Last night, I attended a screening of Jarreth Merz’s trending documentary, An African Election, as part of Columbia University’s Institute on African Studies’ yearlong series on African elections and democracy. I have long awaited this film. Not simply because it has received nods from Sundance, Spirit Awards, and other film critic bodies, but because it tells a profound story of African leadership, self-sufficiency, hope, and democracy. Indeed, those interested in democracy, elections, or just a riveting political story will be enthralled by this intimate exposé of an election passionately felt by an entire country and continent.
An African Election chronicles Ghana’s 2008 presidential election that marked the country’s historic double alternation in power and solidified its status as a maturing democracy. Ghana has been hailed a beacon of democracy in West Africa for over a decade—and for good reason. Former President J.J. Rawlings, who took power through the barrel of a gun in two successive military coups, organized democratic elections in 1992. He ceded the presidency to the elected winner of the rival party in 2000 after a term-limited eight years in elected office. Eight years later, the reigns of power passed again in the highly anticipated election that is the subject of the film.
The first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence, Ghana’s economy and global prominence is growing by leaps and bounds. After giving the U.N. its first black Secretary-General in 1996, Ghana has been visited by each of the three most recent American presidents, and recently began off-shore oil drilling. Last year, Ghana’s economic growth outpaced that of many higher income nations, including China. To understand the story of the 2008 election, in many ways, is to understand the recipe for Ghana’s success, a key ingredient of which is a spirited citizenry that holds itself accountable for the future of the country. An African Election captures this essence of the Ghanaian people with great artistry.
The film vividly portrays the prize democracy holds in the eyes of Ghanaians as an integral part of the country’s larger aspirations for sustained self-empowerment as seen in the trailer here. Scenes of determined voters languishing in ten-hour queues and crowds jubilantly chanting the ballot count underscore that the act of voting in Ghana is more a community celebration of nationhood than a mere act of individual civic duty. In addition, the deference, respect, and trust placed in Ghana’s electoral commission are refreshing reminders that neutral agents are vital in the structural design of successful election systems.
With Ghana’s next presidential election just months away, An African Election, released last year, serves as an important visual reference and testimonial of Ghana’s democratic achievements. The upcoming election will undoubtedly present a variety of new challenges. From developing factions within the incumbent party to the new administrative responsibility of registering and enabling prisoners to vote for the first time per Ghana’s 2010 court decisions enforcing the constitution’s right to universal suffrage, which I’ve written about here, Ghana will not have a easy road. However, the stronger its history as a democracy, now archived and distributed for international consumption, the more Ghana has at stake. More important, An African Election creates discussion points for elections beyond the continent by raising important questions and offering instruction on the electoral process and democracy in general. In watching the film, one can’t help but wonder to what degree the internalized expectations of Ghana by it citizens and the international community served as a check on the integrity of its elections. The film also illuminates aspects of structural design, such as the role that an effective and political electoral commission can play as a crucial powerbroker in resolving the most delicate and uproarious of democratic tensions.
Indeed, as we approach the U.S. presidential election even sooner that Ghana’s in December, there is much we can learn from the unbridled enthusiasm and, at times, cautious optimism,that democracy engenders in this important African country. And, while democratic concepts are not new to Ghana or its counterparts on the continent, it is Ghana’s ability to grapple with the challenges of the democratic process as a post-colonial nation in a region rife with pockets of grave conflict that makes this country’s election worthy of the big screen.