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Know When to Die: My Talensi by-election experience

Know When to Die: My Talensi by-election experience
Source: Ghana | Myjoyonline | Kofi Agyepong
Date: 12-02-2019 Time: 03:02:30:pm
Kofi Agyepong is the Deputy National Communications Director of the NPP.

It was a normal Tuesday. Talensi was gearing up for a crucial by-election. The big weights of the two major political parties in Ghana – NDC and NPP – were there in their numbers.

The local poll started peacefully. But how it ended still remain a mystery. Talensi broke loose and pandemonium took over. It was a state of total lawlessness.

Gunshots took over the atmosphere. Bullets started flying. Sounds of blaring sirens were earsplitting. There was no escape point. The police were totally confused. The people were helpless.  

“Commander, they shot at us, commander they shot at us,” was the only sentence I could mutter at that moment of weakness and state of trepidation. 

Three years on, Talensi is still on re-play in my mind. I still remember vividly every minute sight and sound from Talensi on that fateful day.

I became more emotional when I heard that voice on Joy FM’s News analysis programme, Newsfile, last Saturday. I realised it was that trembling voice of mine featuring in what could best be titled “Escape from Talensi”. The ‘crying’ voice of a young politician, perhaps very enthusiastic, who had travelled all the way from the capital city of Accra to the Upper East region to help his party win a by-election in an area rich in Shea nuts, dawadawa, baobab and acacia.

The scene was not different from an action movie produced by Antonio Banderas or Sylvester Stallion.  I saw and heard bullets flying just over my head as I lay in a big gutter along the road. I had dived into the gutter for refuge. 

The ‘Azorka boys’, four of them, standing in the bucket of a pickup vehicle, fired bullets at NPP members at Tongo, where the constituency office was. 

As usual on an election day, there were scores of people around and I had gone there with Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko to help with the activities associated with the by-election. The run-up to the poll had not been smooth for the NPP (then in opposition). First, it was the Regional Police Commander who had wanted to give Wiinkongo JSS Park, the venue for our final rally to the ruling NDC, citing security reasons, though we had booked first. Together with Gabby, Salam Mustapha, Dan Botwe, Sir John and a few others, we protested vehemently. At a point, we had to break the meeting for the Commander to take some more ‘orders from above.’ When our leaders seem to have conceded, Salam Mustapha (who was then deputy Youth Organiser) was deviant. He was ordered out of the room, but his voice from outside was blistering. Twice we went on break, but we never agreed to their demands and change of venue. 
Back and forth, we had our rally venue back, the voices that were whispering from above, later agreed that we use the venue.  

On our way from the Police Commander’s office, we met some people who told us of the arrest of some NDC members with stuffed ballot boxes. 

Gabby, Sir John and I, went straight to the Police Station, which was just a stone throw from our party office in Tongo. Like old school mates, Gabby and Sir John, busted out of laughter when they saw one of the Commanders at the Police station. I quite remember Sir John mentioned his name as Yakubu and teased that, the government has brought him for operations. Yakubu, who has a moustache like Dr Paa Kwesi Nduom, confirmed the arrest of the guy but said he has been given bail. In fact, he made fun of everything. Though not convinced, we walked out to continue our campaign. 
Throughout our stay in Bolgatanga, National Security Operatives monitored our activities.  Coincidentally or planned, the Hotel that Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko slept was the same hotel some of the national security operatives and NDC members, stayed.  

But, throughout our five days stay in Bolgatanga, we were living outside mostly, with limited shelter from cold.

Interestingly both political parties campaigned at night - from 1am. 
Together with John Boadu, Sammy Awuku, Gabby, and a few others, we moved through the small villages of Talensi with our message of Hope. Life in the trenches was ‘grim and monotonous’. The Azorka Boys were in the bushes and attacked any car that belonged to the NPP. Their aim was to chase us out of the villages at night. 
I remember in one of the villages, around 12am, an old man who was sitting under a tree popularly called Parliament (the youth meet there to take decisions for the village) told us how lucky we were to have missed the Azorka Boys. They had just left the place. And oh, the old man, who was in his 90s, when asked by Gabby who he will vote for, said the NDC. Guess his reason – “Nana Addo is preventing God from giving them rain.” You may laugh it off, but that was the kind of indoctrination the old man had from the NDC.  

Throughout our stay in Bolgatanga, the threat on our lives, particularly Gabby and some of our leaders, worsened at every blink of an eye. A day before the by-election, a Police man had to give us a tip-off on a planned shooting at Gabby. We had to change our car and beef up security. 

The shooting on the day of the by-election was not surprising to us, but scary. The Azorka Boys were able to cross a Police Barrier, just 200 metres from the NPP Tongo party office.  They parked just in the middle of the road, unprovoked, and fired first at where Gabby was standing, and then aimed at some of us. It was like a gangster movie, but this time, the shots were from some amateurish shooters with a locally manufactured gun. After running out of bullet, they sped-off.  

And surprisingly, the Police showed up with their heavy equipment. It was a moment of relief for us. I rushed to the Commander, Yakubu (who I had met during our previous encounter). I guess that was when the ‘Commander they shot at us’ voice was recorded. 
Surprisingly, the Police ordered us to leave our own Party office and when we refused, they sprayed ‘tear-gas’ on us. People then had to run helter-skelter. No death was recorded, but people had to be rushed to the hospital for injuries.

We lost the election. A lot of our people still have gunshot wounds and other scars to remind them of ‘Escape from Talensi.’ We returned to Accra in one piece but psychologically and emotionally broken. The government then failed to show any care for the injured. The chapter of Talensi has been closed in our political history books without any commission of enquiry to establish the reasons for the disturbances. Talensi passed and despite the security flaws it became business as usual.

I would have died for nothing. The NDC hoodlums would have killed us for nothing and the government would have applauded and rewarded them in the dark. 

Fast forward to 2018, Talensi was re-enacted in the case of the Ayawaso West Wuogon by-election. If the NDC government then, led by President John Mahama, had instituted a commission of enquiry into the Talensi case, I’m sure what happened in AWW could have been avoided or mitigated.

Today, thanks to a listening and competent government led by President Nana Akufo-Addo, a three-member Commission of Enquiry has been promptly established to look into the AWW shooting incident. The Commission requires the support of every actor during the by-election especially the two main political parties – NDC and NPP.

July 7, 2015 (Talensi) and January 31, 2019 (AWW) disturbances must not repeat themselves in the history of Ghana’s by-elections again.

NB: This experience shared is from Kofi Agyepong, Deputy National Communications Director of the NPP.