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Opinions of Thursday, 4 December 2008

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Ghana: The Cradle of Ghanaian Democracy

On the 5th Ghanaian presidential and parliamentary elections on December 7, Kofi Akosah-Sarpong looks at the future of Ghanaian democracy

The Cradle of Ghanaian Democracy By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

Ghana’s democratic journey started when Ghanaians fought various battles against British colonialism for freedom. The most noteworthy was in Kumasi, when the city was ransacked in 1874. In the 1920s and 1930s a number of political parties, more regional and ethnic based, struggled to achieve independence from British colonial rule.

In the ensuing schisms, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), a national umbrella grouping, formed in 1947, emerged as a unifier and democratic tool to achieve freedom for the diverse ethnic groups. In 1948 the Secretary-General of the UGCC, Kwame Nkrumah, broke away due to ignored goals, sluggishness and excessive conservatism. Nkrumah then founded the radically socialist Convention Peoples Party (CPP). A new multiparty constitution in 1951 saw the CPP winning the general elections, with two-thirds majority.

Ghana’s multiparty democracy was born but from scratch it wasn’t “domesticated” or “indigenized,” and that’s where the challenges emanated. However, democratic events were getting sexier: in March 1957 Ghana gained independence, the first African country not only to achieve freedom from European colonizers but also to practice multiparty democracy. From the split of UGCC came Ghana’s core two main traditional political values: the Danguah-Busia (-Dombo), a conservative-capitalist group (or center to the right), and the Nkrumahist traditional, the socialist (or center to the left).

With Ghana going to the poll on December 7, it is good time to reflect on the long struggles for democracy more than 88 years ago and what lessons Ghanaians might have learned from this historical event to meet current challenges.

Modern democracy, says the Oxford Dictionary, “is a form of government in which the power resides in the people and is exercised by them either directly or by means of elected representatives.” Either because of colonialism that suppressed Africans’ traditional democratic political systems, the thinking universally had been that the Athenians only had the idea that only the common citizen should decide governance rather than the elites.

Like Athens’ Pynx hill, ethnic groups in various African geographic spots debated, listened and decided their progress before, during and after European colonialism. Either because of colonialism or its consequent global power outreach, Athens has been projected as the model for democracy, as citizens play the deciding role in public affairs. The 56 ethnic groups that form Ghana, too, have had a tradition of participatory democracy, as enshrined in their cultures but have not been touted as prominently as the Athenians. The operative norms were, and are still, consensus and participation. The African democratic systems have wheeled around centralized – such as the Logoli - and un-centralized systems – such as the Akans.

Direct democracy of the Gas or Akans or the Athenian form had a flaw of not able to put all citizens on top of a geographic spot to deliberate issues. The British, who had moved past direct democracy, resolved the complications of direct democracy and invented representative democracy. The Akans or Ewes wouldn’t decide matters individually but elect representatives to deliberate matters on their behalf in the new democratic regime. Like the Athenian Pynx, the Dagomba, Asante or Nzema citizen assemblies would evolve into a parliament of representatives that advised and controlled the executive.

This was the institution transplanted into Ghana by the British without considering Ghana’s cultural values. Over time, the struggle, as Thomas Axworthy, chair of Canada’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, Queen’s University, explains, was “how to transform a representative legislature into a responsible government.” This was the case in all British ex-colonies. The challenge is how each ex-colony mixes the British with their indigenous systems, as the Southeast Asians have brilliantly done. Ghana is yet to go the Southeast Asian way, despite priding itself as “The Black Star of Africa.”

