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Opinions of Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Columnist: Evans Tetteh

What I see: Institutionalized illegalities in local governance and district assembly elections

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My passion for local governance stems from my understanding of decentralization being one of the best ways that state resources could be managed and steered towards rural development. I take an interest in rural communities because I was born and raised in such an environment where I drank from the same water source with animals, attended school-under-tree and lived without electricity. The passion and my background have been influential on my career path and study interests.

As a rural boy with limited opportunities and financial assistance, my decision of becoming a teacher did not in any way conflict with any other opposing career choices because that was seemingly the best (or probably the only) starting point to achieving my academic and career dreams. Eight years of teaching in a rural and deprived community further exposed me to the woes, travails and the struggles of parents and their wards resulting from the consequences of high rate of underdevelopment in such areas. Indeed, data outlook and economic analysis by national institutions, international organizations and experts such as the Ghana Statistical Service, the World Bank and other officials indicated that, Ghana since the 1990s made and is making phenomenal strides in economic growth, poverty reduction and social interventions. Sadly, in spite of the efforts, inequality gap keeps widening for both wealth creation and distribution of resources, with rural areas most affected.

We always hear that individuals should endeavour being part of the solution, and could make a difference irrespective of how small the contribution might seem. The passion for the development of rural communities motivated me into entering local governance through district assembly elections, in the quest to becoming part of the solution. That was the beginning of my disappointment about the reality of local governance politics, which is far from the beautifully crafted, theoretically sounding and rhetorically appealing local governance laws of Ghana. Do not get me wrong, that description is neither an exaggeration nor a metaphor, but remains an irony of practice. We pride in notable instances where other African countries send delegations to understudy Ghana’s local governance but I believe that in most of these cases, they interact with government officials, listen and watch powerpoint presentations in classy conference rooms and visit a few pre-arranged district assembly offices. Of course, there are good things to see and positive impressions to form, but they usually miss the disturbing political aspects and the lack of commitment to effective implementation of the local governance principles.

Amidst political interference, manoeuvrings and setbacks, I was elected as an assembly member representing an electoral area of rural communities. I will not, in this write-up be touching on the dramatic details and the partisan politics influences that surrounded my election, but to give a scratch of it, there was a run-off which I won with only 8 votes difference after a split first round. I was actively engaged in my duties during my tenure, and to the best of my abilities served the people that I represented. Besides, I was exposed to the realpolitik in local governance, which instead of prioritizing the core values of local governance and decentralization, rather in my opinion based on experience and study, tend to prioritize political parties’ agenda and individuals’ partisan interests, wealth and power.

Three unsettling practices that continue with successive governments are mentioned here, but that is not to say that those are the only cases. First, the culmination event in the appointment of a chief executive – the confirmation by the assembly members. It has been bedeviled with the allegations of doling out of monies by the nominated candidates to the assembly members to influence the confirmation. Although it is what I will describe as an open secret of public knowledge, we are yet to witness any serious withdrawal, sanction of and/or legal action against any candidate for such an indictment. It thus remains within the discussion realms of allegations but be as it may, many Ghanaian politicians, government officials and even journalists are aware of the canker and its continual practice, irrespective of whichever party is in power. Less is discussed here about the effects on good governance for economic and social development, but it is obvious that such inappropriate, unethical and illegal political practice has damning repercussions.

Second, the issue of unnecessary financial burdens on the chief executive in partly sponsoring and bearing the costs of most party related activities within the district s/he heads. In most of such cases, there are no (and there should not be) fund allocations by the assembly for such purely party organizational activities, but the chief executive has to by whatever means and sources meet such obligations. Readers may be wondering how that could magically be done, trust me it largely gets done, but end up in one way or the other, directly or indirectly becoming a burden to the assembly, government funds and effective implementation of projects.

Third, the case of unlawful practice and interference of the major political parties in the district assembly elections. The various parties in ensuring and protecting their supposed interests more than the national interests on the assembly break sweat to get candidates who are party sympathizers, members or executives as candidates. The parties further fund and actively engage in campaign strategies that lure party members to vote for their supported candidates. The first two practices are equally detrimental to local governance and decentralization of development particularly my interest of rural development, but I would like to concentrate more on the third because we are in the season for the 2019 District Assembly and Unit Committee Elections of Ghana.

Political parties’ involvement in the elections has become so institutionalized that we seem to unconsciously accept it as a normal practice despite the fact that it is seriously against the local governance act and other regulations, especially by the Electoral Commission, which guide such elections. The significance of the non-partisan conduct of the elections of assembly members as evidenced by the related previous acts and reiterated in the current Local Governance Act, 2016 (Act 936):

8. (1) A candidate who seeks election to a District Assembly or to any lower local government unit shall present that candidate’s self to the electorate as an individual and shall not use any symbol associated with any political party.

(2) A political party shall not endorse, sponsor, offer a platform to or in any way campaign for or against a candidate who seeks election to a District Assembly or any lower local government unit.

