Filming an African Election 
Voting On Camera

A first-hand discussion of the 2008 Ghanaian election through the eyes of the man who documented the entire process on film

Recording Victory: A new Ghanian democracy

Recording Victory: A new Ghanian democracy. Photo by Jarreth Merz.

“I hadn’t been back in 28 years and of course the idea was to come back to the place of my childhood. My dad said, ‘has anybody ever made a documentary about an election?’.” Jarreth Merz describes the inspiration for directing the film An African Election, in which he followed the main protagonists of the 2008 Ghanaian election. Every documentary maker needs a good story and, with the final margin of victory just 40,000 out of ten million votes cast, Merz certainly had that. During his long absence from Ghana, the country had changed a lot. Traditionally, like Nigeria, Ghana was associated with “revolving door syndrome”, whereby there was a seemingly constant alternation between military and civilian rule.

However, the reintroduction of democracy in 1992 has proved more resilient than previous attempts: 2008 was the fifth presidential election of the Ghanaian fourth republic. Merz says there has been “progress – no doubt” and was particularly struck by “a young generation that was actively involved in politics and the discussion going on over the airwaves…it was really exciting.” Despite this, on his return “the level of poverty struck me as absolutely unacceptable”. In stark contrast to the West, where “we’ve been numbed and we live in a bubble” Merz was struck by the sense that Ghanaians “really went over to the polls to change their conditions”.

Merz observed this over the more than three months he travelled around Ghana, during which he visited all ten regions of the country. The contrasts, even for a man with experience of the country were striking, from the “most vibrant” capital Accra, to “remote areas in the upper West of Ghana”, which “feel like the Middle Ages – they are still very, very traditional”. Yet the most striking thing about the film is the level of access Merz is afforded to the key political players in the election, filmed and interviewed during some hugely tense moments. In explaining this, he points to his background – he has roots in Ghana and lived there for seven years, but his long absence from the country meant he was simultaneously perceived as “one of you, but not one of you – I was seen as a link between the worlds”.

Dangerous Business

Equally importantly, Merz could count both Ghana’s post-democratisation Presidents, John Rawlings and John Kuffour, as “friends of our family”, which made him especially well placed to enjoy access to them. Rawlings, the revolutionary leader of the military coup in 1981, who then democratized the country in 1992 before leaving the presidency in 2001, features very prominently. He was “one of the most exciting, vibrant characters to film”; even in political retirement: “when he shows up, he commands the masses”.

However, Rawlings is a man with “very populist rhetoric. That at times could be dangerous.” Indeed, rhetoric, from both Kuffour’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) and Rawlings’ New Democratic Centre (NDC), “was not always very responsible” in the 2008 elections. Due to the “desperation of parties”, they “reverted to certain tactics and strategies that were potentially dangerous” – essentially, accusing the other side of cheating in a bid to drum up their own support, a tactic that can too often lead to violence in African elections. And at one point in the film, there is footage of a journalist asking about the possibility of the military “sorting out” the situation, as confusion engulfed the country before the announcement that neither main party had secured a majority of the vote, and so there would be a second round of voting. Merz says such a risk “was real – when Ghanaians were asking these questions, there was so much insecurity within country. People believed it was an option, so it was an option. The media were asking about the military: ‘are they firing into the air or are they firing at the people?’…it was wild.”

Thankfully the fears proved unfounded, and power peacefully changed hands. Which begs the question: why was violence of the sort that marred the Kenyan and Zimbabwean elections in the 12 months prior to the 2008 Ghanaian election, absent? Merz credits the outgoing President, Kuffour, who “didn’t give any signs his party were going to hold onto power no matter what” thereby facilitating a smooth democratic handover from the incumbent NPP to the NDC after the NPP had been in power for eight years. He also emphasises that, with the level of intermarriage across regional and ethnic lines, “Ghanaians are one people”; there is “a culture of inclusion and not exclusion.” But most important was “my secret star of the film” – the President of the Electoral Commission, Dr Afari-Gyan.

Cultural Difference?

The subject of electoral commissions would probably serve as an excellent insomnia cure for many in the West. Yet in Africa, they are critically important: had Ghanaians “not believed in the integrity of Afari-Gyan, the worst could have happened”. That much is hinted at by violent scenes in the Electoral Commission “strong room” during vote counting procedures, with both sides aggressively accusing the other of fraud. With the tension generated by a second round of elections, it’s “important to have an arbiter who is bullet-proof who has a clean record and Afari-Gyan proved to be exactly that”. After originally planning to retire after 2008, Afari-Gyan was coaxed into monitoring the 2012 elections as well, after which the not insignificant challenge is to find someone with “the same authority and neutrality”.

Nevertheless, Merz does not believe the 2008 elections were completely fair: “Someone will always try and cheat.” In particular, he points out that “lots of chiefs are struggling financially – they can be manipulated to certain extent… Did people buy chiefs and pay for their votes? Possibly so – but I don’t have any proof.” Yet ultimately Merz is adamant that “elections are not about how perfect elections are but are all players willing to accept the results as they stand? Are they good enough to pass for everyone? The results were good enough to accept and move on.” As he points out, in 2000 in the United States, the “Supreme Court decided who will be the next President – is that democracy?”
Merz is clearly “very, very happy this film turned out to be an African success story,” and it is one he hopes others will learn from, as he has taken the film around the world – including Kenya and Zimbabwe, countries with sadly little experience of non-violent democracies. This is part of a project called A Political Safari: “We travel with the film, especially to countries with impending elections and use it to engage people in a creative discussion about elections and democracy in Africa,” hoping “local filmmakers will do something similar.” Such has been the reaction to the film that there are plans to cover the 2012 and 2016 Ghanaian elections on similar lines. Yet an underlying frustration has been the reaction from TV stations: “If you want to sell the film they’ll be like ‘Who’s really interested in Africa?’ It seems Africa is still seen as a basket case.” Merz’s film may go a little way towards changing that.

The full documentary film is called ‘An African Election’ by Jarreth Merz.