Decoder

Explaining a word and the culture that uses it.

The Secret to Getting What You Need in Ghana

Special “protocol” treatment has become a way of life for the privileged few.

By , a Ghanaian American journalist based in Accra, Ghana.
An entitled man walks across a collage landscape to illustrate the concept of protocol in Ghana.
An entitled man walks across a collage landscape to illustrate the concept of protocol in Ghana.
Nana-Opoku (Afroscope) illustration for Foreign Policy

A friend recently told me a story about his attempt to get his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Accra, the capital of Ghana. When he arrived at the distribution center, he was instructed to join a line outside. An attendant gave each person a number to ensure there were enough doses for everyone. Then a familiar scene appeared: A trickle of cars was ushered into the compound, one by one. Soon afterward, the attendant informed my friend that the facility had run out of shots.

In Ghana, the inside connection that likely allowed the people in the cars to skip the vaccine line is called protocol, or “proto” for short. Paradoxically, protocol often means expedited access that circumvents established procedure. People in Ghana do not follow protocol; they have it, through kinship or a social connection. One might use protocol to quickly access a public service, while applying for a job, or to get into a good school. Its prevalence reflects how equal rights and access are becoming a mirage in Ghana, fueling disillusionment with the government and the country’s supposed meritocracy.

Although my friend was irritated that he couldn’t get a vaccine, the situation wasn’t a surprise. Family group chats, church WhatsApp groups, and alumni associations across Ghana are all buzzing with people asking if anyone has protocol in one place or another. Insiders openly advertise “protocol vacancies” in the government and military. While waiting to renew a driver’s license or passport, it is common to see a protocol group standing apart from the regular line. They aren’t sure where they’re going, but they are secure in getting what they came for.

A friend recently told me a story about his attempt to get his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Accra, the capital of Ghana. When he arrived at the distribution center, he was instructed to join a line outside. An attendant gave each person a number to ensure there were enough doses for everyone. Then a familiar scene appeared: A trickle of cars was ushered into the compound, one by one. Soon afterward, the attendant informed my friend that the facility had run out of shots.

In Ghana, the inside connection that likely allowed the people in the cars to skip the vaccine line is called protocol, or “proto” for short. Paradoxically, protocol often means expedited access that circumvents established procedure. People in Ghana do not follow protocol; they have it, through kinship or a social connection. One might use protocol to quickly access a public service, while applying for a job, or to get into a good school. Its prevalence reflects how equal rights and access are becoming a mirage in Ghana, fueling disillusionment with the government and the country’s supposed meritocracy.

Although my friend was irritated that he couldn’t get a vaccine, the situation wasn’t a surprise. Family group chats, church WhatsApp groups, and alumni associations across Ghana are all buzzing with people asking if anyone has protocol in one place or another. Insiders openly advertise “protocol vacancies” in the government and military. While waiting to renew a driver’s license or passport, it is common to see a protocol group standing apart from the regular line. They aren’t sure where they’re going, but they are secure in getting what they came for.

For those without protocol, routine bureaucratic interactions have become a point of stress. Its normalization means that people seeking a service the normal way may feel like second-class citizens—even if they came first. But many Ghanaians have largely accepted the system, even as they complain about it. One Twitter user noted that without protocol, it takes months to get a copy of one’s birth certificate. I’ve seen another joke that the ubiquity of protocol means one needs it to make new friends in Ghana.

Beyond individual concerns, the protocol system threatens to undermine Ghana’s state institutions, which are already perennially underperforming. It casts doubt on the meritocratic idea that government staff are recruited because of their abilities and increases the likelihood of other protocol hires. After recent revelations that Ghanaian police officers were involved in the robbery of armored vehicles drew attention to the police recruitment process, Modern Ghana columnist Stephen Atta Owusu pointed out that protocol hiring could even increase security risks.

However, the act of seeking protocol isn’t necessarily nefarious if it lends clarity to systems that don’t function as they should, said Audrey Gadzekpo, a professor of communication studies at the University of Ghana. It’s really asking: “Does anybody know somebody that will make it easier for me to access whatever service for whatever reason because there’s a long line or I don’t see my way clearly to what exactly I need to do?” she said. “What is insidious is that it is getting into places where it didn’t use to be.”

E. Gyimah-Boadi, a co-founder of the research network Afrobarometer, traces the term’s origins to the era after Ghana’s independence in 1957. As a complement to their low wages, public servants could take advantage of a quota system for job or university openings for themselves or their family members—known as a protocol list. Even then, the system was prone to abuse, according to Gyimah-Boadi. Some public servants expanded their list to bring in more people, including in exchange for money. “There is an old saying that one doesn’t lack the opportunity to lick one’s fingers when grinding savory things,” he said.

Demand for protocol services has since expanded, with those who consider themselves important almost always seeking preferential access. Ghana’s poor job market for young graduates, especially in the public sector, may contribute to this shift. Youth unemployment has reached a record high, despite government job creation programs. Some friends have complained that it is not worth applying to a job without an inside connection, even in private organizations. That sort of thinking bothers Gyimah-Boadi more than the existence of protocol “because that means that we have imbibed it so deeply that it has become an iron law,” he said.

Ghana’s protocol system could fuel inequality and further erode trust in government; after all, people with backdoor connections tend to come from the elite. In a 2019 Afrobarometer survey, more than one-quarter of respondents said they had paid bribes for their own identity documents. That’s not to mention the cottage industry of scammers targeting the poor or desperate. Last year, Ghana’s Information Ministry flagged a fake recruitment portal collecting fees and promising jobs in the armed forces, the revenue authority, and the immigration service, among others. In March, local media reported that a government agency had charged its own employees for interview preparation to receive promotions.

A system that grants elites coveted services or jobs is not unique to Ghana. But it does reflect something specific about Ghanaian culture: Giving leaders premium access to services is one way of showing them respect. Now, the line between who holds authority and who doesn’t has become blurred. “Every village chief [and] even some pastors have church members they can count on to provide protocol,” Gadzekpo said. “Everybody is a little chief. There are so many ‘big’ men and women. The sense of entitlement becomes so widespread.”

Some observers say they see the protocol phenomenon reflected in the current national government, led by Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo. Gyimah-Boadi pointed to the large number of political appointees in deputy ministerial roles or deputy ambassadorships as an apparent reward for political support. Nineteen ministers have yet to comply with the constitutional requirement to declare their assets. The Afrobarometer survey found that a majority of Ghanaians felt that corruption had increased since 2017, when Akufo-Addo took office; distrust in government is rising.

Ghana’s protocol system has exacerbated the divide between ordinary citizens and the government that supposedly exists for their benefit. Among the younger generation, there is a sense of resignation but also a desire to imagine a different future. Last year, frustration with inequality and alleged corruption led to the #FixTheCountry protest movement, which echoed a massive anti-government demonstration in 1995. (Ironically, Akufo-Addo emerged as a protest leader then.) The 2021 protests represented a surprising yet significant pushback to the government. The conversation has continued on social media, fostering new coalitions and giving hope for a movement that can tilt the country back in the right direction.

Anakwa Dwamena is a Ghanaian American journalist based in Accra, Ghana. As a Fulbright-National Geographic storytelling fellow, he researches the effects of climate change on indigenous cultural and religious practices. Twitter: @kwatrekwa

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