Thursday, January 08, 2009

Ghana's elections: Is 'largely' free and fair good enough?

Pretty much stopped blogging but resurrecting this as a way to 'think aloud' about something I've been struggling with.

Ghana Elections: Where do we set the bar for 'free and fair'? Should that be something we decide upon internally, or is that set externally in the context of a broader continental picture? Is that constant across time, or have we shifted our definition based on the scale of irregularities in Kenya and Zimbabwe over the last year? Does this depend at all on how close the race is?

So we've voted. It went to two rounds, plus an additional day of voting in one constituency. There was quite a bit of tension, and some fears of unrest, but it's all over now. Akufo-Addo has conceded defeat and congratulated Atta-Mills, Atta-Mills has been sworn in, and around the world we are being heralded as an example of how democracy can work in Africa. Congratulations are rolling in - once again Ghana stands out as an example of peace and the rule of law in Africa.

Of all the media I have seen and heard though; both African and broader international, there has been little mention of any irregularities. This bothers me because it is not as if there were none. There were many reported cases of irregularities, with the most striking of them being violence against polling agents, and an inability of agents to observe elections of some polling stations. Each of the major parties in Ghana have a regional stronghold, and both the NDC and NPP have reported violence against their agents in the opposing party's stronghold. Do these not interfere with a 'free and fair' election? In the Volta region for instance, NPP polling agents were prevented from observing elections at many of the polling stations. The abuse of one of the polling agents (incidentally one of fewer than 5 trained psychiatrists in Ghana, and head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Ghana) was quite vicious, and has been documented, but largely ignored in the classification of the elections as free and fair. The electoral commission claimed that there was no evidence to support a further investigation of allegations of irregularities, but I would have thought that in this instance, the bloody pictures and statement from Elizabeth Ohene would have been enough to investigate.

The lack of acknowledgment leads to the an inclination to agree with what Nana Akufo-Addo said in his concession speech:

“By stating that there is criminal conduct in some constituencies of the Volta Region and yet announcing the results, the Electoral Commission has given the unfortunate impression that it does not matter how votes are being obtained[,] as long as they are duly recorded”

This strongly worded statement points to an undoing of a lot of what we have worked towards as a country, and casts a lot of doubt on the credibility of the electoral commission.

'Free and fair' aside, was the election a reflection of the will of the Ghanaian people? It could be argued that since there were only a few isolated incidents, the election was still largely free and fair. In an election where the victor's margin was ~40,000 votes, representing less than 1% of valid votes cast though, this is still material to the outcome of the election. If NPP agents were prevented from observing elections at the majority of polling stations in even two constituencies - say the Ho Central and Ho West constituencies for instance, that would represent >70,000 votes cast. This in itself is larger than the margin by which the NDC defeated the NPP. The NPP has indeed reported that their polling agents were prevented form observing the elections at several Volta Region polling stations. Herein lies my struggle.

The NPP withdrew all court cases and conceded defeat - a move that likely saved Ghana a lot of trouble. With the declaration of results barely 4 days before the constitutionally mandated inauguration, a lengthy legal process could have left us in a constitutional crisis, with the current president's term having expired, and no new president to inaugurate. Worse than this, tensions were quite high in the week before the final voting in Tain. Any legal wranglings which were not perceived to be above-board could have escalated these tensions and led to an outbreak of violence.

As it is, Ghana is peaceful, and both Africa and the rest of world have something to latch on to as an example of the progress of democracy in Africa, and a glimmer of hope that other countries can also 'succeed'. Do we do ourselves a disservice by overlooking these irregularities in the interest of an outward image, and what this means for people other than us as Ghanaians? Or if it is more for the fear of violence, should the will of the Ghanaian people be subordinated to the fear of a potential outbreak of violence?

Is this something we overlook at this point because we had only had one peaceful handover, and perhaps it is only after we have had two and are a more 'mature' democracy that we will have the confidence to tackle some of these tricky issues? Regardless of the number of transitions, will our democracy ever be 'mature' if we pussyfoot over issues such as these irregularities, which while isolated in the grand scheme of things, could have a material impact on the final result?

If the NPP and Akufo-Addo had persisted with their challenge and violence had broken out in Ghana, they would forever have been labeled as the unpatriotic party which put personal interests over the interests of the country at large. In my opinion though, the Ghanaian people are still done a disservice as long as political parties accept results when there is some doubt as to whether they are a reflection of what actually happened.

I focus on irregularities against the NPP because these are the ones for which I have seen evidence. Obviously, irregularities on both sides should be investigated.

I would love to hear thoughts on whether other people think this matters at all, and if it does, how we can move to a place where we are confident enough in the political process, our legal institutions and the stability of our democracy that we do not accept 'largely' free and fair, but insist that as an *absolute*, Ghanaian people are assured that the outcome of the election is a result of our collective will as a people.

These solutions are not things I have thought about at length, but a few things at the top of my mind:
- Firstly a constitutional change to allow for more time between the elections and the inauguration. Even a month would allow for some challenge to the results, and legal proceedings to take place
- Over time, a review of the legal system and the independence of the judiciary. This is obviously a large undertaking, but at some point, we need to have a system that all parties agree with, and would respect the decision of. The NPP's complaint had been lodged with the fast track court. Leading NDC functionaries have challenged the constitutionality of the Fast Track court in the past, and I can imagine that even if the NPP had not withdrawn, it is quite likely that the NDC would have challenged the legal process
- An overhaul of the voters register. This one is long overdue. It is an open joke that even if you collect and count all the farm animals in some constituencies in addition to the people, you still will not get to the number of people on the voters register, and subsequently the number of votes cast. In an environment where elections are so closely contested between two parties, the accuracy of the voters register in one or two constituencies can make all the difference to the outcome of the elections.

Postscript: International praise of Ghana's elections

Christian Science Monitor: Ghana's new president: Africa's symbol of a working democracy

Washington Post: Ghana's Example- How one African nation has made democracy work

Financial Times: Ghana-ing votes

Nigerian Tribune: How Ghana emerged hero

All Africa: Ghana: A Sign of True Democracy

Daily Nation (Kenya): It’s a triumph for Africa