By Iain Marlow
ACCRA—In Ghana, everyone has been awaiting the Verdict.
For roughly three months, live broadcasts of Supreme Court hearings have transfixed the nation. TV channels carried the proceedings live, for hours at a time. Radio stations ran live audio feeds, often without editing any of it. No matter what the subject of the discussion was — and it was almost always “pink sheets” — Ghanaians tuned in and paid rapturous attention. After all, the court was deciding whether to keep or toss the results of Ghana’s 2012 election of John Dramani Mahama. The “pink sheets” discussed endlessly on-air, and dissected in Ghana’s myriad newspapers, were supposed to contain voting irregularities that required scrutiny. However mind-numbing or arcane the endless legal wrangling could seem to an outsider, the issues were crucial and cut to the very core of Ghana’s democracy. The country’s stability has made Ghana a beacon in Africa and ensured that the West African nation largely stays out of the negative international media spotlight that zips, loops and roams across Africa looking for rigged votes and election violence in places like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
And so Ghana waited. Until Thursday, August 29, 2013. That’s when the Verdict came down.
I was at lunch when it happened, at a small restaurant called Champion’s Dishes, in the Adabraka neighbourhood of Accra. Two men were washing their hands before sitting down to fufu and soup, when one started to make strange noises. His friend soon joined in. I looked over, looked one of the men straight in the eyes to get his attention, and asked what was going on.
“The verdict has come down!”
I had been waiting for it, too. It seemed like statecraft and policy making had ground to a halt in this nation of roughly 25-million people as people debated the very legitimacy of the government in power. Some Ghanaians were staying home for the Verdict. Streets leading to the Supreme Court had been closed off. The local currency had fallen as uncertainty shrouded Ghana’s lush resources. Helicopters tore through the sky. I had passed two police officers stationed at our newsroom gate — like at all newsroom gates around Accra — when I went to work that morning. One graphic designer jokingly asked whether I had brought my passport, so that I could flee easily to more politically stable climes.
“What’s the verdict?” I asked the men at Champion’s. They were listening to radio through earbuds attached to their candy bar Nokia mobile phones.
“It supports the NDC,” the man said, referring to Mahama’s New Democratic Congress.
The Verdict! After months of deliberation, the nine-member panel of the Supreme Court had come down on the side of the John Mahama and the NDC, tossing out the case brought forward by Nana Akufo-Addo, the charismatic flag-bearer of the New Patriotic Party, which lost the 2012 election after running a campaign that promised free secondary education for all.
“They say we are not meant to celebrate,” the man said, as he sat down for lunch, reflecting the weeks of media discussions about the need for peace, about the need for both sides to accept the verdict without violence or rallies, without over-the-top celebrations or protests. At one point, there was a pretty vigorous media debate about whether there was actually too much talk of peace, whether some were being slightly less than genuine with their peace talk, and whether there was even a need for it all.
“We go celebrate, ah!” his companion said. He, in turn, was reflecting the reason why there has been so much talk of peace in recent weeks: The fact that many in Ghana are incorrigibly partisan, either for the NDC and against the NPP, or for the NPP and against the NDC; there is generally no middle ground, nor is there much room for debate about the merits of individual policy choices. If it is an NDC idea, and you support the NDC, it is a good idea. If it is an NPP idea, and you support the NDC, it is a horrible idea. If the NPP comes into power, it scraps previous NDC projects, no matter what the cost, and vice versa. I once even stayed in a small guest house on a mountain top in Ghana’s Volta region that was originally part of a government scheme to scatter guesthouses across the country so traveling ministers wouldn’t have to waste government money on hotels; it was scrapped and the buildings leased off when a new government came into power. I can’t recall which government did what. It doesn’t matter.
Not that I like to quote taxi drivers, but last week I was in a cab where, from start to beginning, the NPP-supporting taxi driver raged against the NDC for lacking vision and essentially trashing the nation. His hatred of the NDC was so great, his distrust so deep, that he said he refused to pay taxes (not that this is too hard in Ghana, a country with a massive informal economy where, in roughly 5 months, I estimate that I’ve gotten maybe 10 or 15 receipts for big purchases). I asked him: “How is the NDC meant to do anything if people don’t pay taxes? If the NPP win the election the next time, would you like it if all the previous NDC supporters stopped paying taxes.”
He was resolute that this was an idiotic question.
“In your country,” he yelled, “you can pay taxes knowing that they will go toward things like roads.”
Gesturing toward the bumpy, cracked pavement of a main road in Accra he said simply: “Look!”
