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Taking “An African Election” on the road.

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An African Election (crowd scene)

by Siji Jabbar

Newspaper headlines that say something like “Election clashes in [insert African country]” probably attract more attention than any coverage of the examples of good electioneering – Nigeria, Zambia and Liberia in 2011, Senegal, Lesotho and Guinea Bissau this year. For so populous a country, the Nigerian one was particularly impressive. Those who see these examples as minor achievements are either overlooking, or conveniently forgetting, the fact that elections in most African countries have to deal with complexities that countries in Europe, say, are spared, the most obvious of which is the issue of homogeneity (degree of similarity in cultures values, language, ethnicity and religion in the country’s population), with European countries at the homogeneous end of the spectrum and African countries at the heterogeneous end, a consequence of the lumping together of previously existing kingdoms into “countries” under colonialism. This was one of the time-bombs left behind by colonialism, and one of the reasons we need to debate what form of democracy we should be practicing. What form is right for the specific nature of our societies?

African countries are also relatively young, and as a result haven’t had as much time to iron out all the other wrinkles of the democratic process. Frankly, America and European countries aren’t quite done with that task, either. The closest a western country came to pure democracy was probably Iceland after the country came close to financial ruin.

Anyway, this challenge of reaching agreement in young countries with highly heterogeneous populations is precisely why the examples of good electioneering are important. Each one shows the next country’s citizens that the idea of “nation” is possible, despite the high degree of heterogeneity.

In hindsight, then, it’s a little surprising that no one thought to document an African election until Ghanaian-Swiss filmmaker Jarreth Merz did so in, well, An African Election, the award-winning film of the 2008 presidential elections in Ghana (Grand Jury Winner, Atlanta Film Festival; “Best Documentary” at the AMAA in Lagos; nominated for an Independent Spirit award, etc.). Who knew a relatively peaceful election could be so gripping? This interview probably answers most questions you might have about the background to the documentary, and about how he managed to get such unfiltered access to pretty much everyone who mattered.

Jarreth says he filmed the documentary with the purpose of supporting Africans who want to be a part of creating their own future by taking part in their electoral process and building democracy. Which means it’s great that the film has done the European and American film festival circuit, but the most important audience for this documentary are other Africans in Africa, especially those with elections coming up anytime soon. Ghana will go to the polls again in October December (as will Somalia in August, and Madagascar and Sierra Leone in November), and Jarreth is taking his film on the road on what he has called A Political Safari.

He will journey through Ghana with a mobile cinema, through rural and marginalised communities, to screen the film and hold workshops to inspire communities with a positive vision of African democracy, and, more practically, develop voter resources that support and facilitate dialogue across ideological, socio-economic and ethnic boundaries.

To bring A Political Safari to nine more African countries (and get the film translated into 5 different languages), Jarreth has launched a kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary $32,000.

So here’s your chance to join with other supporters in making this important campaign a reality, a chance to take part in a movement to strengthen and support the next generation of democratic African leaders and voters.

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