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Opinions of Wednesday, 7 May 2003

Columnist: Amoateng, Yaw

Ghana's Democratic Transition: Has Kufuor Confounded The Skeptics?

A few months after Ghana’s 2000 watershed elections, I had the privilege of meeting and hosting both the Speaker and the Clerk of Parliament in Cape Town where I have lived for the past eight years as an academic. The occasion for their visit was to attend a Commonwealth Parliamentary business meeting involving lawmakers from several other African countries. Upon tip off, I phoned from my office at the University of the Western Cape and invited the duo to come and meet the small Ghanaian community and give them the low down on developments at home. Without hesitation they both agreed to meet their compatriots.

The significance of the long introduction to the issue I am trying to comment on lies in the gist of the Speaker’s presentation that evening, the main essence being that the transition came as a surprise to them (NPP) and most Ghanaians. This does not in any way suggest that the NPP was not ready to govern Ghana at the time it wrestled power from the NDC. My interpretation of the Speaker’s message was that, after a whole generation of a pseudo-democracy, very few people expected a smooth transition by way of the ballot box. Apart from Ghanaians, and in fact, many Africans, who had almost become accustomed to martial law, there were skeptics outside the continent who, by virtue of Ghana being an African country, simply laughed off any prospect of the country sustaining democracy. To such skeptics, democracy would forever elude Africa!

While these skeptics may have reason to doubt Ghana’s, and indeed Africa’s ability to practice democracy, they have woefully failed to do a critical study of our history which is replete with examples of our practices which only serve to show our essential nature as very democratic. In fact, without stretching the imagination past our practices during the colonial era, there are sufficient examples of how our commitment to democracy has been critical in our political evolution. Although at times such “democratic” processes led to isolated incidents of violence, this is not unique to our society, since again, even a cursory examination of the history of the West’s political evolution will reveal similar and perhaps, more serious incidents in such societies.

Apart from the formidable opposition mounted by the New Patriotic Party (NPP), a critical review of our modern political history would show that the constitutional developments spanning the period 1992-2000 had reached such a point where no amount of coercive power would stop the inexorable march towards true democracy in the country. Remember that in 1996, when the NPP decided to participate in Parliament, after boycotting it in 1992, that decision was not based on any faith or trust in the National Democratic Congress (NDC) rule. Rather, in a move that resonated with Nkrumah’s strategy in the pre-independence negotiations, the NPP saw Parliament and the existing dispensation as some sort of a “Trojan gift horse” which was worth trying”.

But, besides the formidable NPP opposition and the internal political dialogue which forced multi-partyism on the ruling NDC, events elsewhere on the continent ensured that the cost of undemocratic behavior would be high and conversely that democratic behavior would pay handsome dividends. This is the period when South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki had powered the imagination of the continent with his proclamation of the African century or millennium. South Africa’s liberation and its subsequent transformation agenda have resulted in the rapid development of a critical mass of Black elite that has readily bought into Mbeki’s concept of the African Renaissance, the unofficial African development ideology.

With South Africa’s economic and military muscles and with her new ruling class firmly in the vanguard of the renaissance, this ideology has become a trilogy of free marketism, political liberalization, and cultural diversity, which together form the building blocks of a liberal democracy. It is worth noting that these three central tenets of liberal democracy together represent the rational and non-rational requirements for human existence or in typical academic jargon, the objective and subjective conditions of existence. It is the universal truism of these essential elements of life that was reflected in Jesus’s admonition to his disciples that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”

South Africa’s Mbeki had brought along Obasanjo of Nigeria, a continental power, who had just undergone a similar democratic transition in the West Africa sub-region, while Abdulae Wade of Senegal, an Economist, and a strong believer in the ability of markets to allocate resources, had emerged victorious in a similarly hotly contested ballot. Mbeki, Obasanjo, Wade and Bouteflika of Algeria had all realized the geo-political importance of Africa joining forces with the West in a new partnership based on sound political and economic governance. To this effect, these leaders and others of similar thinking had agreed to champion the cause of the African Union and NEPAD, which reflected the praxis side of the renaissance ideology. This new thinking, as reflected in the ethos of the African Union would brook no intra or inter-state conflicts and above all, would put the highest premium on good political and economic governance on the continent. It was within this context that these young Turks made it categorically clear that in this New Africa, there would be no room for military adventurism in the form of coups d’etat.

