Despite its recent history of relatively free, fair, and peaceful elections, the 2008 presidential contest in Ghana presented a significant risk of sparking armed conflict. This was particularly true in the troubled Northern Region, where changes in government had a direct impact on ongoing chieftaincy disputes such as that over the throne of the Kingdom of Dagbon. In the run-up to the election, violence marred the voter registration process in Northern Region, where supporters of the two main political parties were found to be acquiring weapons in preparation for conflict and street clashes began to occur with increasing frequency.1 With polling indicating that the margin of victory would be razor thin and much to win (or lose) from the contest, particularly with regard to tit-for-tat corruption prosecutions of outgoing government ministers and the windfall of oil revenue from freshly opened offshore fields at stake, tensions grew. Furthermore, events in Kenya and Zimbabwe that took place just months before demonstrated that a vigorous and potentially violent reaction to suspected foul play could prove beneficial should a power-sharing arrangement result from any election-related crises. In the days before the population went to the polls, residents of Northern Region fearing an armed conflict would ensure formed self-defence units.2 The first round of voting went ahead amidst a large security operation involving 36,000 personnel, armoured vehicles, and 10,000 additional troops in reserve, but was inconclusive, leading to a second round.3 A worsening security situation saw attempts to storm the electoral commission office and the suspension of polls in Tain election district.4
Faced with the challenge of ensuring a peaceful outcome from this uncertain situation, government agencies, local people and organisations, international observers, and Ghana’s nascent peace infrastructure worked tirelessly. Their efforts were coordinated by the National Elections Security Task Force. While the military and police provided a strong and visible deterrent in 1,399 pre-determined violence prone areas, civil society groups (ranging from churches to trade unions) organised peace marches and dialogue fora, and international observation missions surveyed and verified the electoral process as far as their resources allowed.5 Thus, when the final ballots were being counted, public debate remained focussed on safeguarding the peace in Ghana. The electoral commission also played a pivotal role by not bowing to pressure from any quarter and ensuring that both candidates were kept apprised of the situation until the result was declared on 3 January 2009.6 Thanks to this wide-ranging effort, armed conflict was prevented in Ghana.