Questions abound for Ghana’s democracy after tensioned election cycle

Ghana has had eight elections under its Fourth Republican Constitution and the stakes appear to heighten with each one.

The polls in 2020 were the most eventful. It was a pulsating run with nail-biting moments; from the presidential to parliamentary elections, to the courts and even election of a Speaker of Parliament.

These moments have led many to muse over the state of our democracy and how we can keep the country together as we pursue this chosen path.

For security consultant Colonel Festus Aboagye elections in Ghana, which many hold up as the essence of our democracy, must be judged by three fundamental benchmarks; freeness, fairness and transparency.

As the country moves past 28 years of sustained democracy, there are fears these principles suffered from the melee of the 2020 electoral cycle.

In general, Ghana is known to compare favourably to other democracies, especially on the African continent.

It has managed to avoid the democratic backsliding seen in parts of the sub-region and beyond, notes Noel Nathan, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan who has researched on new democracies in Africa.

“Ghana does not need to look far from its borders to see democratic backsliding in action. For example, just to Cote d’Ivoire or Benin,” he says via email. “But so far, Ghana appears to be avoiding a similar trajectory.”

Some observers, however, fear Ghana may be getting complacent and there is a sense that a raising of the bar is in order.

Ahead of the 2020 polls, Col. Aboagye released a book on the 2020 voter registration which highlighted what he called “egregious violations” capable of festering an insecure democracy.

In his book, Col. Aboagye stopped short of predicting whether or not the 2020 election would have major incidents of violence.

But all signs; the lack of deterrents, impunity, among others, pointed towards an election with unprecedented aggression.

Before 2020, election-related violence was mainly the preserve of bye-elections; like in Ayawaso-West Wuogon, where security personnel were caught on video engaged in human rights violations.

By the end of the 2020 polls, Ghana was left with new scars; at least six persons dead and scores wounded in over 60 separate incidents of violence nationwide.

Looking back, Col. Aboagye feels the tensions and climate of violence in the voter registration snowballed into the election because of the short window between the contentious registration in July and the elections December.

“Enough time had not passed for passions and sentiments to settle down,” he surmises.

At a time we should have perhaps been moving from crawling to walking, the country rolled over to show soiled nappies.

“Come 2020, instead of deepening that democracy, we have gone to an election and killed people that we have not even apologised for,” Col. Aboagye fumes.

In his view, the path Ghana is on shows “our democracy is becoming more violent.”

The events in Ghana’s Parliament on Constitution Day, when soldiers stormed Ghana’s Parliament after brawls between NDC and NPP MPs-elect would go on to buttress his ominous assessment.

There had been a standoff over processes to elect a new Speaker of Parliament as MPs-Elect could not agree on something as simple as a secret ballot.

The vote eventually saw the NDC’s nominee, Alban Bagbin elected as Speaker; the first time Ghana has had a President and a Speaker from different parties.

But more damning than brawling legislators was the incursion of armed military and police personnel to confront rancorous NDC MPs.

The image of soldiers under the Coat of Arms in Parliament’s chamber was one for the dark side of the history books.

“It is an indictment on the hallowedness, the sacred nature of Parliament and its business that soldiers for the first time entered the house,” remarks Col. Aboagye.

Solidiers stream into parliament in unprecedented fashion
Soldiers stream into Parliament in unprecedented fashion during a dissolution

The bigger anathema here is the continued prominence of the military in Ghana’s core democratic process.

“The bottom line is that the profile of the military on our democratic landscape is too high and it is not good for our democracy,” the security consultant adds.

The incident in Parliament was an escalation from the earlier deployment of military presence for democratic processes like the voter registration and election day policing.

But Col. Aboagye retorts: “in a democracy, it is not the role of the military to go and secure the elections.”

And he expects things to get worse if the current status quo does not change.

“Any voter registration will be violent and any presidential or parliamentary election will be violent and the violence may increase in intensity and in scale and in scope.”

The security consultant isn’t the only one who has traced the more visible threads of instability back to the voter registration.

A research fellow with the Institute of Democratic Governance, Ewald Garr, says the registration “was where our woes started.”