And, above all, in 2000 the Republicans, under George W. Bush, had gained control of the White House a development that meant policing policies that would enhance the development of markets and political liberalization around the globe. Thus, there had been a wind of change not only in Africa, but also in the world at large. The fact that to date the impression is being created by some NDC members that they voluntarily surrendered power suggests that they may have thought of fighting to the bitter end (i.e. refusing to concede defeat), but the forces of change were simply too strong and irresistible; the democratic instinct in the ordinary Ghanaian had combined with similar forces in our immediate environment to ensure victory for democracy in the country once more.

But is this change to democratic behaviors inexorable or is it simply a long lull in our cyclical history of change and stability? In other words, if we are as committed to democratic values as any other society, what are the signs that this transition will be a permanent one in Ghana? While, in a situation where most people have become accustomed to rule by force due to its sheer duration, this question might appear too premature. In other words, two years may be too short to assess the performance of the Kufuor administration in terms of its commitment to democratic practices, which, as mentioned earlier, include sound economic policies and political tolerance. But, if we make the claim that democracy is an essential part of our social organization, then in fact, two years may be too long to engage in the assessment of our government in terms of this cultural value.

So, how does the scorecard of the Kufuor administration look like? Even though I sojourn in South Africa, I have had the good fortune of visiting Ghana both during the first and second years of Kufour’s rule and in both cases I stayed for four weeks dividing my time equally between the city and country in my home region of Brong/Ahafo, where I love to relax, especially during the Hamattan season. The evidence upon which I base my assessment is from such diverse sources as casual chat with ordinary people in both rural and urban areas, people in officialdom, both print and electronic media, and of course personal observations and experience of conditions in the country. It might help to know that since 1989, I have been visiting Ghana almost on a yearly basis so at my disposal in my analysis is some sort of a “time-series” data based on the above-mentioned sources, which will give me a baseline information to compare the present administration to our condition before it assumed the reigns of government.

Let us start with the most fundamental act as far as the defense of a democracy is concerned. While sociologists and political scientists may debate the handling of other aspects of governance, there is absolute consensus on the fact that the fundamental function of an Executive is to defend and protect the supreme law of the land (the Constitution). It is the fundamental function of a Head of state to defend and protect the constitution of the Republic, since failure to do so leads to the automatic loss of legitimacy, a situation that threatens the security of the state. However, it is rather unfortunate to note that often times when we think of this all-important function of the Executive, we are compelled by our historical circumstances to associate it with the employment of a massive coercive force. This may be one way of defending and protecting a Constitution, but it certainly belongs to a different political dispensation or ideology, if you will.

In the kind of liberal democracy that the Kufuor administration professes, defending and protecting a Constitution does not necessarily entail the employment of a massive coercive force to curtail certain fundamental human rights in the polity. While valid and reliable intelligence is crucial in defending the Republic, this function must not in any way compromise the civil liberties of the citizens. Rather, in such a democracy, constant negotiation is the name of the game; Political horse- trading is the phrase that has been used to capture the essence of the compromises that characterize a liberal democracy. In other words, the very style of government can be a contributory factor in nation building; how interest groups are equally accommodated in the day-to-day affairs of the Sate could be the best security against a rebellion against the state. The case of the Ivory Coast is the best example to illustrate the dangers inherent in the politics of exclusion in modern nation-states.