(3) A candidate who contravenes subsection (1) commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to the cancellation of the nomination of that candidate by the Electoral Commission.

(4) A political party that contravenes subsection (2) commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of not less than one hundred penalty units and not more than two hundred and fifty penalty units.

I will not be tempted in legally explaining the instrument, but we could all infer some basic interpretations of what it implies. Few days before the opening of nominations on October 7 for the 2019 District Assembly and Unit Committee Elections, evidence that I picked from the grounds and media reports affirmed that, the two major political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) were actively engaged in the selection of candidates for the electoral areas. More alarming is the extent that in areas where two or more party members intended to contest but there was no compromise for a particular person, local level primaries were held to elect a candidate, such an unlawful practice! Perhaps more worrying are the reports that, official communications were received from some constituency offices of the political parties explaining executive decisions taken to direct all electoral areas with multiple candidates that are party members to hold primaries on specified dates to elect one person.

What happens in most of the instances is that, although it is against the law, party members succumb to the pressure and give up their ambitions when they lose the primaries because they may become party outcasts should they go against the lawlessness of their political parties. It is also the case that, candidates who are successfully endorsed by their parties receive financial supports and other assistance for their campaigning activities and so defiance may place candidates under difficult stress as most of these candidates, especially from the rural areas may not be having the wherewithal to push through without the party’s support. This clearly contravenes the letter and the spirit of the Act 936. It is very worrying that government officials and state institutions are not taking the bull by the horns to boldly speak against and address this glaring breach of law. As for our rambunctious political commentators, they pretend that they are not aware of the situation hence hardly discuss it.

What then are the likely effects of the political parties’ meddling in elections that are strictly forbidden by law to be endorsed, sponsored or given platforms by a political party? First and foremost, it undermines the rule of law. We consistently advocate for a society of orderliness by adherence to basic rules as embedded in our constitution, legal codes and regulations. However, instances where illegal machinations are employed in the elections of public figures who become involved in district level legislations, governance and development, then we may be breeding unlawful characters that might discharge their assembly related duties in corrupt and unlawful ways but with impunity. That may be so because of their exposition to the institutionalized illegal support that they received from their respective parties.

In addition, the partisan conduct could be resulting in disaffections, disunity and frictions among the aspirants that contested the illegal primaries or selection process for the candidature. This is not to say that there are no such relating challenges when the assembly elections are contested without the political parties interfering, but it worsens the situation with increased antagonistic effects on communal cooperativeness and partnership for stability and development. Lastly, the practice could be having devastating effects on the quality and the competence of individuals nominated and elected to represent the people. The right person for the task may either not be having the enthusiasm to engage in the process because of the lack of party support, or could be dropped by the party’s selection process. Be as it may, electorates would be denied the fairness in making the rightful choice for the electoral area. That said, the electorates are even induced, encouraged and misinformed to vote on party lines for the candidates that eventually appear on the ballot. The situation as described has pernicious consequences for Ghana’s local governance and decentralization.

This article is more about exposing the problem and the practice to increase awareness than discussing the solutions, which could hardly be covered adequately here. The awareness could inspire people with more expertise to take up, raise up their voices and challenge that illegal but institutionalized status quo. Likewise, journalists and the media should echo it in their leading shows and discussions especially at this time of assembly elections euphoria. That may assist in curbing the problem to some extent for this year, but within the broader picture be establishing the grounds for stronger policies and enforcement in the coming years. More especially, as this year’s elections also include a referendum that may pave way for the voting of MMDCEs in the immediate future, there may be some correlating effects on that outcome and conduct.

However, I end with brief recommendations that could contribute towards the holistic solution that is desired. The Electoral Commission of Ghana should prior to any such elections, engage the leadership of the political parties, to reiterate the non-interference provision of the law against the political parties, then issue official statements through the media, public engagements and election-related announcements.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development should actively engage the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) to create civil awareness on the principles guiding the assembly elections, with much emphasis on reaching the rural communities where citizens tend to be more exploited by the politicians. To achieve that, we need to see the Ministry with the Ministers’ commitment to addressing the problem through liaising with the MMDCEs to make public pronouncements and bold declarations against the practice. That could be very helpful as most of the financing for the party in power’s sponsorship and endorsement of candidates are coordinated through the MMDCEs and, it would be sending a strong signal to other party executives and followers to avoid such acts. Likewise, if the party in power is desisting from the practice, the other opposition parties may not be having the courage to do such for the fear of becoming targets for breaking the laws.

Lastly, there ought to be a national avenue established purposely for free legal redress of such interference, and the public encouraged to report such incidents when they happen in their communities. By that, the law as stated in the Act 936 must be enforced especially the cancellation of candidature and the sanctioning of political parties for contravening the provision.

The exposition, awareness and the recommendations discussed in this article could lead to an institutionalized solution rather than the institutionalized illegality of political parties’ involvement in the district assembly elections to assist in achieving the practice of robust local governance. An effective local governance and decentralization is a strong conduit for accelerated rural development, which is currently a daunting challenge for Ghana.