For Ghana’s Democracy to Thrive, Citizens Need to Engage

Surveys show Ghanaians have an opportunity to place much more pressure on their representatives than they currently do.

Jean Adukwei Mensa, Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, receives the nomination forms of President Nana Akufo-Addo for the 2020 presidential election in Accra on Oct. 6.
Jean Adukwei Mensa, Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, receives the nomination forms of President Nana Akufo-Addo for the 2020 presidential election in Accra on Oct. 6. NIPAH DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Ghana has often been heralded as a model of democracy. Political violence is rare, and since transitioning from military rule to multiparty democracy in 1992, the West African country has undergone successive peaceful transfers of power between its two main rival political parties­. According to the country’s electoral commission, the last general election, which was held in 2016, saw a voter turnout of nearly 70 percent.

Aside from voting during elections, however, Ghanaian citizens rarely participate in their democracy, according to recent polling. The 2019 Afrobarometer Round 8 survey, which measured the quality of democracy and governance in African countries, showed that during the previous year 85 percent of respondents in Ghana never contacted a member of parliament about an important problem or to share their views, while 71 percent never contacted an assembly member. According to the survey, 84 percent of respondents did not participate in a demonstration during the previous year, and 64 percent indicated that they would never attend a demonstration.

According to the Afrobarometer Round 7 survey for South Africa and the Round 8 surveys for Namibia and Botswana, citizens’ interactions with members of parliament and the assembly were similarly low, but, compared with Ghana, far fewer respondents indicated that they would never attend a protest.

That’s a lost opportunity for Ghana—because greater political participation, including public protests, would likely bring results for the country. Indeed, politicians would take heed if Ghanaians persistently demanded comprehensive, long-term programs. The ultracompetitive nature of Ghana’s politics makes politicians bend to the demands of the electorate, even to the extent that campaign promises contradict party ideologies, notably in the case of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), a center-right party that continuously shows a bent for social interventionist policies.

As the country prepares for elections next month and mourns the death of Jerry Rawlings, a onetime military ruler who restored presidential democracy and then stepped down in 2001, much is at stake. Ghanaians’ limited participation in democracy has dire consequences for the governance and development of their country. Rather than ordinary Ghanaians influencing development priorities and lobbying for policies that will transform their quality of life and benefit future generations, politicians have been allowed to set development priorities and therefore promise interventions that would be most likely to win them votes.

While infrastructure development and social interventions like teacher and nursing trainee allowances, access to government loans for youth, and free senior high school (for ages 15-18) provide immediate relief and are relatively easier to implement, longer-term challenges to development, such as the ballooning youth unemployment and underemployment rates—currently at 12 percent and more than 50 percent, respectively—require urgent attention, and citizens must ensure that politicians put them at the forefront of the national debate.

One casualty of Ghana’s low citizen participation is the senior high school system. The NPP and its main rival, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), continue to introduce opposing reforms to the system following from their campaign promises. The parties’ alternation in the length of the program, between three years and four years, and the NPP’s introduction of a double-track attendance system in 2018 (meaning that students now attend school in different months due to the huge increase in enrollment as a result of the NPP’s free senior high school policy) have reduced the quality of education and the confidence most parents have in the system. As a result, many parents with the financial means to do so now enroll their children in expensive international schools—a rejection of the government’s education policies that the less well-off cannot exercise.

Low citizen participation during elections has also engendered a winner-take-all system in Ghana’s politics. Due to increased disaffection with politics, it has become uncommon for ordinary Ghanaians to volunteer for political parties or candidates, much less donate money to support candidates. In fact, quite a number of voters, including party delegates, expect to be paid to cast ballots for candidates. Candidates therefore pay party foot soldiers to campaign on their behalf, draw crowds, and buy votes.

This trend makes political campaigns an extremely expensive affair in Ghana. Funding for campaigns typically comes from the candidates themselves and their wealthy benefactors. When political parties win power, they often prioritize recouping the huge amounts they and their benefactors spent.

