columnBy Phyllis D. Osabutey
It is 24 days to election 2012. The anxiety of Ghanaians increase by the day, as the election approaches.
Every day, the airwaves are filled with political discussions in both English and local languages. There are also individual discussions among various groups of people on different subjects of politics.
The stakes in this year's elections are very high because of the players involved. There are eight presidential candidates in the upcoming December 2012 elections, but the popular view is that there are two major contenders.
They are President John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP).
Accordingly, most of the intense debates are between officials of these two parties and their supporters on the various platforms. Often, personalities are discussed instead of the critical issues, and the language used also leaves much to be desired.
It appears that the ruling NDC wants to do everything possible to retain power, whereas the opposition NPP, that handed power to the NDC in 2008, also wants to take back power from the incumbent NDC.
Both parties seem to be on a fault finding mission about the other, and all these have increased tension in the country, ahead of the elections.
Since returning to constitutional rule in 1992, Ghana has held five successful elections, however, it has not been without some infractions and incidents of violence. This year, during the parliamentary primaries of some political parties, violence erupted in some areas.
Ghana has been host to thousands of refugees from the sub-region over the years. We have also seen to a large extent the hostilities and destruction that election violence can wrought on otherwise peaceful and developing nations.
The question, therefore, is that as elections 2012 approach, will Ghanaians opt for the ballots, and peacefully see it to the end, or choose bullets with consequences well known?
Early warning signs
Some of the incidents and utterances of political activists continue to give cause for concern about the volatility of the period. Negative utterances and violent acts as was experienced during the primaries of some political parties constitute early warning signs that require a swift response by the security agencies and other stakeholders.
In August 2012, the MFWA organized a workshop for selected Ghanaian, Liberian and Sierra Leonean journalists. on the topic "Human Rights, Peace, Elections and Investigative Reporting."
The workshop took place in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, with the aim to equip journalists with skills and on how to improve reporting on the selected subject areas. Indirectly, the journalists, especially those from Ghana, during their time in Liberia, were exposed to the real devastation of war.
The almost an hour drive from the Roberts International Airport to the capital, sent chills down our spines. The mere sight of the destruction, not only of uncompleted and abandoned buildings, but also of people, were evident everywhere.
We returned home, certain in our minds that war is not a subject to be joked with or fantasize about, under any circumstance.
Personally, I thought that all those who beat war drums by words or actions in Ghana should be sent to Liberia on a tour, and see for themselves the effects on infrastructure and people, if the state of the country's refugees does not drive home the message of war well enough.
Our first session was on "The Concept of Early Warning Signs: Understanding Early Warning Signals and How They Can Be Identified during Elections and other Conflict-prone Events."
A Senior Security Adviser of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Liberia, Mr. Napoleon Abdulai, said early warning is the collection, storage and analysis of information that has the potential to cause violent reactions.
He noted that newspapers in particular, radio and television programmes are sources of early warning signals, saying "early warning must go with early response, otherwise it is useless."
Some indicators of early warning, he mentioned, were competition for resources such as gold, diamond, oil, and mining areas among others. If this competition is not managed properly to the satisfaction of all actors, then there would be conflict that could lead to violence, he explained.
Gender can also create conflict in cases where women constitute about half or more of the population, but are left out in the political sphere, he noted. As he put it, "the political sphere must be broadened to include everyone, because how it is handled can or cannot lead to violence".
Cultural differences help society to develop, but when the negative aspects are allowed to dominate the positives, it creates a problem and this can lead to violence before, during or after elections, he indicated.
Other indicators of early warning that he listed include; issues of poverty, human right violations, differences in ideologies and foreign intervention among others.
Mr. Abdulai entreated journalists not to blow out of proportion the indicators as they arise, because such reportage has the potential of escalating violence.
In acknowledging early warning signs, the Chairman of the National Peace Council (NPC), Most Reverend Professor Emmanuel Kwaku Asante, at a colloquium on ensuring peaceful elections in Ghana on October 24, 2012, said:
"This year is an election year and as we are gearing up for elections in December 2012, the climate seems to be characterized by high political tension.
"If things that are being said on the airwaves against political opponents or perceived political enemies are early warning signs, then we can say that we are in for trouble.
"We can say that if the election process is not managed properly, the 2012 elections can dent our relatively enviable record of violent-free elections."
The Deputy Chairman, Finance and Administration of the Electoral Commission (EC), Mr. Amadu Sulley, speaking at the same colloquium, which was organized by the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Centre (KAIPTC), called on the Ghana Police Service (GPS) to be proactive in handling flash points that the EC will identify and make available to the police.
Ghanaians are said to be peace-loving people. Since January 2012, institutions and individuals have been calling on politicians and their followers to use temperate language on the airwaves and on campaign platforms.
The MFWA, for instance, embarked on a media monitoring programme to name and shame people who used unsavoury language in their presentations and pronouncements.
Ghanaians continue to entreat fellow Ghanaians, especially politicians and other party activists to seek peace before, during and after the December 2012 elections.
