"Red wine, red": the meaning of African electoral symbols

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"Red wine, red": the meaning of African electoral symbols


In our Letter from African Journalists series, media and communications trainer Joseph Warungu examines why colors and symbols are so important in the pursuit of power in Africa as the continent prepares for an election season.

Do you remember the red wine? No, not the stuff in a bottle that lets you release your feelings.

I'm talking about Red Red Wine… one of the biggest cover hits of British reggae band UB40. It reached number one in the UK and USA in 1983.

Thirty-Sept years later, Red Red Wine must have resonated greatly with Ugandan pop star turned politician Bobi Wine.

The MP, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi and rarely seen without his red beret, wants to run for president in the next elections.

But Bobi Wine now sees red after the electoral commission banned his National Unity Platform party from officially using color in elections, saying another party had claimed it.

NPP elephant symbol and NDC umbrella symbol in Ghana

The easier the symbol, the better it is for parties to reach their electorate " 
Dr Isaac Owusu-Mensah
University of Ghana
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The power of color and symbols in the election campaign cannot be underestimated in African countries.

"The easier the symbol, better it is for the parties to reach their electorate. Some of them think it's good to have a symbol that people associate with hope and ultimately life, ”says Dr Isaac Owusu. -Mensah, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Ghana.

He uses as an example the two main parties vying for power in Ghana's December elections.

“The opposition NDC party has an umbrella, and the interpretation is that you can be under the umbrella, especially in difficult times,” says Dr Owusu-Mensah.

“The ruling nuclear power plant, on the other hand, has the elephant, which is big. They can wreak havoc with any problem you have in your way. When you're in trouble, just go under the elephant and you're good to go. "

'Red is for life'

Kenya performance specialist Dr Mshai Mwangola says that in the West colors seem to have less symbolic meaning.

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For example, red is associated with the left-wing Labor Party in the UK, but the Conservative Republican Party in the United Kingdom. United States - and the British Conservatives share the blue with the American Democrats, who are liberals.

“Here in Africa, people know these colors are full of meaning… we are very sophisticated in reading political discourse, in a multi-layered and multi-faceted way,” says Dr Mwangola.

These meanings are also read in the national flags of many African countries where there has been a struggle for freedom and people have died, such as Kenya.

“Red symbolizes the blood that has been lost; black usually symbolizes the people of the country and green is related to the environment or the land they fought for, ”she says.

This is a view shared by Dr Owusu-Mensah.

“Red is a very important color for political parties here. The NPP has red, blue and white. When you go to NDC, they also have red, white, and green. Senior party officials will say the blood is red; it means that there is life in the color and that the party therefore has life. " 

Symbols gain importance even where none are expected.

By assigning symbols to the two opposing sides in Kenya's 2005 constitutional referendum, the Election Commission did everything possible to find benign basic symbols that would not give either side an unfair advantage.

Journal of Elections in Africa

  • Guinea: October 18
  • Seychelles: October 22-24
  • Tanzania: October 28
  • Ivory Coast: October 31
  • Ghana: Dec 7
  • Central African Republic: Dec 27
  • Niger: Dec 27
  • Uganda: January 10 - February 8, 2021

The commission chose two commonly available fruits: an orange and a banana. But Kenyans still see meaning in it.

The campaign saw all kinds of political struggles, with hilarious claims about what a banana could do to an orange and vice versa.

L: A "yes" voter with a banana R: A "no" voter with oranges during the campaign before the 2005 referendum on a new constitutionCOPYRIGHT OF IMAGEAFP
legendKenyans had fun with the fruit symbols chosen for the "Yes" and "No" sides of the 2005 referendum

In the end, the oranges won and the government-backed referendum was rejected. The bananas have lost.

The political group which won the election adopted orange as the name of its new political party.

Today, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, is the main opposition party in Kenya.

The forbidden "witchcraft" symbols

But not all symbols are welcome in an election as we saw in the 2018 Zimbabwe poll.

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The Zimbabwe Election Commission (Zec) has bans a whole host of things on candidate logos, including certain animals and weapons .

You might have a weapon in your logo but not a cheetah, elephant, or leopard.

In their wisdom, Zec may have known that there are many elections in Africa that are won not by ballot but by "juju" or witchcraft, otherwise known as rigging.

Thus, cobras and owls - associated with witchcraft in Zimbabwe - were on the banned list.

Watermelon is a juicy and delicious fruit. But in Kenya he has sinister political overtones: an unprincipled politician concrete - green and hard on the outside and red and mushy on the inside.

We shouldn't trust him. So you will not find a campaign poster with the watermelon symbol.

Dr Owusu-Mensah argues that the symbols are so powerful that they often replace the actual identity of applicants.

Joseph warungu

J Warungu
When I grew up in a village in central Kenya, I always thought our longtime MP's name was “Tawa” meaning lamp. This is because the lamp was his symbol at each election " 
Joseph Warungu Trainer
media and communication
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“I just come from a constituency in northern Ghana where we asked respondents to find out who they would vote for in the next election. About 95% of them simply used an elephant or umbrella symbol. They never mentioned the name of the party or candidate. " 

When I grew up in a village in central Kenya, I always thought our longtime MP's name was “Tawa” which means lamp in my local language.

This is because the lamp was his symbol at every election. When his entourage swept through the village, the whole area was filled with chants of "Tawa!" Tawa! "

But I have to admit that his lamp was rather weak: it did not illuminate our challenges in education and health. He did not bring electricity to the area or improve impassable roads during the rainy season.

Dr Mwangola agrees that while we are very good at understanding the meaning of colors and symbols in Africa, we fail by not following.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni dressed in yellow - 2016COPYRIGHT OF IMAGEAFP
legendUgandan President Museveni dressed in 'happy' yellow during his latest election campaign

“As voters, let's not go back and hold the candidate accountable to the symbols. If someone had the symbol of a lamp or if they were the ax, the tractor or the lion, I don't care. We don't even hold political parties. to symbols. " 

The Ugandan government fully understands the power of symbolism. A year ago, he designated the red beret as an official military garment that could bring members of the public who wear them to prison. Although Bobi Wine also seems determined to ignore this decision.

Dr Mwangola believes Bobi Wine may have chosen red as the color to represent the anger at the yellow of the ruling NRM party, led by President Yoweri Museveni, who is seeking a sixth term.

“Yellow is sun and joy. The other guys say, “No, we're angry! "… He was countered by the red of passion and commitment," she said.

“Yellow stands for prosperity, but red says, 'Prosperity for whom? ""

If Ugandan voters are indeed seeing red coming in January, Bobi Wine may still be sipping red wine from the State House.

This article appeared first on: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54554978

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