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Elizabeth Ohene writes: The elections are over

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
The writer
The writer

If a stranger arrived in our country today, he would not believe that we had our elections back in December, almost four months ago. The campaign billboards and the posters are still all over the streets, along the highways, on buildings, trees, bridges, across hills and mountains.

If you look carefully, you might find some billboards and posters that date back to the 2016 election. Indeed, I found one the other day that must date back to the 2004 or 2008 elections, since a certain candidate John Evans Atta-Mills was on a faded billboard telling us to vote for him.

There are three big poles in front of my house, which I believe belong to the electricity company and the telecom companies. On these poles are posters of one of the candidates who stood in the constituency in which I live in Accra.

The people of Ayawaso West Wuogon did not vote for this particular candidate to be their representative in Parliament, and there he is, every day, staring at me in front of my house.

The city rules say I am responsible for the upkeep of the space between my house and the road; these fading posters certainly do not add to the beautification of the space; indeed, they make the place look shabby in spite of my best efforts.

Every time I am tempted to take down the posters, I stop for fear that I might be arrested for tearing down election material. I have a healthy respect for mounted campaign materials because I remember the battle we had to fight back in 2000, 2004 and even in 2008 for NPP posters to be allowed around the constituency in which I vote.

Time for elections

But really, as it says in the Scriptures, there is time for everything. There is a time for elections, for campaigns, for shouting, for coaxing, for plastering the streets with pictures of candidates who are standing in the elections; then there is a time, or there must be a time, for silence and concentrating on governance. There must be a time for elected officials to be visible and audible and candidates to disappear from view.

It is bad enough that on the radio, television and other news outlets, we seem to be in perpetual campaign mode. If you look around the physical state of the country as well, we seem to be in perpetual campaign mode. Huge billboards with photos and messages from candidates in the December 7 elections are still around, juggling for space and attention with real estate developers, purveyors of hard liquor, bottled water, fabric and funeral announcements. It is ugly, chaotic and confusing beyond belief.

I have a real problem with the entire advertising takeover of all public spaces, but that is a bigger problem with ideological questions that we shall return to on another occasion.

Today, I am concerned about the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any legal limit to the time for election campaigns and particularly that campaign materials can stay on the streets ad infinitum.

Other people do it differently in their parts of the world and it seems to work. I wish to recommend the South African example, where I once lived as a correspondent. There, once elections are over, all political parties have 14 days, following Election Day, to remove all posters and paraphernalia from city infrastructure.

Legal requirement

The removal of political parties’ posters — beyond being a symbolic gesture — is a legal requirement, with varying implications according to by-laws and municipal jurisdictions.

Various municipal by-laws dictate the deadlines for the removal of the posters and paraphernalia, with the city of Cape Town famously being the strictest. Cape Town allows 10 days after Election Day, by which time the city expects all posters and billboards to have been removed.

After that, fines, quite heavy fines, kick in as the city’s own clean-up gangs get to work to remove the posters from poles, walls and city infrastructure.

The city encourages residents to call up the authorities to report any poster that might have been missed by the clean-up gang and the political parties have to pay more than Rand 100 per poster that is removed. Pasted posters attract heavier fines than posters that are tied. (I have an eye on the posters pasted on the poles and lamp posts in front of my house!).

Veritable eyesore

I particularly detest the party flags that are strung across roads which have now become torn rags and a veritable eyesore.

The district, municipal and metropolitan authorities would certainly make some money if we made rules and enforced them on the mounting and removal of campaign materials. This will make the political parties rethink the excesses that are displayed in the sheer numbers of posters and billboards that we see as part of campaigns.

During our elections, the sizes and numbers of posters, billboards and flags are so in your face and obviously meant to overwhelm and intimidate, but that is because the cost ends once they are mounted. If the cost of removal were to be included in the budget, it might make campaign managers less enthusiastic about flooding the environment with so many billboards, posters and flags.

I am not quite sure what party foot soldiers will make of being asked to remove posters, flags and billboards after elections. In this Fourth Republic, the 2020 elections were the sixth campaign I had been in and the mounting of campaign materials have certainly gone through big changes.

Back in 2000, if you took a bundle of posters and flags to a town or village, the party activists would meet you with joy and thank you and get on to display them.

Posters and flags

In the 2004 elections, the party activists would insist you provided money for starch for pasting and money for ladder to climb before they would touch the posters and flags.

By 2008, you had to pay for sachet water, meat pie, starch and ladder. In 2012, you paid for three meals plus the other ongoing costs.

When it came to 2016, there were specific charges for putting up specific numbers of flags and posters. In 2020, putting up campaign materials had become a job for professionals and you hesitated to ask a foot soldier to undertake such a task.

It will be in the interest of the parties to put up a reduced number of posters, billboards and flags because they have to remove them within a fortnight after Election Day.

When the elections are over, our streets and environment should show that the elections are over and those who won can get on with the business of governance.