Monday 21 November 2011

Ballots, not bullets: "An African Election"

An African Election's title implies generality - one election standing (as a model?) for the whole - yet the events of Jarreth Merz's access-all-areas documentary are specific to Ghana, where - in December 2008 - two politicians vied to replace outgoing president John Rufuor: Atta Mills of the progressive NDC, and the more Westernised Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP. The hope was that an African nation as modern as Ghana could lead the way in democratic elections, yet once the candidates are out on the road campaigning, we get a sense of a country so poor, whose needs are so basic, that rival politicians can effectively offer the populace the same things: free secondary education, a modernising of agriculture, jobs for all, the latter a particularly contentious issue in areas where one needs the right party affiliations to be eligible for well-paying positions. As we see, that there is practically nothing to choose between the two camps will become the source of some conflict.

It may or may not be African politics' own fault - it may, alternatively, be indicative of our own prejudices - that we spend much of Merz's film waiting for something to go wrong: anything from an allegation of corruption to an assassination, the latter a fear only heightened by the low levels of organisation apparent at the candidates' public rallies. Initially, at least, any problems are limited to the banal ones of electoral infrastructure: not enough polling stations, leading to long queues building up outside those that are open. Then: drama. The day after the elections, it's still not clear who's won, and - as the two parties are reduced to spinning the provisional results - we think back to Florida 2000, and another flawed two-party political system. (One of the film's strengths is an ambivalence about the democratic model the West is often accused of exporting to other nations.) The spin we now accept as part of the political game, a luxury, is here shown up as potentially lethal in traditionally far less stable outposts. Violent claims and counter-claims are made; large crowds, pumped-up and restless, begin to gather outside the parties' respective headquarters, awaiting instruction. The loss of control becomes most keenly felt at the run-off in late December, when heavies appear on the streets and bodies are seen lying in the road. A winner eventually emerges, but then the figures start changing once again.

The heroes of the piece turn out to be the Ghanaian people - demonstrating vast reserves of pride, passion and (crucially) patience - who demonstrate everybody's desire to resolve these issues for themselves, without bloodshed. It seems somehow key that the independent scrutineer appointed by the UN is limited to no more than a cameo in the film, while the most encouraging sequence finds the crowd outside one polling station sticking around after the polls have shut to observe the count, each ballot paper having to be lifted into the air by the electoral officer - ensuring the kind of transparency and accountability we in the West have rather come to take for granted. "Africa has always been looked upon as a basket case," rues one of Atta Mills' advisors, but that's not quite the case in An African Election, where we see one of the continent's member states desperately trying to hold itself together, and beginning to fray and unravel at the edges, only to emerge into a stronger place more or less unscathed for it. There's hope here.

An African Election opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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