My experience of the Ghanaian presidential election this weekend differs, no doubt, from official reports. I am an American, teaching and learning under a fellowship sponsored by the American Department of Education, facilitated by and administered through the American Embassy in Accra, and full time within the Ashesi University College community in the village Berekuso. I voted absentee by postal mail from foreign countries during the last two American presidential elections, something a woman in Ghana exclaims “could never happen – too much suspicion”—and indulged in my own frustrations about the challenge of getting a ballot from my country during the 6 week window they allowed. That seems now like a very minor inconvenience. I received the standard American warning last week from the American embassy that I should stay indoors during Friday’s election, and stay away from crowds generally leading up to and just after election day. And I have watched and learned through Ashesi-eyes as this community agreed to be an experimental test site this fall for how a new biometric voter identification process might work to reduce voter fraud and increase access.
I pause here to remind anyone reading this that I am not writing or speaking on behalf of or as representative of any of the organizations with which I am engaged; I write and reflect here purely as an individual, learning and teaching.
All official reports continue to praise the 2012 election as fair, free, and peaceful. But as I heard a philanthropic businessman say off-handedly several years back, “things on the ground look different than they appear on Google Maps.”
Ghana is diverse. Accra is the densely populated urban capital, and Berekuso – where I am, 90 minutes north of the capital – is either a rural village or a peri-urban community, depending on who ask. Regardless, it’s a very poor area, mainly agricultural, low on the national totem pole for infrastructure like roads, schools, electricity and water.
Ashesi, an elite private liberal arts college dedicated to developing a high integrity class of leaders for making positive change in Africa, sits at the top of the Berekuso hill accessed by a quasi-private, paved road. The socioeconomic contrast between the two communities (Ashesi and Berekuso) is stark but synergistic. Collaborations continue to emerge between the two. The more often that I ride “The Welfare Bus,” a free service provided by a local prayer ministry, to get from my “storey-building” (a house for multiple family units built upwards several floors, generally here implying too a compound with a wall around it and a guard at the gate) to Ashesi, located 5 kilometers away, the more I feel a familiarity with and relative sense of belonging within Berekuso.
Saturday though, I was a foreigner when I walked through Berekuso. All I could see was the stark contrasts between the political rhetoric I had heard – much of which I had believed – and what I was sensing and seeing and hearing from others.
The day was a national holiday, not for elections (always on December 7) but because it coincided with Farmer’s Day (always on the first Friday of December). In my storey-building, we came together for a shared breakfast to listen to the radio (our television is broken). Polls were to open at 8 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. (I suspect that is to correspond with daylight hours, including a cushion on each end for getting ready and for finishing; power remains unreliable and electricity is not available throughout the country). By 9:30 a.m. the radio was reporting that many polls were not yet staffed, no ballots were available, and no ballot boxes present, even though lines had long since formed. Tensions rose early in some regions where people had camped out since 3 a.m. to get an early spot; and on-the-ground in the Accra region, officials were maintaining that the polls would close at 5 regardless of what time they opened (ultimately, the polls did close at 5 pm. It’s unclear what happened in the late opening areas, but in areas that experienced equipment malfunction by mid-afternoon, officials re-opened those certain polling stations again on Saturday. It remains unclear which voters and how many of them chose to return and wait again the next day).
We had already seen signals of logistical challenge. One colleague in the biometric pilot said that after being registered, she returned for the follow-up test, and the machine did not recognize her at all – in fact, the machine determined that her hand, at the end of the arm attached to her body standing in front of the machine, did not belong to her. Until radio reports of biometric malfunctions on Friday afternoon, I honestly thought the pilot had been scrubbed until a next election cycle. Ironically, I read a Thursday BBC report quoting the electoral chief as saying, “the new biometric voter identification system had worked smoothly during extensive tests.” And so, one makes reality from pieces of available data.
Thursday afternoon we had severe rain storms. That night, a housemate reported he had seen one of the local organizing precincts where translucent plastic ballot boxes with rectangular slits in the top were stacked for Friday; but the ballot boxes were ¼ full with rain water. His questions were two-fold: why hadn’t someone turned the boxes upside down as the skies darkened, and how were all of those boxes going to get completely dried in this humid climate by voting time the next day? I understood his concerns better when someone explained the actual vote casting process to me. Here’s what I got: the ink will bleed!
