The 2008 Ghanaian Elections: The Narrow Escape

By: Jasper Ayelazuno, York University, Canada

Once again, Ghana held peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections which resulted in the peaceful transfer of power from one constitutional government to another. The 2008 elections bear striking similarities with that of the 2000. As in the case of the 2000 elections when the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) took power from the then incumbent government party, the National Democratic Party (NDC), in the 2008 elections, the opposition NDC has taken power from the incumbent NPP. Also, the 2008 presidential elections went to a second round between the NPP and NDC, just like in 2000 when the two parties did not garner enough votes to meet the constitutional requirement for the election of a president, namely fifty per cent   plus one (50% +1) of the total votes cast.

On the surface, the foregoing affirms the widely-held view that Ghana is a model of electoral democracy in West Africa. The claim that elections facilitate conflict management/resolution and the consolidation of democracy in multi-cultural/ethnic contexts is validated by the Ghanaian experience. On the other hand, others argue that multi-party politics and elections if poorly managed or subverted could deepen existing ethno-regional and other socio-economic cleavages in some specific socio-cultural and political economic contexts. The 2008 elections, therefore, called to question the much acclaimed consolidation of electoral democracy in Ghana. In this regard, the number of successful and peaceful elections held in Ghana may not be a guarantee against the horrific ethnic conflicts that we have witnessed in certain parts of Africa – the most recent of them being Kenya, which had hitherto held many successful and peaceful elections before slipping into fratricidal conflict in its last presidential elections.

As part of my fieldwork towards the writing of my PhD thesis, I have been in Ghana since September 2008 collecting data through a plurality of strategies including face-to-face interviews, focus group discussions, participant and non-participant observations. The pre-elections atmosphere in Ghana, especially the three weeks preceding the presidential run-off on the 28th December 2008 portended the intense tension that engulfed Ghana after the run-off. While condemning tribal/ethnic politicisation, influential members of the two dominant parties, NPP and NDC resorted to this, as they went all out to win the second round elections.

Ethno-regional politicisation manifested itself in the way the two parties campaigned and presented some places/regions of Ghana as their strongholds. Besides the usual suspects, the Ashanti region for the NPP and the Volta region for the NDC, the Eastern and Central regions were brought into the drama because   the NPP presidential candidate was from the Eastern region, and the NDC presidential candidate from the Central region. Therefore, the political atmosphere was rife with the perception that the Eastern Region would vote massively for the NPP to make a son of their land the president. While on the other hand, it was suggested that the Central region which has voted twice against the NDC candidate in the last two elections (in 2000 and 2004) was going to wise up to the ethno-regional nature of Ghanaian politics and vote for their own kind this time round. One participant in my research told me that just as the Ashantis say “fia nipa ye” (suggesting that it is better to choose someone of your kind to be president), the Fantis (from the central region and the ethnic group of the NDC candidate) were beginning to say likewise: “adzi woo fia oye”.    

The spectre of Ashanti-Volta politico-ethnic animosity which has permeated the politics of the NPP and NDC since Ghana’s transition to electoral democracy in 1992, came back to haunt the 2008 elections. The NPP is perceived to be an Ashanti party, and the NDC, an Ewe party. The electioneering strategies of the two parties involved some recklessness as they engaged in incendiary accounts of what went wrong in their so-called (ethnic) strongholds in the first round to ‘deny’ them victory. The NPP alleged that their supporters in Ashanti did not come out massively to vote because of complacency: that their party was going to win regardless of whether they voted or not. On the other hand, the NDC alleged that the ruling NPP party closed the Ghana-Togo border, preventing their supporters in the Volta who crossed to the Togo side of the border from coming back ‘home’ to vote. Little wonder that the tension that built up in Ghana after the second round elections was pivoted around disputed election results from the Ashanti and Volta regions. There were accusations and counter-accusations by the NDC and the NPP that massive rigging took place in these two regions. In fact, the (in)famous NPP writ at the fast track high court on 1st January (a public holiday) seeking to place an injunction on the Ghana Electoral Commission (EC) from declaring the results of the presidential round-off was based on the argument that if the EC investigated the rigging in the Volta region, it would turn the results of the elections – which were favouring the NDC candidate – in their favour.

