You are here: HomeWallOpinionsArticles2015 10 16Article 388069

Opinions of Friday, 16 October 2015

Columnist: Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

We need honest conversation about demonstrations

Opinion Opinion

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that “a week is a long time in politics”, but that was several decades before the digital revolution shrank human memory even further.

In Ghana the news cycle lasts only as long as the next talking point, which is how the media appears to have wiped out any memory of police brutalities against protesters on the streets of Accra only a few short weeks ago.

For a few days pictures were splashed in the media and on the Internet of citizens battered by our own policemen. It was not a pretty sight and one you would not expect to see in a democracy. Sadly, it is not the first and unlikely to be the last such set of photos, that is, unless we can all have a sober conversation about it.

There was justifiable rage about the way the demonstrators were treated by the police and the President ordered an enquiry into the matter. We should not let this matter die. It is not a partisan issue. We need to have an honest conversation about demonstrations in this country.

It is almost unnecessary to say that the 1992 Constitution of the Fourth Republic asserts the rights of citizens to gather freely, to associate freely and express themselves freely; the liberal bent of the Constitution has been widely acknowledged. Citizens are able to assert these rights in more than 90 per cent of scenarios in which these rights come into play.

We don’t seem to have any problem with expressing ourselves, none with joining associations and parties and for the most part we are allowed to gather in public places without any untoward repercussions. Why do demonstrations and protest marches excite so much state attention?

If you think about it, there is not much in the content of a demonstration that is new or different from the messages that assail our senses everyday in the media and social media.

All the demands of a demonstration would be fairly well known to everyone by the time its supporters decide to gather physically; the slogans would be known and there is normally nothing clandestine about the leaders and their methods; so why do demonstrations cause so much controversy?

Perhaps we need to look for answers in the persistent conflict between the law and culture especially in transitional democratic states like Ghana which is emerging from three decades of personal and military dictatorships.

The law may permit all kinds of rights which are denied in practice usually due to traditional or institutional culture, usually a combination of the two.

We know that tradition, however defined is very strong in Ghana and constitutes one of the most potent causes of self-censorship in the media and free speech generally.
For example, it would be considered reckless for a journalist to announce the death of a traditional ruler ahead of the formal announcement even if everyone knows about the unfortunate event.

Institutional culture appears to be an even stronger influence in Ghana, especially on how change is engender or endangered.

Institutional culture is the shared beliefs, assumptions, and values which govern how people behave in an institution or organisation.

The history of the police and policing in Ghana suggests that the institution sees itself not as an independent force but a service at the orders of the Governor, Governor General, Supreme Commander, President, Chairman or whatever title is borne by the person at the top of the state order.

In spite of their public protestations to the contrary, the police top ranks do not see protestors and the government as deserving of equal treatment and protection.
This is not the fault of the police. There is nothing in the Constitution that guarantees its independence.

On the contrary, the Police Council and all powers and authorities that control the business of the police are vested in the state in one form or another.
If I were a police officer I would have no doubt about who supplies the fish for my kenkey. There is nothing in Chapter 15 of the 1992 Constitution, which deals with the Police, to suggest any major challenge to the service’s institutional culture.

The Constitution clearly intended that citizens should enjoy a broad range of freedoms, including the right to protest and organise demonstrations.

Indeed, Article 21(1) (d) states: 'All persons shall have the right to freedom of assembly, including freedom to take part in processions and demonstrations.'
The counterpoint to the freedom elaborated in Chapter Five of the Constitution is the Public order Act of 1994.

It appears to the ordinary understanding of the Law that it seeks to ensure that demonstrators and protectors take advantage of police resources and also balance their rights with responsibilities.

On the face of it, the Public Order Act creates an interface for protesters and police to get to know one another for the purpose of public order, as the title of the law implies.

However, the law provides that a police officer can order the protest organisers to modify their plans, and the former may go to court to secure an injunction to stop the demonstration if in the judgment of a police officer the protest may turn violent.

Given the institutional culture of the police, most protesters believe that the police by instinct see the Act as a police veto on demonstrations.
In almost all demonstrations that appear to have a political tone the police reaction is to disrupt the protest by asking for postponement or some other changes to the original plan.

Invariably this leads to a long public debate over an issue that many would consider as fundamental and non-negotiable in a democracy.

Of course, no one would argue that protest marches must be allowed without considerations for the safety of the [demonstrators.]