Fair point, perhaps: Even if you pay taxes, it’s not clear that things around you will get immediately better. He raged about government corruption and nepotism and how nothing ever gets done, sort of justifiably. But he was simply proving to me that, if not totally necessary, it was at least a smart move for everyone in the media to stress peace and harmony and emphasize that it would take everyone’s effort to preserve Ghana’s democratic traditions during the tense moments before and after the verdict.
How tense? Not too tense, from what I could gather. There were no plumes of smoke billowing in the Gulf of Guinea breeze. On Thursday, after I returned from the restaurant, I ran into Ruth, a woman outside our newsroom who sells bread. She also teaches me various phrases in Ga (the local language of many Accra natives). I asked her about the verdict, and she seemed a bit let down.
“Oh, so you’re an NPP woman?” I asked, sort of joking.
“Yes,” she replied.
“And so is she,” she said, gesturing to a woman sitting on a bus stand bench with dozens of small piles of coins in front of her that she doles out to the “trotro” mini-bus .
“And so is the fruit-seller,” she added, referring to another woman from whom I buy a whole mango and whole pineapple each morning.
That explains the narrow margin of Mahama’s victory, I guess.
Ruth continued: “There was a fight here just a few minutes ago, over there,” she said, pointing over to where her loaves sat in a glass and wood cabinet. “A guy said the NPP people are not correct. He said they were all illiterates. What are they supposed to do? There was a fight. We had to separate them.”
I returned the newsroom where I’m working for Journalists for Human Rights, and sat down and listened to a speech from the NPP’s deflated but gracious flag-bearer, Nana Akufo-Addo.
“While I disagree with the court, I accept its verdict,” he told supporters in a somber but stirring voice. “I am saddened by the verdict and I know that many of our supporters are saddened, too. But for the sake and love of our country we must embark on a path that builds, not destroys… Our reaction to this verdict will be watched keenly in Africa and beyond and it will set a precedent for generations.”
Some were slightly less cautious. Akwasi Amissah Arthur, Ghana’s vice-president (and obvious NDC member), lamented over the airwaves that the whole process has been a giant waste of time. His statements prompted furrowed eyebrows and complaints and bitter retorts. Ah, what was he doing? He was jeopardizing everything! Over the course of the hearings, there has been a lot of talk about just how much talk should be permitted. Ghana has an incredibly vibrant media landscape and press freedoms are well respected here. But there is also freedom to be as partisan as one likes, including on local language radio shows, where the rhetoric occasionally borders on incitement. One newspaper editor and commentator, Ken Kuranchie, was even tossed into a filthy, overcrowded jail for 10 days, after some of his statements got him dragged before the Supreme Court, where he refused to apologize.
It wasn’t all seriousness, though. Ghana has a light heart. One person joked on Twitter that he had fun that evening by pretending to be a diehard NPP supporter with a taxi driver. I joked that with the NPP-NDC dispute finally settled, Ghanaians could finally get back to the true animating divide in the country: The rivalry between Manchester United and Chelsea supporters. Light-hearts aside, Ghanaians are justifiably proud of their democracy. As the international news shows focused on a possible war with Syria, after having focused on turmoil in Egypt and what many called a rigged election in Zimbabwe, one Ghanaian journalist I know here goaded CNN International and CNN’s Inside Africa program on Twitter for not having anything about the verdict 12 hours after it had been announced. He had a very good point, and his anger was understandable. Even if I know in my cynical journalist heart that newspapers can’t fill their pages with all the buses that didn’t crash that day, it was extremely hard for me to not sympathize with the continent’s complaints about foreign media coverage: Would it be so hard to focus on an African success story for one day that was about institutions that worked, about a subject that didn’t also come as a “success” for foreign investors, like “Africa Rising” stories?
As dusk fell on the day of the Verdict, the president himself addressed the nation.
“With the court case over and the verdict announced, Ghanaians can now put the problem behind and turn their full attention back to building the nation,” Mahama said. “Over the coming years, we will continue to face a fair share of challenges. There are various reforms that have to take place and bold decisions that have to be made and I assure you that I am prepared and committed to making those decisions and to ensure that those reforms are implemented.”
I woke up later that night sometime well before dawn to the sounds of what people here would call “jubilating.” It was an ephemeral thump of bass drifting around in the darkness, played from a car that was clearly driving up and down the main street in our neighbourhood, over and over again. It didn’t last long, but it was the faint sound of an African election done right. It was hard to hear, but unmistakable.