So, on this criterion, how has the Kufuor administration fared? It may border on the exaggerated to say that in terms of inculcating democratic culture through actual deeds and acts, the Kufuor administration has done more in two years than any administration in our recent history. In fact, the President’s first act that used democratic ways to protect the constitution was to appoint a highly competent team of experts to man the affairs of the state. We may disagree on the values and interests that put us in different political camps, but I am sure we all agree on the fact that Kufuor’s team represents the cream of the Ghanaian crop: Young, qualified, dedicated, experienced and successful in their respective fields.

In fact, a critical analysis of the profile of people in the present Executive arm of government immediately reveals that the most important criterion for Executive appointments was technical competence rather than party-political affiliation or any other non-rational criterion for that matter. Thus, the President has sought to legitimize the state through the appointment of qualified and competent personnel who are more than likely to provide efficient and effective governance to the populace.

The appointment of qualified and experienced personnel to man the affairs of the state is necessary but not sufficient “democratic” condition for defending the constitution, especially, on a continent where ethnicity continues to plague politics. In other words, a President can have all the competent personnel but if his or her team does not represent a country’s diversity, he or she compromises the security of the state. Here too, the Kufuor administration has done well above average. The government reflects the country’s diversity and apart from the political odd opponent who seeks to identify the government with a specific group, the population is generally satisfied with the present composition of the government.

It is interesting to mention that during my visit home last year, one of the Ghanaian newspapers carried a story about a statement an NDC Leader in the Volta region is alleged to have made following the NPP delegates’ congress in Sekondi/Takoradi. Apparently, this leader had told an NDC rally in the region something to the effect that the development projects the present government is undertaking in the region will not stop the region from being the NDC’s World Bank. This is perfectly in order, since it is a fundamental right to belong to a political party of a person’s choice in the kind of democracy we are trying to nurture. But, for me, the real meaning of the statement by the NDC leader is that the Kufuor administration has not been retributive or vindictive as far as the Volta region is concerned, for every Ghanaian knows that it is the region that gave the President the least mandate to govern in the 2000 elections.

In fact, following his victory in the election, the president was asked to comment on his loss in the Volta region. With his usual big smile on the face, his response was simply that that he would make sure that come the 2004 election, he would make sure that the whole region vote NPP. This President has proven over and over again that he is a consensus builder (even within his own Party) and that is a virtue in a liberal democracy. Thus, sensitivity to ethnic interests in governance is a prerequisite for legitimacy and hence stability in our context. It must be remembered that the NPP victory in 2000 was a function of a broad coalition of democratic forces without regard to geography or ethnicity and this has been borne out by the way the President has conducted himself so far.

Power indeed corrupts, especially, absolute power. In a constitutional democracy, where the Executive is preoccupied with its primary function of defending and protecting the constitution, there is always an inherent danger of trampling upon some basic human rights in the polity. But here too, there are other “civilized” methods of dealing with such potential threats to national security, the most prominent one being a strong, competent and independent Judiciary. In fact, one crucial barometer of democratic governance is the degree to which the judiciary is independent in interpreting the supreme law of the land and being a lawyer himself, the President seems to be keenly aware of this fact. They say justice delayed is justice denied. To ensure efficient and effective administration of the law, the government is beefing up the judiciary with young and dedicated lawyers to ensure successful prosecutions in the courts as one way of maintaining law and order in the country.

The importance of maintaining law and order by a government that believes in private initiative as the engine of economic growth cannot be overemphasized. Two years ago when the President came to office, a major threat to our national security was crime, especially violent crime. Whether such criminal activities were contrived to destabilize our new democracy or not, the reality today is that this threat has been contained with maximum efficiency by the government and without any infringement of the civil liberties of the populace. By simply boosting the morale of the security personnel, especially, our police service through addressing their fundamental needs and bringing respect to the service, we are winning the war against crime as a nation.

