Another Triumph For Democracy in Ghana Ignored By Africa's "Saviors"

Ghana, a model African democracy, was caught up in a legal battle after the opposition party attempted to nullify President John Mahama’s victory in last year’s election. The U.S. State Department even warned US citizens of potential violence erupting over the nation-wide dispute that's raged on for eight months. As anxiety loomed, Ghana's Supreme Court had citizens on edge with the promise of a ruling, set to be delivered last Thursday.

And then, it happened: the ruling dismissed the opposition’s appeal and upheld Mahama’s electoral victory.

Before, during, and after the announcement, security personnel were deployed on major roads in the capital. Over 30,000 police officers were stationed around the country in anticipation of the possibility of violence. Approximately 20 armed police personnel were posted at the regional offices of NDC and NPP, as well as at banks and media houses.

The real story, however, is what happened next: as political tensions rose in the wake of the verdict, the streets remained deserted, peaceful, and quiet.

“This is a victory for Ghana’s democracy,” President Mahama tweeted to his followers after the ruling. In turn, Nana Akufo-Addo, the leader of the opposition party, declared in his post-verdict speech: “For the sake and love of our country, we must embark on a path that builds — rather than destroys — to deal with our disappointment.

“In Ghana’s 56-year history," he continued, "this is the first time a presidential election petition of this kind has been filed and pursued through the courts. The whole world has watched us in wonder and admiration.”

I wish that the world watched, Mr. Akufo-Addo, but it didn’t.

At least, not nearly as many people paid attention as the 100 million who watched a 30-minute trailer last year about “saving” Africa by hunting down the cruel warlord Joseph Kony.

In Ghana there was no blood, no guns, no violence, no starving children, swollen bellies, lips tainted with flies, no one to save, and no one to pity. And without those familiar tropes, we didn't pay any attention.

Despite the fact that the State Department has commended Ghana for “commitment to nonviolence throughout the legal process” and “efforts to strengthen democracy and promote peace,” western media houses largely ignored what some have pointed to as a huge political news story, especially since Ghana’s independence was won in 1957, and considering the history of post-independence political instability (via the military coups of 1966, 1972, 1979, and 1981).

The story of Ghana’s democratic success did make limited appearance across international news headlines; meanwhile, a day after the verdict, on August 30, The New York Times was thick with stories about humanitarian aid amidst floods in Sudan, crisis in the Central African Republic, escalating conflict in DRC, Nigerian terrorists, kidnapping in Somalia, and so on.

These stories are incontestably valid on their own, as they portray the lived realities of many people, but how complete are they in the context of the continent that has been continuously and forcefully misrepresentated as wretched and in need of saving? If the choices of media outlets are guided by the gravest of world events, then what of the regular appearances of less meaty stories like the Pope’s New Year's greetings to Jews or a death of a polar bear in no less than the New York Times?

In Western media, who holds the power to write the story of the “other,” and who defines what that story looks like? The rhetoric of the “dark continent” emerged with the advent of “modernity” that sought to systematically dehumanize non-white peoples. Such rhetoric is not new — in fact,it is perpetual.

Stories that shed a positive light on the African continent specifically, and the Global South at large, hardly fit the western imagination's false notions of the region. These stories don’t trend, they don’t sell, and they do not satisfy our desire to validate our privilege and our delusional savior tendencies.

The danger of these static narratives is they create a single trajectory of representation.

In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, renowned Nigerian author:“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

The control of knowledge production within the media domain still remains largely in the hands of white straight males. Control only works by denying agency to those deemed “other.” Historically misrepresented people are left to then struggle to create a self-portrait with few means to do so. 

In the meantime, many Westerners are comforted by post-racial illusions and many more shy away from confronting these racial complexities. The selective coverage demontrates, if anything, how little we've progressed from problematic hierarchies.

The recent triumph of Ghanaian democracy will surely remain a major victory for the continent in the eyes of those who are actually paying attention. As for writers and readers that insist on tired tropes, here's how to not write about Africa.