>From 1957 when it achieved freedom to now, Ghanaian elites have not been able to reconcile the British representative democracy with its indigenous political system for structural balance as Botswana have done, and have resulted in disharmonies in the political system including 21 years of gratuitous military rule and 6 years of threatening one-party regimes. Daniel T. Osabu-Kle, a political scientist at Canada’s Carleton University, elucidates in Compatible Cultural Democracy: The Key to Development in Africa that “instead of adapting the deeply embedded indigenous political cultures to achieve the appropriate political conditions, the new [African] nations adopted alien democratic practices, which served to undermine the attainment of the political prerequisites for genuine decolonization, divided the elites, stifled economic and social growth…”

In the midst of Ghanaian elites’ inability to re-think a Ghanaian democracy drawn from within Ghanaian indigenous values, Ghana’s democratic growth has suffered over the years. In its uncertainty, Ghana has created four constitutions to now and out of the four, three have been suspended; the 1956 constitution was suspended in February 1966, the 1969 constitution was suspended 13 January 1972, the 1979 constitution was suspended 31 December 1981, and the 1992 constitution being operated now.

In this regard, Ghana has seen painful meandering democratic administrations in the years 1957-1966, 1969-72, 1979-81, and 1993 to the present only. Actually, from 1958 to1964 there were limited democratic practices under President Kwame Nkrumah.

The shortage of reasonable Ghanaian indigenous values in the British neo-liberal system occasionally created political volcanoes. There was powerful opposition to the ruling CPP not only from traditional chiefs, who had running battle with the CPP over freedom issues, and big farmers but also the Ghana Congress Party that merged with other opposition parties to form the big United Party (UP). Nkrumah escaped two assassination attempts, some of CPP development projects were boomed to destruction, political bigwigs like J.B. Danquah, a leading figure of the UGCC, were jailed by the CPP. In 1959 Kofi Busia, as leader of the UP, felt his life threatened and fled Ghana to England. With politics gone wild and violence swelling, the CPP enacted the much contentious Preventive Detention Act in 1958 and in 1964 Ghana declared a one-party state by the CPP.

Corruption began to grow; reckless spending boomed, unpaid debts and the expansion of Nkrumah’s personal guard into a brigade were seen as further subverting freedoms, a key Ghanaian indigenous democratic value. In 1966 Nkrumah was toppled violently by Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Kotoka (an Ewe) and Brigadier Akwesi Afrifa (an Asante), and Ghana, for the first time, tasted a no-party military junta under the National Liberation Council (NLC) with Gen. Joseph Ankrah (a Ga) as the NLC Chairman and Head of State (February 24, 1966 – April 3, 1969). However, in the ensuing political drama Brigadier Afrifa became the Chairman of the NLC and Head of State (April 3, 1969 – October 1, 1969).

High campaigns for democracy forced the NLC, after three years in power, to organize general elections. The Progress Party (PP), conservative and capitalist, led by Busia, won in 1969. Barely two years in power the PP was overthrown by Lt. Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong and his National Redemption Council (NRC) in 1972. Hardly six years in power, as democratic campaigns gathered steam and economic distress mounting, fellow senior military officers relieved Acheampong from power in 1978 for reneging several times to return Ghana to democratic rule and organizing phantom Union Government referendums meant to revert Ghana to one-party system under his rule.

Gen. F.W.K Akuffo replaced Gen. Acheampong (he had transformed the NRC into the Supreme Military Council) with little change. Meanwhile, corruption, unfreedoms, poor rule of law, and democratic agitations were building up. The inability of Akuffo and his Supreme Military Council (11) (1978-1979) to handle all these national demands saw junior officers stage Ghana's second violent coup on June 4, 1979, seeing the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) formed under Ft. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. The political instabilities underscore Kofi Busia's The Challenge of Africa (1962), a reflection from exile, of the significance and complexity in implementing Western democracy in Ghana.

Still, democracy was on the match and forced the AFRC to organize general elections six months after taking power. Hilla Limann, a diplomat and political scientist, was elected president in July 1979. Scarcely two years in office, Limann was overthrown by Rawlings in his second coup on December 31, 1981 and Rawlings ruled with the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC).

For 12 years, the PNDC, drawing from Ghana’s democratic and economic failures, ruled, shifting from their initial image as Marxists/Socialists to World Bank and the International Monetary Fund supported Economic Recovery Program in 1983. In all these twists-and-turns Ghanaians were mounting immense pressure on the PNDC to democratize. Out of these democratic struggles came a National Commission for Democracy set up in January 1985 to chart a democratization path.

