The critically acclaimed documentary "An African Election" provides a riveting taste of politics in Ghana, the West African nation that is gearing up for elections this Friday.
Directed by Jarreth Merz, the film chronicles the final month of campaigning in Ghana's December 2008 presidential elections, which led to a hotly-contested nationwide runoff later that month, followed by a cliff-hanger vote in a single rural constituency one week later.
The film seems to focus on the specters of violence, intimidation, and fraud that hung over the elections like dark clouds, but Ghana's reputation as a relatively stable, peaceful and democratic nation - within a region characterized by coups, rebellions, and fraudulent polls - emerged intact.
Though much has changed in Ghana over the past four years, including the start of offshore oil drilling, most of the same issues and personalities that featured in the 2008 elections dominate this week's vote, too.
The 89-minute documentary is largely composed of contrasting scenes of massive, thunderous campaign rallies - during which the two main presidential candidates offer endless lists of locale-specific promises met with thunderous approval by throngs of supporters - and analytical commentary by mostly partisan scholarly "experts" and political leaders.
The film succeeds in portraying Ghana as a lively if imperfect democracy where ordinary voters freely share their strong opinions on camera. While the filmmakers briefly provide some historical context, particularly on Ghana's first decade after independence in 1957, more attention to the ethnic rivalries, regional differences, and ideological divides in Ghana would help viewers better understand the election's dynamics.
The foremost presence in the film, even more so than the two presidential candidates themselves, is J. J. Rawlings, Ghana's larger-than-life former longtime leader. Dismissed by his mainly reactionary opponents as an authoritarian demagogue who came to power through "the barrel of the gun," he is hugely popular amongst ordinary Ghanaians (as evident in many scenes in the documentary) and widely credited with transforming Ghana into the success story it is today.
When he came to power during the December 31st Revolution of 1981, Rawlings represented a new kind of Ghanaian ruler - a member of a minority ethnic group, not connected to any of the country's elite families, and willing to get his hands dirty participating in voluntary labor projects. He presided over essential economic and political reforms, first as a revolutionary leader in the 1980s, then a democratically elected president and founder of the social democratic National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the 1990s.
In the film, we watch Rawlings stride triumphantly onto campaign rally platforms in far-flung towns, drive his own car through the busy streets of Ghana's capital, Accra, while offering a critique of western imperialism, and receive international election observers at his private residence where he issues dire warnings about the incumbent government's attempts to steal the election.
In 1998, at the end of his constitutional two-term limit, Rawlings handed over power to John Kufuor, then-leader of the opposition right-wing New Patriotic Party. The example that Rawlings set - giving up power after nearly 20 years and then staying in the country as his opponents took over - was admired by Africans across the continent, who also marveled at Ghana's economic and political strides during his tenure.
Kufuor's administration was generally unremarkable, except that it was rife with corruption and ethnic favoritism and very closely allied with the U.S. administration of George W. Bush. The elections documented in the film come at the end of Kufuour's two terms and while he barely makes an appearance on screen, Kufuor played a key role in maintaining peace during the fervent final days of the extended campaign.
The election pitted the NPP candidate Nana Akufo-Addo, who served as attorney general and foreign minister in Kufuor's administration, against the NDC's John Ata-Mills, Rawlings' former vice president and a law professor.
The elections, like all of Ghana's elections every four years, were a re-match between the two dominant parties who claim divergent political lineages and constituencies. The NPP has always been an elitist party of reaction - opposed to Ghana's founding President Kwame Nkrumah's demand for independence from British colonial rule in the 1950s, for example - with electoral support almost exclusively limited to the Akan ethnic group. In contrast, the NDC is a national party, drawing support from within and outside the majority Akan areas, and encompassing adherents of the Nkrumah and Rawlings leftist traditions.
When neither candidate received the constitutionally-required 50 plus one percent in the polls, a runoff election was called by Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, the extraordinarily serene and composed chairman of Ghana's Electoral Commission, another star of the documentary.
After another inconclusive result - and viewers are treated to spellbinding scenes in the election commission's "war room" where representatives of the two parties trade accusations and threats - Afari-Gyan orders a re-vote in the Tain constituency where it was determined there had been problems with ballot distribution.
After the special vote, Afari-Gyan declared Mills the winner by less than one percent and NDC supporters hit the streets in ebullient celebration.
Behind the scenes, and the film suggests this, sources claim Akufo-Addo refused to accept the result. His former boss, outgoing President Kufuor, convinced the NPP flagbearer to gracefully accept defeat and concede to Mills. Thus, even his opponents conceded that Kufuor emerged as a true statesman at the end of his tenure, if only because he was fearful his party's notorious "macho men," taking their cue from Akufo-Addo, would incite violence and tarnish Ghana's image.
Remarkably, this week's elections were supposed to be an exact rematch of the 2008 race, pitting Mills against Akufo-Addo once again, but the Ghanaian president tragically died in July. Mills' vice president, John Dramini Mahama, who was sworn into office as president hours after Mills' death, now faces Akufo-Addo in Friday's polls.
Like the recent U.S. elections, the Ghanaian media claims the vote will be too close to call, but NDC supporters are hopeful Mahama will prevail since support is particularly strong in rural areas that have benefited from aggressive development programs over the past four years. Polling by neutral bodies suggest Mahama has a slight lead over Akufo-Addo.
In many ways, Akufo-Addo is the Mitt Romney of Ghana: he has been running for president for years, his support base is very limited, and he represents the interests of the wealthy.
Regardless of political affiliation, Ghanaians are hoping for a "one-touch" result, meaning one candidate wins outright this Friday thus avoiding a runoff, and most importantly, they are hoping for a peaceful election.
To get a crash course in Ghana's politics, and to appreciate why Ghanaians want to avoid a repeat of the 2008 elections, "An African Election" certainly is an entertaining and informative documentary.
"An African Election"
Directed by Jarreth Merz
2011, 89 minutes, Cinema Guild
Photo: A filming scene from the documentary. Official site gallery