  This perception of Ashanti-Volta animosity was so widespread that supporters of the two parties were heard attacking each other on radio with language bordering on ethnic hatred during phone-in programmes on FM stations in Accra.   After the first round, I heard young men from the Eastern and Ashanti regions, who reside in certain parts of Accra blaming those “strangers” (Ghanaians who are not natives of the land, especially migrant farmers from the Volta and Northern regions) for voting against the NPP. Some of them swore to go back home to get their village chiefs to warn those “strangers” to either vote for the NPP in the second round or be driven away from their homelands. In Kumasi (the capital city of Ashanti region), non-Ashantis (especially, people of northern and Volta origin) were taunted because they were perceived as supporters of the NDC.

This pre-elections situation dovetailed into incidents on the day of the run-off elections and afterwards, leading up to the explosive security situation that existed in the country, especially in the capital city Accra. On the day of the run-off, the FM radio stations in Accra were reporting of organised violence by the two parties against each other’s supporters in Ashanti and Volta regions. The polling agents of the two parties who were supposed to ensure that the elections were not rigged in their opponent’s stronghold were alleged to be brutally assaulted at some polling stations. Rather than appealing to their supporters to be calm in the face of these allegations, some leaders of the two parties were rather inciting them to embark on violent acts. I heard Ex-president J.J. Rawlings (NDC) on an Accra FM station urging “the people” to resist the subversion of their will by the NPP government. Similarly, I heard Jake Obetsibe Lamptey, the campaign manager of the NPP presidential candidate urging their supporters to defend themselves when attacked, and the ballot boxes if anyone attempts to take them away.

After the run-off, and between the period 29th December 2008 and 3rd January 2009 when the results were declared by the EC, the general concern within and outside Ghana was that the country was going to blow up. Fuelling this perception in the country were rumours that the ruling NPP government was preparing for a state of emergency to be declared in Ghana, in view of its imminent loss of the elections. This rumour was not baseless because provisional results from more than 220 out of the total of 230 constituencies were showing that the opposition NDC candidate was leading. Indeed, an Accra FM station, Joy FM was even bold to declare the elections for NDC’s Atta Mills.   These rumours created a tense situation in the whole Accra city, leading to the early closing of shops and banks on Tuesday, the 30th of December. In the wake of all this, supporters of the two parties took turns to besiege the EC offices, demonstrating in support of their candidates. I witnessed the two demonstrations and saw people armed with machetes and other cudgels, ready to fight.

In my view, five possible scenarios from the 2008 Ghanaian elections could have reversed Ghana’s democratic transition and consolidation: 1) If the aforementioned demonstrations organised by the supporters of the two parties had clashed with each other at the EC offices; 2) if the violence either in Ashanti or Volta had culminated in systematic attacks on selected ethnic groups because of their political affiliation. This would have led to retaliatory attacks in other parts of the country; 3) if the NDC’s lead in the provisional electoral results collated by the various media houses had been cancelled by disputed election results for four constituencies in Ashanti which revised upwards the votes of the NPP candidate by several thousands of votes. This would have given the impression that the EC condoned with the ruling NPP government to rig the elections for the NPP to stay in power 4) if the Accra fast track high court had granted the NPP’s request for injunction against the EC declaring the run-off results, thereby increasing and prolonging the mounting tension in the country; and 5) if the military had used the mounting tension as an excuse to intervene in the situation through a coup d’état.

As it turned out, none of the above scenarios came to being, something worth more scholarly investigation. However, one variable worth considering is the interventions that were made behind the scenes by both domestic and international players.   For example, it is most likely that international pressure was applied to President Kufuor and the leadership of his NPP party to stop their attempts at interdicting the electoral process, whether through fair or foul, legal or illegal means. The withdrawal by the NPP of the writ they filed at the high court against the EC may not be that the NPP merely changed their mind to allow democracy to endure. They might have been responding to external pressure from somewhere. Additionally, domestic civil society groups and members of the clergy who feared that the country’s democracy was at the verge of collapse also applied pressure on the Kufuor government and the NPP leadership.

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