Rastas in Ghana preach peace ahead of presidential vote

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Accra - Ghana is internationally renowned for being a peaceful country on a continent scarred by ethnic clashes, dictators and crime. So what's its secret?

In the days before the hotly contested presidential vote on December 7, Rastafarians in the West African country say they have the answer.

"It's because we've put Ghana first before everything," said Martin Quarpong, a Rastafarian in his late 30s wearing a green and orange tie-dye shirt with his hair in a black head-wrap.

"We see ourselves as one people and we think about our future."

Despite their dreadlocks and love of tie-dye, in many ways the ubiquitous Rastafarian community in Ghana embodies the country's commitment to peace.

Their message of one love isn't so different from that of ordinary Ghanians on the street who pride themselves on respecting each other - and the democratic process.

'Peace, peace, peace'

"Rastafarians contribute a lot during and after election time. Everything we do is peace, peace, peace," Quarpong told AFP in Ghana's coastal capital of Accra.

"We should accept the winner in good faith, and let them know they should put Ghana first."

Quarpong sells clothing at the beachside Rising Phoenix hotel, where a reggae rendition of White Christmas is softly playing in the background.

A black and white portrait of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, a Rastafarian idol, is painted on the wall beside posters advertising a "Peace in Ghana" concert featuring local reggae stars Ras Kuuku and Jah Wyz.

Just because Quarpong believes in peace over politics doesn't mean he won't vote.

In fact, peace is why he'll be casting a ballot next Wednesday.

"Yes, of course I will vote. I have to as a patriot," Quarpong said.

"It's not compulsory, but it's necessary."

'Perfect harmony' 

As the heated campaign enters its final stretch, there is an increasing call for peace in Ghana, where its reputation for stability has made it an attractive destination in Africa for investors.

Ghana's presidential candidates - including front runners Nana Akufo-Addo and incumbent John Mahama - last week signed a declaration "against electoral violence, impunity and injustice."

After signing the accord, Mahama said "our democracy and progress is too precious to be gambled away on a quest to attain or hold onto power."

Unlike fellow West African nation Nigeria, plagued by ethnic rivalry and suspicion, Ghana at independence emphasised unity.

In his 2012 autobiography, My First Coup d'Etat, Mahama wrote that even the motto of his illustrious Accra boarding school, Ut Omnes Unum Sint (That All May Be One), reflected that principal.

"You can play a tune of sorts on the black keys only; and you can play a tune of sorts on the white keys only; but for perfect harmony, you must use both the black and the white keys," said one of the school's founders James Aggrey, who Mahama quotes in the book.

Rastafarians give credit to the "Big six", Ghana's founding fathers, for entrenching peace.

"If you know Nkrumah, you know everything, Ghana is a motherland," said Kwaku Akupleca, a 32-year-old wearing a silver ring shaped as a marijuana leaf.

Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana's liberation movement from British colonialists, becoming the country's first democratic head in 1957 and a hero of the Pan-African movement that championed black unity.

"We've seen the light," Akupleca said, speaking at Labadi beach in Accra.

"We are very humble and peaceful. We feel like protecting humanity."

'Rasta wonderland' 

This inclusive attitude has allowed Rastafari to carve out a space for themselves in Ghana, home today to many different branches, including the Bobo Shanti and The Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Some 30km west of Accra lies Kokrobite, a town described as a "Rasta wonderland" that is a magnet for Rastas in the region and across the Atlantic from the United States and Jamaica.

This year, local media reported that the Rastafari Council of Ghana held its first-ever national conference, with a focus on repatriating "brothers and sisters."

In 2013, Bob Marley's widow Rita was named an honorary citizen of Ghana.

Jamaican reggae legend Marley himself is regarded as a prophet in the Rasta community.

Not everyone sees eye-to-eye with the Rastafarians, but most can agree that a peaceful Ghana is better for all.

"When you have peace it's better than riches, you can be rich without peace of mind," Akupleca's friend Kwaku Francis said.

"It's all about peace and love, that's our motto."

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