Still, drawing more from Ghana’s failed security history, the PNDC hatched perhaps the best security system that Ghana has seen and that virtually saw it security proof not only throughout its 12-year stay but also guided Rawlings’ two-term National Democratic Congress (NDC) civilian administrations that started in 1992 ended in 2000. In 2000 the incumbent President John Kufour and his New Patriotic Party (NPP) defeated the NDC. Much of Ghanaians regarded Kufour, a businessman and administrator, as coarse and faintly who has danced fully in the bumpy Ghanaian political scene.

With just two months into his last term, Kufour has proved to be a complex historical surprise, surviving in the sizzling Ghanaian political climate where Nkrumah, Busia and Limann. All these against the backdrop of the restless Rawlings heckling the democratic process. Kufour, who has the best index of experiences as public figure among all those who have ruled Ghana, appears to have mastered the security game, putting potential forces of instability at bay and grown freedoms. As Kufour increasingly work to democratically secure the state, he is drawing from the history of instabilities and democratic stasis, apparently immune even to West Africa’s disease of instabilities. This is increasingly deepening his historical size and democratic force.

Over the past 16 years, as Ghana’s democracy grow, there are credible attempts to learn from the fact that for democracy to have vigorous roots the political elites have to correct the historical mistakes and mix Ghanaian cultural values with the British system of neo-liberal representative parliamentary system. Fair enough, 85.1% of registered voters cast their votes in the 2004 general elections out of over 10 million registered voters – a sign of growing confidence in the democratic system.

Yes, gender equity is on the up-swing and women vote freely. There are on-going attempts to use human right values to refine certain cultural inhibitions that stifle progress. From Nkrumah to Kufour, the mass media have evolved surprisingly. Human rights have become a big part of the Ghanaian development gourmet and Ghanaians are experiencing high freedom energy for progress. Political violence isn’t as rampant as some years ago such as the deadly attempts on Nkrumah’s life on August 1962. Voter turnout due to ethnicity is increasingly going down, issues-based politics is upward, and the amount of confidence Ghanaians have in the democratic system is increasing but Ghanaian politicians are yet project the fact democracy is as originally indigenous Ghanaian as it is Western.

Ghana, as part of the universal democratic movement, has been evolving from direct democracy to representative and responsible democracy. However, the lack of mixture of Ghanaian indigenous values with the British democratic ideals hit at the contending issue of “mass democracy,” as Axworthy says, as the “third milestone in democracy’s evolution.” “If the “people” were to choose their representatives, who made up the people?” asks Axworthy in a piece published in the Toronto-based National Post that raised concerns about lower voter turnout. Different democracies will answer Axworthy’s question differently.

In Ghana, part of answering Axworthy’s question, as Osabu-Kle argues, is by “modifying indigenous democracy,” as part of the development process that will see the transfer of the traditional ideological symbol (or myth) of unity to the state from the coalition of the 56 ethnic groups that form the Ghana nation-state. Lack of the indigenous values has seen Ghana loose its “mass” in its democracy project and affected confidence building measures as a progress issue. For, “before even the British came into contact with our people, we were a developed people, having our own institutions, having our own ideas of government,” Osabu-Kle quoted J.E. Casely Hay-Ford, 1922, Gold Coast (Ghana) nationalist, as saying.

But there are attempts to correct this anomaly as Ghanaians become increasing convinced the future progress rest with fuller democracy. From Rawlings to Kufour, democratic decentralization, as a mixture of the traditional with the Western neo-liberal, is on the ascendancy. NPP’s flagbearer Nana Akufo-Addo’s proposed Institute of Chieftaincy will be a perfect laboratory to blend Ghanaian traditional values with that of the Western neo-liberal ideals for Ghana’s democratic fruition. This will be part of the calls to reform the democratic system and re-balance the power structures from traditional institutions to those at the national level.

Axworthy argues that “democracy is always a work in progress. Issues change, and institutions evolve.” Ghanaian democracy is certainly in need of major domestication as Ghanaians face their 5th multiparty democratic presidential and parliamentary elections on December 7.