People register months before the election. Then, you must turn up at the station in which you registered (yet some of the stations move, are not marked, or accommodate multiple lists without necessarily having signage to indicate such). You wait in the queue until you reach the registry. One by one voters go forward to confirm that they are in the right place (yet I heard stories Friday of people spending several hours in the wrong queue and then needing to start over again – others in lines were too intense and irritable for someone to even consider their time in queue A entitling them to a place at the front of queue B. With no official orchestrating a “fair” process, the crowds are left to sort that out). The registrar issues a paper ballot for president, then directs the voter to a cardboard privacy space to ink their littlest finger and mark the paper next to the name of the candidate for whom you intend to vote. (I’m told that smudges get disqualified and so already tense people with shaky hands can quickly become even more nervous about the pressure to make a clean mark on the first attempt). You then fold the paper, deposit it into the translucent box marked “presidential” (another challenge I hear for illiterates or inattentive people whose votes are disqualified for being in the wrong box), and then return to the registry for a paper naming parliamentary choices. The marking and depositing processes repeat. My housemate’s concern was for the mess of mushy, ink stained ballots that would emerge from damp ballot boxes the next evening. Entire districts could be cancelled out because no one turned the boxes upside down the preceding afternoon.
The BBC reported Friday, “Both Mr Mahama and Mr Akufo-Addo have promised to accept the result, but 5,000 soldiers have been put on standby just in case…” I read that 14 million people were registered to vote in 26,000 polling stations nationwide; however, the electoral commission announced results coming from the 11,000 registered voters, so information consistency remains reliably inconsistent, as has been my experience over the months. I asked colleagues which radio station to listen to. The response? “Who do you want to hear winning?” And so the quest for a fair and free, peaceful election had begun.
Fairness and free choice – at least in my mind –include some form of dignity and respect for each during the process. In fact, I see why peace means much more than just the absence of people shooting at each other. But what I saw and heard does not yet fit that image of fair and free; maybe like peace, it’s all a process that improves over time.
Mid-morning I walked through Berekuso and enjoyed the visceral community spirit. I took pictures in the village for the first time, congratulating locals on such pride in what they were doing this day. People seemed to celebrate their national unity, something the nation earned when peacefully transitioning from the late President Mills to the current president John Mahamma in August after Mills died unexpectedly in office. A peaceful, constitutional transition had never happened here. The constitution held provisions for what to do, but given the country’s (and continent’s) history of military coups and “improper procedure” by force, it was not actually clear to anyone whether or not the Ghanaian people could unite around that rule-of-law transition without violence. They did, with integrity and unity of purpose among all parties. Indeed Ghana served as a role model for other African countries this summer.
By 1:00 p.m. Friday, the temperatures were getting hotter, patience was growing thinner, and crowds were getting bigger and rowdier. Men in their 20’s and 30’s normally in the fields gathered in clumps, some erratically pacing the street waiting for (several seeming to hope for) a need or chance to fight. This was when I decided to return home. I could hear great whoops and cheers erupt from one of the two polling places. At first I thought that was community spirit. But later, I heard from someone that at his polling station the translucent ballot box was so close to the queue that everyone towards the front of line could see who any individual had inked on their ballot (ironically, had privacy been created by putting up a curtain, accusations of vote tampering and box stuffing would have run rampant). Therefore, the crowds cheered when someone cast a ballot for their favored party and jeered when a vote was cast for an opposing party. In a small community where everyone is known to each other, that seems to limit ones freedom quite a bit. I saw it as harassment or voter intimidation. This wasn’t true in all polling stations; at one I saw, the distance from the box respected voter privacy.
Women in the north are apparently under great pressure to stay home rather than vote. Elderly people are entitled to by-pass the queue and go straight to the registry for their ballot, but in a station only 45 minutes from me I learn the elderly got verbally harassed when they went forward to vote by others who were irritably waiting long hour in a long queue. To me, these are examples of disenfranchisement, voter intimidation or lack of access. But a 70 year old female colleague voted in Berekuso, invoking her elderly privilege to go to the front of the queue, and she told me she was in and out in 10 minutes without comment from the crowd. It’s difficult for me to know which is the exception and which is the common experience.
Similarly, I don’t know that “peace” actually happened. BBC reported tear gas being used in a clash between protesters and electoral officials, youth – according to one report – raised a flash-mob to protest use of an Israeli subcontractor to count votes (reports which the electoral commission later called a press conference to deny, and assured voters that the contractor was only for technical work). Sunday I heard stories of another “skirmish” when two ballot boxes disappeared – in one report the boxes simply went missing; in another one two men entered a counting spot, poured fuel on the ballots, and lit a match. For all practical purposes, the ballots did disappear (though by afternoon the electoral commission announced that they have counted the charred pieces…).