Politicians award inflated contracts to benefactors and appoint them to lucrative and influential positions as heads of public institutions and diplomatic missions abroad, sometimes regardless of merit. While the practice of appointing campaign donors to leadership positions also occurs in more advanced democracies, it is highly inimical to the development of a lower-middle-income country like Ghana when incompetent benefactors run the nation’s institutions.

Meanwhile, when power changes hands, members of opposition parties are often excluded from political appointments and contracts. Existing contracts of opposition party members also get terminated or renegotiated in most cases. New governments are often sued for wrongfully terminating those contracts and then end up draining the public purse further to pay huge penalties mandated by the courts. It is also common for succeeding governments to discontinue the development projects the opposition started.

If more constituents called their MPs or demonstrated to demand that these development projects be continued, the political leadership would be likely to listen. After all, MPs campaign by undertaking development projects in their constituencies and promising to lobby for projects to be carried out when they get elected. In assessing their MPs’ performance, constituents weigh the level of development that accrued to their constituencies during the MPs’ tenure.

Ghanaians often voice their displeasure for politicians’ wanton corruption and mismanagement over the airwaves, social media, and in discussions with each other. The right to freedom of speech is enshrined in Ghana’s constitution and is respected, so Ghanaians speak freely without fear of intimidation or prosecution. (The Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks Ghana 30th worldwide—ahead of France and the United Kingdom.) Unfortunately, Ghanaians’ attention span for political scandals tends to be rather short. Politicians know and expect this, so they patiently wait for the furor to die down and continue with their unabated corruption.

The current president, Nana Akufo-Addo, has shown some resolve in addressing the public’s disaffection with public officials. In 2018, he fired the erstwhile energy minister, Boakye Agyarko, after it was reported that a power deal he was renegotiating would generate huge losses instead of savings. And this July, following public outcry, the president demanded the resignation of Carlos Ahenkorah from his position as the deputy minister for trade and industry after allegations that he recklessly breached coronavirus protocols by going to monitor a voter registration exercise in his constituency, when he should have been quarantining after a positive diagnosis.

Perhaps most significantly, Akufo-Addo mandated the creation of an Office of the Special Prosecutor in 2018 to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. His choice of Martin Amidu, an opposition member, as the special prosecutor was welcomed by the public. Amidu, a former attorney general and justice minister, had earned a reputation for himself as a “citizen vigilante,” blowing the lid on corruption in his party.

But Ghanaians repeatedly expressed frustration and disappointment with Amidu’s performance as special prosecutor. Ghanaians were perplexed as to why his office did not initiate legal proceedings over major corruption scandals. Amidu, for his part, accused the heads of partner institutions of not cooperating with his office and not supplying the information and documents he requested. He also claimed that his office was under-resourced. This week, Amidu resigned, alleging presidential interference with his anti-corruption assessment of a controversial gold royalties monetization deal.

This week, the country’s top anti-corruption official—Martin Amidu—resigned, alleging presidential interference with his assessment of a controversial gold royalties monetization deal.

Meanwhile, a group of civil society organizations recently sued the attorney-general over Akufo-Addo’s directive to the auditor general, Daniel Domelevo, pressuring him to step down—a move many believe was politically motivated and calculated to prevent Domelevo, who was appointed by the former president, from exposing corruption among current administration officials.

Civil society organizations in Ghana actively promote transparency and accountability in the governance of the country. The  2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance ranks Ghana eighth among African countries for participation of civil society organizations. Working collaboratively, these organizations pressured the Ghanaian parliament into finally passing the Right to Information Act last year and are pushing for the total enforcement of the Declaration of Assets and Disqualification Act to check corruption among public office holders.

But sustained pressure from the masses will always eclipse that from civil society groups, which governments may attempt to discredit by accusing them of having ulterior motives or foreign backing. Until many more ordinary Ghanaians become active citizens, the country will continue to be at the mercy of self-interested politicians.

When the electorate places high demands on public officials, Ghana’s politics will attract more experienced candidates who are truly dedicated to public service. Power belongs to the people. Ghanaians must take back their power now.

Audrey Donkor is an international affairs analyst and a freelance writer from Ghana. She holds an M.A. in law and diplomacy from Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

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