways. Yet an underlying frustration has been the reaction from TV stations: “If you want to sell the film they’ll be like: ‘Who’s really interested in Africa?’ It seems Africa is still seen as a basket case”... but Merz’s film may go a little way towards changing that.


Post script

Jarreth Merz, director of the documentary film An African Election, is launching an outreach tour to support African democracy. A Political Safari is a mobile-cinema democracy and voter education outreach project that he has developed with international and African partners to showcase An African Election. In the course of this, Merz plans to visit Ghana and nine other African countries.

There is currently a fundraising project for A Political Safari - visit http://bit.ly/PoliticalSafari for more information.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:editor@thinkafricapress.com


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