I do not mean to criticize, simply acknowledge what I saw and reconcile that with what I thought leading into this year. It is worth me noting that two Ghanaians have laughed as they told me their own experience of watching America’s 2004 election – our escapades with “hanging chads” on ballots marked in machines that had not been cleaned in precincts of underrepresented populations and in a state governed by the brother of the sitting president. They gloat, “that’s a coup American style!”
Votes were counted one by one over the weekend. Certified on-lookers verified each vote as it was counted and electoral commission workers at each poll validated results before telephoning them into the central commission – saying the number and then saying it digit by digit for confirmation. Radio and TV broadcasted results as they came in, so people nationwide were using arithmetic to ensure that no more than the 11,000 votes (or whatever the actual precise number of registered voters turned out to be) appeared among the ranks. And the electoral commission paused the process multiple times to have what seemed to me to be peace-conferences among representatives of all parties when someone lodged a complaint. On Saturday night, one party announced their pending victory on the radio telling their supporters to wear white on Sunday to celebrate the momentous occasion; before midnight, the electoral commission held an emergency press conference denying that any outcome had been established, and then chastising the party in question for saying anything that would pre-empt the commission (if I’m correct, that party actually ended up losing by end of the next day). A renewed commitment to everyone re-focusing on the importance of “peace” ensued, regardless of fatigue or outcome. By Sunday night, just before 11 p.m., the electoral commission and observers convened a press conference to announce that by a 50.7% to 47.74% margin, the incumbent party had won re-election.
Outside my house, I could hear cheers and horns and honks for hours (at least I was then clear on which party my area was supporting). But I slept nervously. I felt embarrassed for my concern by Monday when there was no report of violet aftermath, but several people told me that they too had wondered and not slept well. Leading up to the election, I consistently heard from a colleague that one particular party was prone to violence and would likely be “bad losers” (though I’m quite sure that I also heard the exact same thing about the opposite party – it depends on who you ask and what you want to hear). So I am now experiencing what the official reports say was a peaceful election. (The opposition still reports its intention to contest the results, but the electoral commission has declared they will need to do so in the courts, not through re-count or run-off). People my age and older have limited experience with a “fair and free” or peaceful process. The country has only been independent since 1957, electing their first president in 1960, deposing five presidents by coup, and then ratifying a constitution in 1992.
20 years ago the constitution became a political rule of law. It explicates rights and implies responsibilities of citizenship. When I applied for the fellowship to teach here in Ghana, I thought that was enough, a constitution and an elected government. I assumed that a democratic government with rule of law, established without gun fire, implied stable climate for business and economic development…especially given the vast oil reserves found off the coast in recent year. But I never noticed the depth to which a culture must also ratify a nation’s constitution or rules of law. People must individually and collectively agree to conduct themselves in their every action with a level of respect and dignity in which rights and rules of law can be upheld. No one can skim money off of the top of a contract, or show favoritism to their family members, or seek sexual favors for jobs, or use sticks (or guns) to fight with or threaten their opponents, or re-use the work of another claiming it as one’s own, or offer or accept money (or anything of value) in exchange for a change of or compliance with a rule of law. (I’ve heard a joke about someone getting a C in a college course; when asked about it, the person replied, “that’s all I could afford.” The funny thing is that the joke is not funny at all.) It is no wonder that tensions ran high on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – many of these people have not lived through an election or a process that was not tampered with (and some still say this one is no different – the opposing party is still reported to be challenging the results). All of their lives, my students tell me, they have faced “how the system works.” So to ask a nation to trust that a “fair and free” system is now in place simply isn’t realistic. That trust still needs to be earned.
I am honored to be working at Ashesi this year, to be among a community of colleagues who believe that we can make a difference – one person at a time, and generation by generation. But the work is hard. It requires vigilance on every front, political, social, spiritual, and economic. Peace ultimately requires a continuous process of renewal – commitment, values, and collaboration. I have been here, Ghana, during a peaceful election. And yet, this country’s peace – indeed peace worldwide – still requires enormous commitment on the part of everyone for us to actually live harmoniously.
Note: Colleagues circulated this weblink and blog on campus in the days leading up to the election — you may find them interesting if you want to learn more.
Reminder of a poem posted during the American elections – esi ’08