Sunday, January 04, 2009

Flirting With Catastrophe

Written by Sunskreen

I am not a politician, nor political – I’m just one who loves Ghana so much – but now having uttered those very words, I shudder at their abuse over the last few days in Ghana. ‘We love Ghana’ in deed, has become such a popular refrain on radio amongst the political houses that it makes me wonder whether this isn’t part of a larger strategy script that is being read to bamboozle the average undiscerning listener.

My fellow Ghanaians and persons with a heart to Ghana, we came very close to catastrophe. Let no one fool you into thinking this was just another peaceful round of elections that demonstrate how ‘democratically advanced’ Ghana is. The association of these elections in Ghana with the word ‘democracy’, makes me wanna (and I must beg your pardon here), spit out in disdain! We made a real mockery of democracy and in the process came all too tantalizing close to relapsing into a state of chaos no different from Kenya’s or Zimbabwe’s in recent times.

As I mentioned from the onset, I do love Ghana very much. I am very proud to mention to my friends beyond the shores of Ghana what a beacon of peace, political stability and economic viability Ghana is on the sub-continent. This picture of a utopia was menacingly close to disappearing in the 48 hours following the ‘run-off’ elections to determine the next head of the republic.

For those who have lost touch with Ghana, I will give you the elevator summary of what went down. Radio stations in Accra declared the opposition party winner prior to rumours emerging (quoting the Electoral Commission strong room as a source) that the incumbent had actually won. Supporters of the opposition were vociferously opposed to this and were supposedly mobilizing mobs with machetes and stomping EC premises to voice their opposition to the new unforeseen developments. There were threats of large scale violence looming on the horizon.

Now on this fateful afternoon of the expected final announcement from the EC, I was sat in the dusty front seat comfort of a taxi on my way home from Osu, the heart of Accra. Over the stereo was blurring music playing from “Peace FM”. That in itself would be unremarkable except that all the songs that were being played were patriotic songs. Sandwiched between two plays of the national anthem of Ghana, was a song in Twi entreating Ghanaians to embrace peace. After the second play of the national anthem, there was a stream of songs in different languages all drumming the message of peace, unity and the ‘one-people’ concept. One song even called for ‘non-violence’ in these elections. There was no voice over on this station for the entire 30-minute drive in this taxi. It was almost as though these dirge-like tunes had been made for a moment like this:

Offices had been closed and workers had been asked to go home in preparedness of potential widespread violence. When I say offices, I mean large corporations, even some multinationals. Rumours emerged that even the buzzing centre of commerce, the Accra Mall, was being asked to close early. It was 2:30pm and I was sat in uncharacteristically heavy traffic for that time of day. The taxi driver remarked “Obi ara ko fie, obia suro’ (Everyone’s going home, every one is afraid). On my inbound journey into Osu earlier in the day, a taxi driver had said to me ‘I say, if they don’t call this thing give the opposition, what go happen for this country inside, hmph! Me I dey go pack my things then lef Accra’. Now his ominous words came back to haunt me, no doubt compounded by the ‘patriotic’ solemn songs blurring out of Peace FM. It was like going to the funeral of someone beloved and wondering whether it was real. I was in a state of shock – was Ghana really on the brink of a widespread civil unrest. Not many seemed to be betting against it.

I sat back and wondered, is this how fragile our peaceful democratic state is? Would people really toss out nearly 30 years of reasonable political stability to send the country into a death spiral akin to that of Zimbabwe? Were the political leaders who ‘loved’ Ghana so much, willing to risk this? Even more worrying, were we incapable of holding a simple two-choice election, and tallying votes fairly and expediently?

My last statement is only a surface statement because behind the word ‘fairly’ lies many worrying details. The allegations that have been tossed about make a real mockery of our professed democracy. Polling station party representatives being beaten and imprisoned in some areas; some constituencies experiencing near 100% voter turn out after registering much less in the first round; Ashiaman descending into scenes straight out of Hotel Rwanda (yes indeed, the mob was threatening to attack a hotel were they suspected some ballot boxes had been smuggled to); the home of one incumbent official being beset by mobs who believed he was housing a ‘ballot paper thumb-printing press’; and the pick of the lot, a whole constituency going without any voting on the day because voting material did not arrive.

