One election, seven days of house arrest

Last week two things happened: firstly, the Ghanaian elections; secondly, we were under what I can only describe as house arrest. The latter is because of VSO’s security policies for volunteers. Just in case of any pockets of problems or violence, we were given supplies (I have never seen so many tins of sardines or packets of instant noodles in one kitchen!) and told to hole ourselves up in our house for the week.

Notice of poll

Ghana is viewed as a leading light in African democracy, with power being handed over pretty smoothly between the two main parties since the country’s current multi-party system began in 1992. It’s clearly a legacy that Ghanaians want to maintain. From the police, the political candidates and even companies advertising their products on the radio or posters around town, the unifying message throughout has been a call for a peaceful election. Thankfully, other than a few very isolated incidents, things were peaceful and our house arrest ended up being a precaution rather than a necessity.

Polling took place last Wednesday. After some delays due to concerns of over-voting, results were announced on Friday night. The opposition party won with 53% of the vote for the presidential candidate. And unlike in The Gambia, the current Ghanaian president quickly conceded (weirdly before the official results were even out). A handover of power to new president Nana Akufo-Addo is due early in the New Year meaning that for the first time since the start of the millennium Ghana’s president-elect is not called John!

I don’t claim to know the details of the parties and their policies but throughout the build up, it has been interesting to see just how visible politics is here. I was travelling a lot for work in the second half of November – visiting schools in the Upper West, Upper East and Northern regions of the country – and the election was everywhere.

Rallies were taking over towns: my breakfast in Wa was with the opposition party’s rally organisers whilst in Yagaba my hotel doubled up as the local serving MP’s residence, so I sat down to eat my omelette and bread with him and his campaign team. We even passed the President’s motorcade en route – a huge number of SUVs flying past on their way north.

With high rates of illiteracy, a physical presence in the community and face-to-face communication is clearly so important for parties to get their message across. As we drove from school to school, tiny villages with as few as 30 homes in remote parts of the savannah had election notices pasted on the walls of houses, party flags on pylons, campaign posters everywhere and typically two wooden shelters serving as meeting points and painted in one or other of main parties’ colours.

So many things I saw suggested that people get behind their party and see the personal relevance of politics in a way that you just don’t find in the UK. Can you imagine your friends and family donning hats, t-shirts and scarves in their political party’s colours and parading down the street to show their support? Better yet, what about cycling backwards through your village completely decked out in party memorabilia? Or dancing behind a pickup truck blaring out music whilst wearing a t-shirt with your favourite presidential candidate’s face emblazoned on it?

Politics escapes the confines of print, radio and TV here. It affects whether or not a community is connected with a road made of dirt or tar, or whether they have a regular water supply – real, visible, everyday things!

Friday’s results announcement was followed by some terrible horn playing by one of our neighbours and sporadic, noisy fireworks. And that’s it. Election season is over. Happily, we can at least leave our house again!

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