Challenging stereotypes through ‘An African Election’

Ask your friends for words they associate with elections in Africa and you’ll likely get a mixed bag of “corrupt,” “violent,” “rigged” or simply “what elections?” It’s a fair bet no one will think to mention the 2008 Ghanaian election in which two presidential candidates fought a hard campaign, ended up separated by just over 40,000 votes, and yet the result was a peaceful transition of power.

The riveting film, “An African Election” takes the audience up close to the campaign, with extraordinary access to the key players as they battle to take over from the retiring President Kufuor. The candidates criss-cross the country for months speaking to huge rallies, and are then forced into a frenetic run-off after the first round fails to yield a clear winner.

Thandie Newton at her ‘film of the year’ before a screening in London last Sunday.

The extraordinary levels of citizen interest and engagement will provoke jealousy from Western politicians. Indeed Ghanaians from all walks of life were clearly acutely aware that the pressure was on to show that Africa could do fair and functional democracy, following disastrous elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe earlier in the year.

The impression that Director Jarreth Merz brilliantly gets across is that the key characters in the election could just as easily be taking part in Gore versus Bush or Brown versus Cameron. The spin doctors, election agents, press officers and entourages –- even the attack adverts on TV -– showcase a vibrant but complex democracy going through a robust process to find a new leader. As tensions mount during the wait for the final results an unlikely hero emerges in the head of the Electoral Commission who calmly defuses a potentially volatile situation.

As we head into 2012 -– a year packed with key African elections, including the next installment from Ghana –- the film is a timely reminder that democracy in Africa can thrive, and should serve as a wake-up call to some of the more complacent Western democracies.