Today in Ghana, it is not only heartening but it also brings one a great sense of security to see police patrols not only in our major cities, but also on our highways and byways. It is needless, perhaps, to mention that traveling one evening with my wife and children from Chiraa to Wenchi in Brong/Ahafo, a distance of less than 60 kilometers, I counted not less than three police patrol cars. Later on at a police barrier, my daughter got the fright of her life (as she put it the following day), when they stopped us and began flashing their lights in our car; we only managed to calm her down by showing her one of the new patrol cars on the beat that was parked a few meters away. Why would a 11-year old girl in Grade 6 panic upon seeing policemen? The simple answer is that before coming to Ghana, she had heard tales of armed robbers who disguise themselves as policemen and women and hijack people’s cars, rob them and possibly, kill them. Moreover, in her kind of environment, the police are identified with mobility, that is, they are always on the beat, while roadblocks presuppose a political system that does not respect fundamental civil rights of the citizens or simply put, martial law. So, with our police being mobile now to assure us of our safety and security, would it be a mistake to call this a “positive change”? I do not think so.

Apart from the good job of maintaining law and order, the professionalism that characterizes the present government has ensured that the ordinary Ghanaian now has absolute confidence in the judiciary as far the safeguarding of their civil liberties is concerned. Coming from a background with a long and established tradition of consensus politics (ala United Party and Progress Party) that made the independence of the Judiciary its cardinal principle of governance, the Kufuor administration has certainly earned the praise of Ghanaians for the impartiality with which the law has been applied so far. A classic case in point is the way in which his own Justice Department was publicly humiliated by the way it handled the case involving the former CEO of the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation, Mr. Tsatsu Tsikata.

I am sure the government’s handling of this particular case surprised even the opposition because most governments, at least on our continent, would have behaved differently. Sensitivity to the independence of the judiciary was the principle that prevailed and the government even went to the extent of exposing lapses in its own prosecution; when the courts saw lapses in the state’s case, the government obliged and was willing to re-prepare the case according to the dictates of the law. If this behavior is not sure enough guarantee to make us feel safe and secure within our own borders, then I do not know what else will.

And, what about the criterion of another basic tenet of liberal democracy, the participation of the people in government? Early this year when I was winding down my holiday in Tema, I listened to a Peace FM program involving some respected Journalists and an NDC Member of Parliament, a lady, from the Western region. I can still recall Kwaku Baako, kwasi Pratt, a government representative and some others on the panel. Since this panel discussion came immediately after the NPP delegates’ congress in Sekondi/Takoradi, the issue in debate was whether there has been any “positive change” since the government came into being. While the panelists and of course the public haggled over most issues, the one thing they all agreed on as a positive change is Kufour’s concept of “the People’s Assembly”.

The concept of People’s Assembly is in fact, a classic case of borrowing an important concept from our own traditional practices to assist us in managing the affairs of a modern state. Interestingly, this concept (In South Africa, the Zulus call it Imbizo,while the Tswana call it Lekgotla), which was central in decision making in African traditional societies so before contact with the West, also happens to be an important condition for even “Western –style” democracy, as any reader of the history of Greek civilization would know. Is this not how our chiefs and other traditional leaders made decisions, that is, through public debates of the various options? By re-introducing this age-old concept, the President is certainly confounding those who argue that the conditions of present-day societies do not permit this kind of direct participation in government by the people.

I was on my way from Kumasi to Accra on that Tuesday when, on the radio, I heard the President and his Ministers fielding questions from the public, and for somebody like me who was hungry for data on the unfolding drama of true democracy in our country, it made for a very interesting listening that afternoon. To hear not only key Ministers but the President himself answering questions at a public forum from ordinary Ghanaians and also from some foreign visitors, was for me, a major milestone in our political development.

Of course, I am aware of some of the criticisms that have been leveled against this beautiful concept. For example, the Honorable Lady from the NDC on the Peace FM panel alluded to the elitist nature of the Assembly given the very venue where it is held: The International Conference Center. The holding of similar assemblies by Ministers and MPs in their own constituencies, notwithstanding, there could be some truth in this assertion, but given the fact that this is a novel idea, is it not a necessary beginning? I believe it is and it can only get better with time. Local communities are increasingly being empowered to realize the importance of self-help for their own communities and their efforts are yielding rewards everywhere one goes. Assemblymen and women are working hand-in-hand with their constituents on these myriad self-help projects and expressed grievances at these grassroots levels are passed on to the next level of local governance in that order.

