Thursday, October 30, 2008

Where will the violence come from?

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng


Last Sunday as we prayed in church one more time for peaceful elections I sensed that there was a more desperate edge to this supplication than you would find in a routine Presbyterian intercession. It is not that our intercessory prayers are not passionate or sincere; just that we are Presbyterians and don't shout much. But once the prayers are for "peaceful elections" people let it rip.


Even the children in our church devoted their Education Week drama sketch to peaceful election in which one child asked plaintively whether there will be another country for Ghanaian children to move to if we destroy this one through political violence. All over Ghana, people are praying in churches and mosques for peaceful elections; musicians are putting out new music about peaceful elections while NGOs up and down the country are mobilising for peaceful elections.


All this frenetic activity on behalf of peace would suggest that this country was in the grip of a particularly malicious streak of a violent virus about to break out on December 7 against which all national resources must be mobilised. I have travelled a bit in the country this year but it is not my impression that we are in mortal danger of being swamped under a wave of political violence. Indeed, even during this campaign, one hardly gets the feeling that people are as passionate about politics as should be the case this close to elections.


The strange thing is that at the same time that all the politicians are declaring peaceful intentions, there is a running undercurrent of fear just beneath the surface of the tranquil political terrain. Sometimes one gets the impression that this collective pumping up of blood pressure has resulted in a schizoid attitude towards elections: yes, we like democracy but wish we could have it without elections. At best, most people probably see elections as a necessary nuisance to be endured.


The question is why Ghana's (mostly) peaceful people have to endure such fear when there appears to be almost no grounds for such pessimism. I discern that there are three main sources of the apprehension. The first is the structure of our politics. Unlike other countries where an official campaign period is declared and respected, Ghana's political season is unrelentingly 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. This current campaign started the day after the last election in December 2004.


With no end in sight, a perpetual campaign becomes a plaything to the most extreme elements in every party, and with a lot of time to kill but no structures to contain their activities the extremists resort to insults, calumny, threats and downright lies just to keep the show on the road.


This brings us to the second source: This perpetual politicking is oiled by the role of the media in general but radio stations in particular which have contributed to the sense of unease because they too have to fill the endless hours with political talk coming from the same extremists who are most likely to spend hours calling from station to station. The other day I listened to an Accra radio station as it indulged in an orgy of the most extreme examples of hate speech and incitement to violence. The moderator moderated nothing but grunted her approval as caller after caller heaped opprobrium on the heads of their political opponents.


But radio is not the only media culprit. Newspapers are also doing their best to frighten Ghanaians into submission. I cancelled my subscription to a newspaper last week after yet another violent and misleading headline. The brutal assault of partisan political noises on all our senses from radio finds its echoes in the political free-for-all that has been declared by a number of political tracts masquerading as newspapers. Sadly, as the political ante is upped this journalistic aberration has become a trend.


The next source of the generalised fear is the recent history of post-election violence in other African countries, especially in Kenya and Zimbabwe. There is a general suspicion that rewarding probable losers with power sharing has created a template for election losers to use violence as a means of staying in power or getting a share of it.


This is a legitimate fear but it is probably misplaced because Ghana is not Kenya or Zimbabwe. Kenya's ethnicised politics had cast a long shadow over the country's political development since independence, and this was the basis of the post-election violence that erupted in December last year. Zimbabwe is a special case and nothing in Ghana's recent history remotely suggests a parallel with our situation.


None of this is meant to suggest that we should indulge in complacent self-congratulation. That would be a mistake because sadly we have to accept that we cannot rule out possible violence during or after the election. This is because despite the professions of peace by party leaders there is that hardcore extremist element that would exploit any situation to create chaos.


The real danger is that the drip-drip of loose political talk can coalesce into the makings of a "programme of action" for that tiny minority waiting for a call to arms. The other danger is from the politicians who are going round alleging that the election will be rigged without providing any evidence of how this is going to happen. It has almost become standard practice for election losers to allege electoral fraud after elections but to allege the same BEFORE an election presents us with a unique situation.


The allegation of possible rigging and violence is not doing this country any favours. A friend of mine who works for a multinational company says that all further foreign investments have been put on hold because some people are briefing foreign government that the coming elections cannot be free and fair and can lead to trouble.


 Those alleging electoral fraud before the election have a duty to provide the evidence so that for once in an African election the fixers and riggers can be nabbed before they strike. If, on the other hand, there is no evidence then those alleging the rigging are merely putting the country in harm's way without any good reason.


There are reasons for us all to continue to press the case for peace but we should not fall into the trap of a hopeless pessimism and despondent negativism. But the government has a responsibility to address the question of possible post-election violence head-on by specifying the flash points so that the Ghanaians understand the nature of threat and how to deal with it.


These flash points are the areas where pre-existing tensions can be used to ignite fresh trouble which otherwise would have no intrinsic political connections. This is the best way to isolate the tiny band of political extremist who might have an agenda that runs contrary to the prayers that most Ghanaians have been offering since the last elections.

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