One of the initiatives to uphold peace was the launch of the Ghana Peace Campaign 2012 to build a rigorous peace infrastructure that is apolitical in its outlook, and focus on making peace a non-negotiable element in the period before, during and after Election 2012.
The Okyenhene, Osagyefo Amoatia Ofori-Panin II, who chaired the event, asked Ghanaians to cherish the peace that their fore fathers fought for and they were currently enjoying.
Concerning the elections, he said, "Vote for your conscience and then remember that you are doing it because you are owner of this land, a taxpaying citizen and also because you have a birthright in this land, and that exercise does not deserve for you to lose your nose or losing your tooth or bring harm to you and your family in any way."
He urged all Ghanaians to respect and defend the peace of the nation, without being complacent that Ghana was already a peaceful country, adding "Real peace is when people have dignity and are allowed to take charge of their destiny."
He appealed to politicians and the electorate not to paint a picture as though "We are all going to perish after December 7, because it will not happen."
Also, the National Peace Council of Ghana, a national body that aims to raise awareness about the use of non-violent strategies, in response to conflict through networking, coordination and campaigning, has been engaged in a number of activities to promote peace.
For instance, the Council launched a five minute documentary tailored towards maintaining peace before, during and after the December polls. The documentary sought to demonstrate the fact that political differences should not become a trigger for violence in electoral and social relations.
At the KAIPTC colloquium, the Chairman of the NPC said the forces of peace can rule over ignorance and superstition, illiteracy and immorality, disease and physical suffering, poverty and governmental oppression.
He expressed joy that ahead of the December elections, peace has become the clarion call of all responsible citizens, saying "young and old, men and women, educated and uneducated across party lines are not only calling for peace, but they are also working, walking and marching for peace and we are grateful for this."
Role of the Media
The media plays a critical role in ensuring peace in a nation and especially during elections. Journalists by their utterances and sometimes actions inflame passions, which if not well managed can lead to widespread violence. This is why they are often called upon to exhibit a high sense of professionalism in their practice.
At the MFWA workshop in Liberia, a Lawyer and Programme Manager, Rule of Law at the UNDP, Liberia, Mr. James N. Verdier, Jnr. touching on effective election reporting, said the journalist's role during elections is only secondary to the voter.
For journalists to effectively report elections, their media houses must be free from control from external forces and also have adequate resources to give equal access to candidates in election, he stated.
To avoid conflict, journalists must be familiar with the rules governing elections, in order to recognize infractions, know candidates and the issues they present, he noted.
Additionally, they must endeavor to be the voice of the voters and adhere to professional standards. He said prior to elections, journalists should focus on issues like the content of manifestos, and not merely campaign slogans.
As he explained, "this is the only way to let majority of the people know how they will be governed."
During voting, journalists would have to monitor and report on the entire process and maintain impartiality, despite their own political affiliations.
He urged journalists to avoid defamation, derivative reporting that relies on other sources and malicious comments, because journalism is a powerful tool that could put people's reputation at stake.
He said this could result in bad consequences for individual journalists and their media institutions, he elaborated, adding that "if a report makes the right person to lose the election, it is the country that loses."
In post-election period, he said journalists should be part of the vote counting, do rough estimates and listen to organizers, opposition and the police. He cautioned that reaction to speeches are good but "make sure you are not manipulated so seek balanced views and above all, you must be able to find the voice of the voter."
The election is nigh and the discussions of the issues or otherwise get more intense by the day. The paramount issue is how to maintain the country's peace before, during and after the December 2012 elections.
It is important that the early warning signs across the country are not ignored, and that electoral offenders before and after elections are dealt with decisively, irrespective of their background or political affiliation.
It is quite gratifying that the EC has said it would furnish the police with a list of flashpoints. DCOP Timbilla has assured the public that the police force would work in collaboration with the military to ensure security and peace in those areas.
DCOP Timbilla further assured that the police would work day and night to enhance peace and security during the entire process, emphasizing that "everything that needs security will be taken care of."
Most Rev. Professor E. K Asante also reminds all that where peace conquers there is no violence or blood shed, no grief and no damage to life and property. He said violent conflicts in the sense of war and hostility, which are negation of peace causes stream of blood and untold havoc.
"Only the victories of peace leave no maimed or mutilated bodies, no ruined cities and towns. Even the proper working of democracy is possible only in times of peace", he added.
The die is cast and the whole world is watching to see if Ghana will once again uphold peace and build upon the country's democratic credentials, or if personal and partisan interest will drive the nation in the direction of chaos.
Each and every Ghanaian has a choice of a Presidential candidate, but the beauty of democracy requires that it should be okay if your choice of President does not emerge victorious; it would be of maturity to look to the future.
I entreat the youth in particular to make a wise choice and not allow any politician to mislead them, so as to cause or participate in any form of violence.
As we count down to the elections, I ask; Election 2012, will you choose ballot or bullet? Whichever choice you make, pause for a minute to ponder over where you, your family and friends will go, in the event that this election degenerates into chaos. Long live Ghana! Long live Africa!