As the Honorable MP for Asokwa-East, Dr Baffo-Boney, said on another FM program in Kumasi on the day of the People’s assembly: “You can see Ghanaians are free. You don’t have to look over your shoulders when you are talking about your own government.” For me, that said it in terms of the values the government stands for. When several leaders of the African Union were haggling about the peer-review mechanism under NEPAD, Ghana was one of the first countries that readily submitted to the idea. Can a government that has got skeletons in the closet be so forward with a peer-review mechanism that seeks to expose its record on human rights and other aspects of governance?

Freedom may well be a state of mind, but it does not lack empirical referents. There are several indicators that can be used to gauge a person’s or a group’s mental state at any particular point in time. To say that Ghanaians are generally freer and happier is not to indulge in ideal speculation but to speak the truth as found on the ground. Moreover, take the case of the statement the President is alleged to have made in his acceptance speech in reference to his predecessor, Mr. Rawlings, at the NPP delegates’ conference. A lot of noise was made by certain opposition members about something which to me, was perfectly acceptable in any democracy. Remember that at that moment, the President was speaking as a presidential candidate, and not as President of Ghana! What is wrong with a presidential candidate politicking at a political forum? This was certainly a non-issue but apparently, in his characteristic gentlemanly behavior, the President somehow retracted this statement. Frankly, if I were one of the President’s advisers, I would have opposed any suggestion of retracting the statement, let alone apologizing for it. When was the last time we witnessed this sort of tolerance and patience on the part of our Head of state?

Again, take the simple democratic exercise involving the role the various FM stations and the “independent” newspapers, are playing in the evolution of our democracy; people come on these programs and they literally let themselves go! People are not afraid to speak their minds on public issues and sometimes as a listener you get confused about the line between the public and the private. People simply pour out their negative or positive feelings about the government or some policy of the government without fear or favor. Every panel on these programs will involve protagonists from across the political divide and at the end, the issue(s) get dissected to help formulate answers to what otherwise would be a difficult question for policy purposes. Must we travel to Hyde Park to realize that we are a free people once again?

Finally, the negotiations that characterize democratic governments and ensure domestic stability go beyond the domestic sphere into the external sphere to ensure peace in the world. A truly democratic government is one that is at peace with itself and with its neighbors. Ghana is now gradually reclaiming its rightful place in Africa’s diplomacy, through the government’s involvement in major African and indeed, global initiatives. Today, the country’s borders are not under any threat not because of any colossal military power that we command, but by simple neighborly acts. It is within this context that the criticisms concerning the President’s overseas trips must be brushed aside as non-issue, for these trips are a continuation of a tradition of Ghanaian diplomacy which brought the country so much respect and dignity in the 1960s and 1970s. The rest of the world must know about the establishment of a political dispensation that represents a complete break with our immediate past in terms of the safety of human rights and with that, private investments.

The establishment of the NEPAD secretariat suggests the acceptance of the renaissance ideal of the new thinking on the continent and the willingness to cooperate with leaders with similar visions to usher in the African century. Sensing the geo-political and socio-economic implications of the conflict in the Ivory Coast for Ghana, the President has been working indefatigably with other leaders on the continent to bring about amicable political solution to the conflict in that country.

If the above observations are valid and are indications of things to come under the Kufuor administration, then Ghanaians have every reason to begin to sing to welcome the arrival of what the President has termed “The Golden Age of Business” and “Positive Change”.

Professor Yaw Amoateng, PhD:
is a Sociologist and Chief Research Specialist
Human Sciences Research Council, Cape Town,
South Africa.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.