What Kenya did for democracy in Ghana . . . and a “must see” movie

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies has published last week its “Special Report No. 1,” an extensive analysis of “Africa and the Arab Spring:  A New Era of Democratic Expectations” by a blue ribbon group of experts.  As the title suggests, the basic conclusion is that the environment in Sub-Saharan Africa has been and will continue to be influenced by the dynamic of anti-authoritarian change from the Arab Spring, whereas in general the non-Arab states in Africa have advanced much further in democratization since the end of the Cold War, such that the pressure for the popular ouster of current governments is not comparable.

One example of progress from “lessons learned” is seen in the performance of the election authorities in Ghana in 2008 following the disaster in Kenya in 2007:

A key turning point in the recognition of the critical need for stronger EMBs [Electoral Management Bodies] in Africa came in 2007/2008. The run-up to a hotly contested presidential election on December 28, 2007 in Kenya had generated strong emotions that had become polarized along ethnic lines. Yet, bolstered by increasingly credible voting in 1997 and 2002, many assumed Kenya’s 2007 elections would be managed effectively. Accordingly, relatively fewer international observers participated. In fact, the voting itself went smoothly — with 70 percent turnout. However, blatant ballot-stuffing during the vote-tallying ensued. Unexplained delays in the reporting of results generated a swirl of rumors and further escalated tensions. At nightfall three days later, the Electoral Commission of Kenya, members of which had been appointed by incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, announced that the president had won the election by a difference of 2 percentage points, and promptly certified the results. Kibaki was sworn in at a closed ceremony within hours. Destruction of most of the physical ballots before the official result was announced prevented any authoritative followup inquiry.

The announcement immediately set off clashes throughout Kenya leading to more than 1,500 deaths and the estimated displacement of 350,000 people. Occurring in one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan  the Kenyan tragedy had broad reverberations around the continent. Indeed, many observers argued that, despite the charged atmosphere and other shortcomings of the process, if Kenya’s electoral commission had simply done its job and not certified elections until allegations of fraud were investigated, the violent aftermath could have been averted.

The distillation of this lesson was put into sharp relief with Ghana’s electoral experience exactly one year later. In a tightly contended second-round presidential election, the opposition candidate, John Atta Mills, of the National Democratic Congress, eked out a victory — 50.2 to 49.8 percent — over the incumbent party candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo. Yet stability prevailed. Akufo-Addo publicly congratulated his rival and called on all Ghanaians to rally behind their new president.

Key to the successful outcome was the equanimity of Electoral Commission of Ghana (ECG).  Despite enormous pressure to announce a result immediately following the close of the polls, the electoral commission waited five days for the votes from all jurisdictions to be counted and charges of irregularities investigated before certifying the results. The integrity of the process and the chairman of the ECG, Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, reassured the Ghanaian public that the outcome was fair.  Empowered with this legitimacy, Atta Mills has subsequently overseen Ghana’s continued rapid rate of economic growth.

The drama of the 2008 Ghanaian election is well captured in the documentary movie “An African Election” by Jarreth Merz which is reviewed in the Los Angeles Times this week.  The film will be screened Saturday evening in Washington at the African Studies Association.  I highly recommend it.  My daughter and I were able to see it at the New Orleans Film Festival a few weeks ago and we were both impressed and moved in the context of our experience in Kenya in 2007.

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