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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Happy Independence Day!

Today is the 51st Independence Day celebration for Ghana, the first former colony in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence. The newspapers are also calling this an historic celebration. It is historic not because of the number of years (that was the big Ghana @ 50 celebration from last year). It is historic because this is only the second time a democratically elected President will have served out his full terms. And the only other President to do so was a military leader for ten years before re-introducing democracy and being democratically elected.

Ghanaians are justifiably proud of their democracy. International observers routinely praise the free and fair elections. More importantly, so do local Ghanaians. In a continent plagued by scandals of vote rigging and physical intimidation at the ballot box, Ghana is really doing remarkably well.

I was here in 2000 for the historic elections that really marked the full promise of Ghanaian democracy. Ft. Lt. Jerry Rawlings, the former military leader, had served the constitutionally set two terms and then he left office. He did not try to change the constitution to enable him to stay in office longer, as some other African leaders have done. He stepped aside, and in doing so bolstered the foundation of Ghana's democracy. Rawlings' party, the NDC, contested the elections against their main rival, the NPP, along with several other smaller parties. After a run-off, the NPP candidate won. Atta Mills, the NDC candidate and former Vice President, graciously conceded the race. And in that seemingly small act, I believe that Atta Mills became as much a father of Ghana's democracy as anyone else. Because sometimes the act of stepping aside and graciously admitting defeat takes more valour than the alternatives.

I remember the joy of Ghanaians on that day when everything was finally settled, and nothing had gone wrong. People proudly moved around town with their thumbs showing the black indelible ink that marked them as people who had voted. Ghanaians vote by thumbprint, and the ink remains to ensure that no one can vote twice. But it also acts as a powerful social incentive to show yourself as someone who has done your civic duty. For a country that has struggled for so long, first for independence and then for stable democracy, eager to differentiate itself from violence-torn neighbors, voting is not a right taken lightly.

Ghanaians gathered around small television sets staged in shop fronts to watch the news proclaiming the success of the elections. This local news story was followed by an international news story about the messy US elections between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Amid news of faulty ballot counts, politically contentious recounts, and a Supreme Court case, one Ghanaian shook his head and looked at me.

"You people, you come here to observe us and tell us if our democracy is good." He raised his thumb, that emblem of Ghanaian democracy, "It seems as though we should go to your country and show you how to conduct democracy!"

Happy 51st Birthday to Ghana, my beloved adopted country. Whether I am here or afar, it is always in my heart. I look forward to many more years of peaceful progress and strong democracy.


chou said...

How amazing to be there to witness such an event. Wow.

Erin said...

Thanks Chou! It was amazing to be here for the 2000 elections when power first changed hands. I wish I were going to be here in December of this year to see it happen again.

katiez said...

Really, how wonderful to be a small part of that all!
And wouldn't it be interesting to institute a 'black thumb' system in the U.S.? Maybe there would be more voters (and less complainers)

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