Next Wednesday, Ghanaians will go to the polls to elect their next President and, thus, set the stage for the next phase of Ghana’s future. Over the past year there have been all of the expected and typical political trappings of a democratic election, including the rhetoric that we associate with democratic campaigning. But this is about more than free and fair elections on a specific day. This is truly a test of whether Ghana’s young democracy has matured and is stable enough to be considered safe by international standards and, more importantly, whether its citizens associate themselves with the future of Ghana, or with more traditional tribal affiliation. For many this may be a surprising statement. Ghana is generally seen as the gem of West Africa. It is a seemingly stable, functioning democracy with political parties, a free press, and structures that allow for free and fair elections. Ghanaians are rightly seen as friendly, joyous, and welcoming people. Consequently, very few African experts would have paid much attention to these national elections having made assumptions and using national-level metrics that may well turn out to be invalid.
Had it not been for our urging early on to organizations like the United States Institute for Peace and our ability to highlight unsettling trends in the Northern Region of Ghana, our government and democracy experts might be sitting here today blithely assuming that nothing could go wrong. But the warning signs were clearly there for those who got on the ground and engaged with the communities most affected. The facts are: both of the major political parties have armed militias that are not talked about and are kept under wraps, thousands of youth are literally sitting around trying to cope with generally poor economic conditions and a general loss of hope for their future beyond moving from the communities that have supported them and that they dearly love, tribal chiefs are feeling increasingly marginalized – even when tribal association at the grass roots level remains very strong, and that outside forces – in this case ISIS recruiters – have subtly entered the scene to recruit Ghanaian youth to their cause NS to capitalize on any opportunities to promote instability for their own gain.
The argument can be made that the feelings in the rural areas of Ghana are not that dissimilar from those in mid-America that decided to vote for Donald Trump despite his outrageous comments and actions. This brings to mind what African leaders, especially at the grass roots level, can learn from our most recent experience. First and foremost is that we are in a transition period that is peaceful overall, and where any protests have been generally peaceful. Certainly, the concept that armed militias would take to the streets is something that we have successfully transitioned from over the course of our democratic development. Yes, there have been spates of violence – mostly on an individual basis – and there are those in this country who are in shock and angered by the messages that Trump seems to be sending by not vehemently and forcefully denouncing those who are participating in these awful actions. There are those who continue to want to denounce the election results with public shouts of “not my President.” And, yes, our supposedly free media continues its wholly biased reporting – on both sides, tending to focus our attention on negatives rather than any positives or even neutral actions. But the fact is that Donald Trump is our elected President and most political leaders are transitioning to support a next Administration, despite or regardless of their personal views and concerns. This is not an acceptance or condoning of any past actions or comments, but an acknowledgement of the fact that on January 22nd, our government must continue to run and run well in this time of worldwide turmoil.
The second, but more important, lesson for Ghanaian (and African) leaders is that our election has proven the two things that we told a group of religious leaders in August in Tamale, Ghana. The first is that elections, the potential for violence, and radicalization are won or lost in rural areas, despite what happens in capitals. These are communities that support each and every member because it is about the overall development, safety and security of its members. There is a personal connection that allows each member of a community to understand the success and suffering of his neighbor. Likewise, we are learning that you cannot legislate social issues at the national level and believe that everyone will accept the results or change their thinking. It truly takes a village to work out socially acceptable beliefs and norms, and this must be done in each village. We in the United States have moved very far in the areas of equality, racism and bigotry. But this past election proves that national movements cannot be totally successful if people are left behind or ignored in each community.
That doesn’t mean that you stop trying, which leads to the second and final point. Peace and acceptance is not a passive action. It must be waged with every bit as much effort and priority as one would wage war. It takes a consistent strategy and plan to not only gain peace and acceptance, but also to ensure peace is maintained. It takes “gardeners” at each and every locality, who are seen as trusted, non-biased entities who’s job is to grow peace for all, whether the threat is from “white supremacists” who chafe at acceptance of “minority” groups, or ISIS recruiters who want to spread their warped ideology to youth who are susceptible to any message that might give them a meaningful future. We believe that religious leaders of every faith should choose this “gardener” role, as they are best involved in their communities to be able to see what can effectively grow for the benefit of their community, and what needs to be carefully and consistently weeded away. This is not about taking political sides or about specific religious structure or doctrine. It is, instead, about the protection and advancement of humanity (love our neighbor) that is the basic intersection of the Abrahamic (Muslim, Christian, and Jewish) family of faith.
At the end of the day, and, in Ghana over the next month, it is critical to “wage peace” at the local level. It is a job that never stops and is critically important, but one that, even with hard toil, can be done with love, respect, and encouragement for all. These are actions that we must adopt more here as well.