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Opinions of Saturday, 1 November 2008

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Tradition and the Domestication of Democracy

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

Concerned by the increasing murky politics in the run up to the December 7 general elections, Ghanaian traditional rulers are increasingly drawing from the deep-well of their cultural values to guide the 16-year-old democratic dispensation. The traditional rulers’ concerns, wisdom, advice and counsels demonstrate the gradual mixing of Ghana’s traditional values with the neo-liberal global democratic ideals that are running Ghana’s democracy and other development structures.

When Osabarima Antwi Agyei V, Chief of Okadjakrom, among other traditional rulers, exploited the gravitas of tradition and appealed to politicians to shun campaign of “insults, acrimony, ethnocentrism and violence to preserve Ghana’s peace, unity and stability,” he was digging into the fact that tradition can guide the Western oriented neo-liberal democracy Ghana is practicing, nurture it and recast it to suit the Ghanaian sensibilities to promote progress. This is what University of Michigan’s Maxwell Owusu would call the “domestication of democracy.”

In Ghanaian tradition domesticating the neo-liberal democracy both are refining each other for genuine adaptation – the neo-liberal democracy helping to purify the inhibitions within the ancient Ghanaian traditional political system and traditional values equally helping to tailor the neo-liberal universal democratic ideals to the Ghanaian environment.

The run up to the December 7 general elections has brought out what the Accra-based The Statesman calls “dirty politics,” which is in contradiction to Ghanaian traditional norms and values. This situation has seen traditional rulers such as Osabarima Agyei advising politicians to “educate and explain issues, their policies and programmes to solve the country’s socio-economic and political problems to enable the electorate vote for them.”

The sense to guide Ghana’s budding democracy from within Ghanaian traditional values has come about because, as the Sierra Leonean politician and lawyer Charles Margai argues, “With the emergence of the Legislative Council in the late forties and early fifties saw the voting system patterned on the British style of democracy. Was the system fully understood by our people then or put in another way, was there adequate sensitisation of our people for them to fully comprehend what was at stake?”

Margai’s anguish is as Sierra Leonean as it is Ghanaian – how to understand African democracy from within African values by raising the degree of philosophical basis of African traditional ideals, as Botswana has done, against the backdrop that the African nation-states are coalition of different ethnic groups. At higher thought, despite the different ethnic groups that form the African countries, practically all the ethnic groups have the same values, the difference being more or less geographic. And so whether African democracy should be “continuity or change,” as Margai asks, in relation to African values, will be answered by how African elites are able to skillfully “domesticate democracy,” guided by African sensibilities and cultural idiosyncrasies.

In this context, in the face of confusion, violence, destruction of properties, death, insults, and all that undermine Ghana’s democracy in the last of the December 7 general elections, politicians, civil society and traditional institutions have to replot the future of Ghana’s democracy as it evolves. With light from traditional rulers, Ghana’s democracy guiding principles must be a mixture of traditional Ghanaian values (drawn from the 56 ethnic groups that form Ghana) and the neo-liberal ideals that run the structures of the state.

The future of a Ghana democracy that is in harmony with Ghanaian traditional ethos is the “indigenizing” of Ghana, where it’s democratic ideals sprang from Ghanaian cultural mindset that dominated the 56 ethnic groups that form Ghana before the coming of the Europeans and enriched with the global neo-liberal democratic principles. The constant counsels from Ghanaian traditional rulers against gloomy politics and their attempts at nurturing the democratic process reveal how tradition is gradually doing this.

The challenge, as Ghana’s democracy evolves, is how Ghanaian elites, more the growing democrats can float a genuine democratic myth that flows from Ghanaian traditional values, tout it nationally, that will help Ghanaian democracy function properly and reflect the authentic Ghana.