Sara Hanaburgh

The release of Jarreth Merz’s riveting docudrama, An African Election (2011), is a timely and welcome portrayal of renewed hope in democratic processes and positive change on the African continent. Ghana is portrayed as a prideful nation and is celebrated for its successful transition from British colonial rule (1874-1957) in 1957 under the leadership of first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (1957-66), to igniting the wave of independence that swept Black Africa in the 1960s and 70s. With the chaos of recent elections in Congo and the impending stress about the coming Zimbabwean election, this documentary is eye opening in terms of portraying a country, which like every imperfect democracy, struggles to redefine its own political principles. 

With fast paced editing and breathtaking camerawork, Merz’s lens takes us through the anatomy of the election process in Ghana in 2008. The story spans three months as this West African country prepares the ballot boxes, opens the polls and welcomes the votes of nearly seventy percent of its engaged citizens. The viewer is immersed in the throes of the multiparty election and no detail is spared. 

Rapid cuts between the campaign trails of eight candidates quickly shift to the race between two contenders: Professor Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). The documentary captures the intimate experiences and emotions of these candidates, and political commentators in the film don’t miss a beat critiquing their own two-party system and the problems it shares with the USA, which was itself in the spotlight for its historic election in the same year. 

The race continues with a vivacious percussive soundtrack mixed brilliantly with TV and radio news blurbs, the debates of impassioned urban youth and rural farmers who all attest to the optimism and excitement for “Change for a Better Ghana,” as the NDC’s slogan went. The visual landscape of the film shows how Nana Addo and Mills woo voters across the nation. Multiple cameras take the viewer on an aerial flight that swoops across serene rural villages in the early morning to the outlaying urban slum dwellings; a rapid cut lands us running on the ground through the bustling marketplaces of downtown Accra. As these opening shots announce, the election really is for all the people who make up Ghana’s population. 

Citizens’ voices resound in harmony with demands for improvements in food production, health and education and Merz’s cameras weave in a brief yet comprehensive historical context with authentic footage from the changeover from British colonial rule (1874-1957) and the transition from Jerry John Rawlings’ (NDC) ten-year military dictatorship (1981-91) to his institution of democratic elections in 1993. Having served as elected president for another eight years, JJ Rawlings gets a lot of up close and personal camera time: in his car on his way to vote in the first round of the election, as he campaigns among crowds of Atta Mills (NDC) supporters, and even in the intimacy of his own lavish home as he and his wife react to the counting of the votes and when he receives prominent African political figures to discuss the outcome. Although the camera’s constant attention to him in so many scenes does not miss capturing the volatile side of his personality, there is a curious idealization of the former leader who had cemented his popular support when he initiated and carried out the transition from military dictatorship to multiparty democratic elections. Rawlings becomes the charismatic protagonist of this film and due to the intensity which he brings to Professor Atta Mill’s campaign, the viewer is likely to root for him without being certain of the party politics.  

The drama and the narrative crux of this film lie in what could happen during the process of this election. The shockingly close results of the first round of elections lead to a run-off. The counting of the votes must reflect each of the voices of the people. The level of competition increases exponentially. Huge crowds multiply in the cities, looking to their leaders; and to the throbbing beat of drums as Atta Mills and Nana Addo rally their supporters with dangerous calls: “Protect your vote like you would your mother!” Film reviewers from the US and UK tend to emphasize instances such as these as the most thrilling moments of the film, where violence and all out chaos loom. Too often, as European observers in the film remark in sound bites from the BBC - “This election is vital to the future of Africa as a whole” - Africa is seen as slated for disaster. And, in spite of overall positive reviews, critical reception in the West tends to constantly reference the persistent “fragility” of the Ghanaian state as yet another young African democracy on the brink of failure. Merz seizes masterfully the build-up to this drama, and takes the old cliché in a new direction: Violence seems inevitable. But it is not. Over a suspenseful few days where a seething, latent volatility grips the nation, the African Electoral Commission under the leadership of the wise and peaceful Dr. Afari-Gyan hold themselves responsible for the future of the country. The African body is there to oversee the process, compile the votes and announce the winners. Their aim is to avoid at all costs a sense of disenfranchisement among voters; and they constantly remind each other of the potential disaster that an eruption into violence could effect, such as those epitomized by events leading up to the Zimbabwean and Kenyan elections (which were held later the same year). 

Above all, the film asserts that Ghana strives continuously to be a political model, and not only by looking inward with a critical gaze toward its own history, but also one from which the USA and the West as well as other African countries should and can learn in the ongoing process of building a successful democracy. The film depicts a new era of optimism for democracy from the ground up in Ghana and beyond.

Sara Hanaburgh is a scholar of African literatures and cinemas. She has recently completed her dissertation on the contemporary novel and film (1980s to present) from the sub-Saharan Francophone region as cultural responses to the human effects of economic globalization on the continent at the City University of New York. Her work argues that the most extreme effects of globalization reinforce notions of a sexualized, racialized or ethnicized “Other.” Her recent presentations include a paper on the representation of contemporary globalization in three African Francophone novels. A regular peer reviewer for African Studies Review since 2005, she also works as an independent translator in French, Portuguese and English, and is presently translating a novel by the late Gabonese author, Angèle Rawiri, into English. She has taught at Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges, the University of Brasilia and currently teaches in the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Fordham University.