The interest with which the average Ghanaian followed the American elections could have fooled you into thinking Ghana shared a common status with Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, American Samoa, etc. of being a US territory. But then again which country wasn’t savoring the live debates (which, depending on where in the world you live, could mean waking up at unholy hours), inspiring speeches, and media frenzy that peppered the trail leading to November 4? However, with Ghana going to the polls on December 7, 2008, the West Africans were observing the proceedings in America with extra interest, perhaps looking for ways to enhance their own democracy.
Since 1992, Ghana has successfully held four back-to-back presidential and parliamentary, with two different incumbents successfully being re-elected, and a peaceful transition of power in 2000 from one political party (that got voted out after its candidate had won previous elections in 1992 and 1996) to another. (The latter also went on to successfully complete two terms in office). This makes December 2008’s election a landmark one, because it involves two major parties that have each completed two terms in office, vying to usher in a new phase in the journey of cementing the nation’s democracy.
The influence that the American polls had on the Ghanaian experience was obvious. On the evening of the Ghanaian presidential debates here, people rushed home to catch it live. Even the vice presidential debate had its fair share of coverage and viewership. And people actually listened. And critiqued too. Some said calling the event a ‘debate’ was a misnomer, because the candidates were simply repeating their manifestos instead of, well, ‘talking to each other’. Others even criticised the slumping postures of the seated candidates, wittily demanding that if 72-year-old John McCain could stand on his feet and debate for 90 minutes nonstop, why shouldn’t their presidential pretenders. Whether the issues discussed in those forums changed the minds of voters is a different issue :)
Yes, Obama’s African parentage contributed to the significance that Africans generally attached to the just-ended Washington decider, but Ghanaians have for the past 16 years voted for their executive and legislative in the same year as Americans (albeit a month after the Westerners do so). America seems to lead the way here when it comes to elections. The speed with which a winner was picked (and losers graciously conceded) in the US elections made people in Ghana realise that elections can indeed be simple, and that outcomes must be accepted by all. Ghana’s electioneering technology and infrastructure may pale in comparison to America’s touch-screen simplicity, but it doesn’t lack in efforts aimed at improving : transparent ballot boxes; wholly dipping thumbs in indelible ink (compared to simply marking fingernails in the past) to tag those that have already voted; vote transfers from one area to another to prevent tiresome travels on election day. Serious strives have been made to simplify voting in Ghana since 1992.
Ghanaians have always prided themselves on being a peaceful nation. In fact, the country has often acted as a haven for refugees fleeing from hostilities (some resulting from disputed elections) in their native countries. The Ghanaian people see this weekend’s polls as another test of their claim to being one of Africa’s most stable states and seem to have worked hard to keep their reputation intact. There is some tension in the country, but that is to be expected in any election anyway. Some people joke about power-sharing (ala Kenya and Zimbabwe), if their preferred candidates lose, but it’s all in good spirit and friendly banter aimed at priming themselves to accept the results in good faith.
There won’t be a Barack Obama personality (read: the average person’s dream candidate) on Sunday’s ballot paper, but I am quite confident the Ghanaian people won’t give the American President-in-waiting another negative African issue to issue to worry about when the election dust settles here.