Going back to Ashiaman, I was listening to Joy FM on Election Day and wondered which country I was sitting in. There were gun shots in the background as the Joy FM reporter bravely reported from the scene of security forces versus mob violence. Apparently tear gas and warning shots were being aggressively used to disperse the mob and voting had come to a virtual stand-still in the township of Ashiaman. A heavy military presence had been deployed throughout that town.

Now the mental image of this I found very disturbing. This is by no means the Ghana I grew up in and loved. Mind you, this was violence taking place during the election, not to be confused with the violence that threatened to take place upon the announcement of the final results. I wondered, after 5 successive elections, were we incapable of having truly ‘free and fair’ elections? Have we not learnt to nurture a true democracy? In an election were 23,000 votes could decide the winner, what credence does our said democracy have if we can’t vouch for the fairness of the electoral process?

For me, there are a few takeaways from what was largely a very disappointing state of affairs. One – let’s not take our freedom and peace for granted, seriously. The sight of many scurrying home early from work was extremely disconcerting. It felt as though one was witnessing the very beginning of a tragic end. Two – our democracy as we know it, is not sustainable. This is a democracy that encourages boldface underhand tactics that go unchecked; a democracy that thrives on near barbaric aggression at times and a democracy that is ultimately a farce.

Now I hate to prescribe medicine to these problems for I feel I will be joining the legion of talkers. But I feel I should end this note on a tone of hope and not hopelessness. Our long-term political salvation, thankfully, is still in our own hands. After this election, I believe the new incumbent and new opposition really need to sit down and look back at what was a very flawed process of which both parties are equally guilty. We need to have an electoral commission that is truly independent and unwavering in its commitment to carrying out its civic duties. Further, if these blood- and power-thirsty politicians have any bit of love in them, let us seriously resolve to have measures in place that ensure that election results are non-contentious. Is it time to go electronic on the process and eliminate the sometimes convenient inaccuracy of the manual process? Should we now pay serious attention to the National ID project that will ensure only qualifying Ghanaians show up to vote in future elections?

These are burning commitments that may seem like unnecessary financial undertakings. But my brothers and sisters, whatever price these come at, they wouldn’t be a price too high to pay for the continued peace of this country, which we fumbled, and so nearly lost.

[This note was penned based on events prior and up to the 30th of December, 2008]


  1. Hmmm very disturbing, can you confirm any of this Esi?

    and what is it with Ashiaman ? that place seems like a powder keg waiting for a spark

  2. I really believe that one of the reasons why the threshold of national stability was almost breached is the fact that incessant peddle-as-you-please falsehoods, rumours and plain scaremongering were allowed to be broadcasted in the electronic and print media as facts. Raw emotions were stretched to untamable levels and any thing could have happened.
    In the midst of all this, there was no obvious leadership to cool down the overheating fires.
    Yes, we need freedom of expression, but irresponsible and outright falsehood should never be aired as facts. In any state of heightened tensions, a repetitive airing of inflammtory news items will only serve to incite the gullible into taking the law into their hands. We really need laws that will make it mandatory for evidence to be provided for what is broadcasted on air.
    Ghanaians in general are emotionally-driven in character therefore, we need leaders that can cool us down and not 'leaders' who by their very deeds and words only stoke up the raging fires.
    Please God, help us!

  3. @Pablo, Sunskreen provides an accurate picture of some of what went down. Koranteng gives a similar account here: and even provides a link to pictures of his uncle who sustained injuries. On the day that most of the businesses closed early, my mother called me at about 1pm and instructed me to either come home or go someplace safe as she feared the eruption of violence in Accra. That so many people were so scared is worrying and as sunskreen suggests, we need to put measures in place to prevent this in the future.

