Today, is the celebration of the International Day of Peace, with various demonstrations of good intent and symbolic gestures throughout the world, including, especially, in New York City as world leaders gather for the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Likewise, it is a good time to look at our support of new and immature democracies, and remember that this form of government is only successful if those governed have a voice and are at peace. Over the next three months, these very basic principles will be tested in the West African country of Ghana, as it holds its national elections on December 7th, and it brings to mind my recent experience that bodes well for Ghana’s democracy.
Most people would consider Ghana a nation for which there should be little concern. It is considered the most stable government in West Africa and has successfully held democratic elections with a transition of civilian government. What is easy to forget is that its democracy was only established in the past 15 years and although there are functioning political structures, the adjustment to democracy is still an experiment in traditional versus modern cultures and authorities. This is best exemplified in the three northern regions of Ghana (the Northern Region, Upper West Regions, and Upper East Region). In these regions, which have the most recent history of violence, tribal associations and religious faiths influence democracy. Political structures in Accra are secondary to the basic needs of food, shelter, and jobs (especially for youth). Political leaders quietly accept the help of homegrown, armed militias at the calling of party loyalists. Within the past year, an estimated 70 lives have been lost because of chieftaincy succession issues, youth riots have closed schools because of poor economic conditions and prospects, and, most troubling of all, ISIS and Boko Haram have taken interest in these regions, perhaps sensing an opening for instability. In short, Ghana’s opportunity for peaceful elections is at risk.
With this as a backdrop, IRI has engaged with USAID and other organizations to assist the Ghanaian government in ensuring fair and free elections. As part of the effort, IRI asked 72 Africa to conduct an inter-faith peace summit last month to encourage religious leaders in the north to speak with a common voice on promoting peaceful elections. The summit was a success in that it brought Christian and Muslim leaders together, convinced them to have a public voice, allowed them to develop action plans for activities they could engage in over the next 3 months, and watched them incorporate the concept of “waging peace” in their daily work with their congregations and followers. Moreover, it crystalized the idea that resisting external influences promoting violence is something that starts at the grass roots, not in capital cities. These leaders are now driven to host talks, sporting events, music concerts and other venues where their message can get to youth in order to encourage their participation in the election process, but to do so as individuals in a peaceful way, not as rabble guided by those who benefit from violent actions. Even as you read this blog, many of these activities to “wage peace” have taken place throughout the northern regions in celebration of this day.
Byron Price, the Washington Bureau Chief for Associated Press wrote in 1932 that “politics is local…and all politics is local politics.” (The future Speaker of the House of Representatives “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. later popularized these in 1935 in his first campaign for political office.) This is certainly true with our own elections in the United States, and, in many ways even more so in a very immature democracy like Ghana. We tend to spend most of our time on political structures and processes, and can forget that building a successful democracy in Ghana relies on peace as its foundation. And peace doesn’t just happen. You must work at it; it must be “waged.” So, these actions, at the fringes of the country and of the Ghanaian democracy, will have an indelible impact on the future of Ghana, of West Africa, and ultimately on our own security.
So, it is a good time to reflect on our accomplishments in making sustainable peace a reality, and we thank IRI for their commitment to our efforts.