  4. Hmm Horrific and unfathomable .where do these emotions come from and go to? Just spawned by rumour and lies?
    We (british) would go to such lengths if the rumours were about say my mother , but about a political party? Nah, no matter who is in power we have to put up with whatever happens politically for 4 years anyway.
    Maybe K4's idea about 5 years will at least stave off unrest another extra year?

    I wish you all well

  5. I think the big positive in all of this was the absence of mass planned violence directed from a central source (if some people tried--I thank God they failed:) ). If anything the violence was localized to specific places. At worst they were acts of criminal mob aggression (the same way thieves are lynched by neigborhoods), not treasonous destabilization. There were pretty serious fights/hospitalizations during party primaries and such. Of course I was only listening to the radio from far away so I am speaking from partial information.

    People (yes, a generalization) resort to violence if they believe (rightly or wrongly) that justice will be denied them. As in the thief-lynching that frequently happens, the thieves are beaten because no one has faith in the police.

    So yes, I think it's a good thing that the NPP's reaction (even though it appeared like political stonewalling) was to file a court case. *That* is a sign of political maturity of our system.

    And we should thank the radio stations--I was disconcerted too by the long periods of silence (playing only patriotic music). The EC caused most of the tension--by failing to announce the results (if even with reservations/final confirmation) as they came in (like the radio stations were doing). That whole 'EC strongroom' business stoked unnecessary tension--and when people start speculating that the vote counts are being negotiated instead of declared, of course it will bring about tension and the associated dangers.

    Perhaps in future a more useful use of election monitors is to send them to party strongholds and allow them to witness the vote counts instead of relying on party agents (who by their very affiliation are a source of tension).

    As always I'm skeptical of Ghanaians who appear to be playing to the non-Ghanaian gallery. Complaining about the people burning your house to someone whose mother doesn't live in your neighborhood and therefore is least likely to have any interest good/bad in your situation won't do you any good. Any reflection should be introspective/directed at the system so we can improve ourselves.

    Yes, we aren't immune to chaotic anarchy like Kenya wasn't, but look how internally promoting the perception that 'Ghana, we like peace' did help to ratchet down tensions eventually.

    Maybe if we only wrote in local languages we'd be forced to address ourselves more often than talking to the 'world':) Then when we write in English, it will be only about non-domestic things anyway.

    It's good to be alive and a Ghanaian right now! Yeah!

  6. @Esi, how does one get to sunskreen???

    anyway! this is about one of the few balanced pieces i've read on the nonsense of the 2008 elections...most of the rest i've read only tend to be skewed...

    it is an almost video play in the mind of the occurrences! Thumbs up!

    but i would only disagree with sunskreen when he says he's not a politician...i believe the basics is that WE ALL ARE POLITICIANS IN ONE WAY OR THE OTHER! party politics is a specific (or different if you want) matter, but we all are just politicians!

    I was not surprised at the evil that was carried out by Ghanaians during the heat of the moment because i've long realised that everything and anything is possible under the sun... and that we are no special breeds no matter how we want to fantasize the play of peace!

    There are two extremes...we should just stop pretending we are most peaceful by nature... and at the same we must not think that we are so cannibalistic... especially that some tend to label others as violent while they must be seen as the saints 'just come'!

    we must realise that we are human beings and rational...we have feelings, we have emotions, we have hearts... but we have heads too!

    if we get these basics right then it won't be difficult to see that what we ought to do is WORK TOGETHER to put the needed structures in place to ensure a more credible elections!

    i for one has never seen any of the elections i've witnessed since 1992 in Ghana as credible...all sorts of thievery goes on... I BELIEVE OUR ELECTORAL SYSTEM (the whole system) IS JUST BOGUS!!! there are too many loop-holes!

    well, what more can i say? i just hope we wake up to realities!

    ** i've read Koranteng's account and it just for me enforces the fact that we have a sick society and we must stop all the pretence!

  7. @novisi, I've alerted sunskreen to respond to your comments

  8. Esi,
    i pray i don't have to wait for too long...

    i can't wait... lol!