It is simple really. Politicians, not for the first time, put their political interests ahead of the citizens.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Electoral Commission (EC) began a very unpopular voter registration process to compile a new voter register because of claims that the existing register was bloated.

In 2016, then in opposition, the NPP was on the vanguard of calls for the compilation of a new register for the same reason.

After an election victory and the murky change in management of the EC, the NPP finally had its way.

And since then, accusations that the EC is the puppet of the NPP have simmered on the edge of the political discourse.

The circumstances and controversy surrounding the Commission meant it had a paper-thin margin for error going into the election.

Critics of the voter registration, the EC’s controversial procurement of new biometric verification devices among other things would have you believe that anything short of perfect would be a failure.

The average person probably wanted the boring election David Pilling wrote about in the Financial Times.

Jean Mensa, the EC’s chairperson, would have loved that too.

That was not to be.

“The election day process went well but the collation became a disaster,” Garr recounts. “Common collation and declaration of results, we are seeing mistakes.”

He cannot get his mind around the fact that the collation of results caused such confusion this past polls. We might as well be in the same bracket as countries whose polls are marred by rigging.

“It is a shame and some of us think we have lost it and we have retrogressed,” laments Garr.

The problems with math were not only at the constituency level.

The head of the fish was making basic errors too; in public communique and, more embarrassingly, the figures attached to the declaration of President Akufo-Addo as the winner of the polls.

This has gone on to become ammo for the NDC which is challenging a number of results including the presidential outcome.

Critics of the EC have thus pulled no punches when evaluating its handling of the election.

“It isn’t harsh to say there is a crisis of credibility and competence within the EC,” says Garr.

Though independent observers have vouched for the integrity of the polls, the outcome of the presidential poll is still in contention with the NDC Flagbearer’s petition at the Supreme Court.

But even considering the contentions over 16 seats in the Legislature, Ghana has been essentially left with a hung Parliament.

This felt like a big step forward for Ghana’s democracy and right after the polls, Garr felt this unprecedented legislature “will actually show you as to whether our politicians seek our welfare.”

“It is going to tell us if we are going to be able to move forward as a country or retrogress in terms of development,” he said in December 2020.

Following chaotic events that preceded the swearing-in of Ghana’s Parliament, the traces of shock and frustration in his tone are palpable.

“So that’s how very low we have descended and that tells you how bad things can get if we decide not to work together,” he says.

The NDC’s nominee, Alban Bagbin bumps fists with the Chief Justice during his swearing-in as Speaker of Parliament

That the NDC gained significant control in Parliament could lead to the development of a stronger Legislature “that puts more emphasis on executive oversight and independent policy-making,” Nathan says.

But like the fighting in Parliament showed, there is also the risk of strife that could manifest in a divided government and “serious gridlock and crises,” Nathan warns.

“Divided government has precipitated coups and democratic breakdown in many other countries in the past. It is important to keep a watchful eye for that risk in Ghana as well.”

Consensus building is what observers hope will be the defining feature of this Parliament.

But the infantile scenes of MPs fighting over seats and secret ballots, not to mention ballot snatching by an MP on live TV, inspires little confidence.

If things do not get better, the fate of our democracy would then be left in the hands of the masses and Garr expects a reaction from Ghanaian citizens if the Eighth Parliament cannot get it right.

“If nothing changes, we should rise up and say no this is not it,” he stresses.

The Economic Fighters League has already got a head start on protesting the system it views to be irredeemably corrupt.

It was calling for a voter boycott ahead of the polls saying Ghanaians were caught between a rock and a hard place with the options of the NPP and NDC.

Turnout at the polls improved from 69 percent four years ago to 81 percent in the last election but the League’s Commander-in-Chief, Ernesto Yeboah feels it accomplished a separate layer of the protest; making people sensitive to the “sovereignty of their power.”

“For us, it was a political education programme mounted on the national stage,” Ernesto explains.

The EFL tried to spark a voter strike ahead of the 2020 polls

The embarrassing fracas ahead of the swearing-in of the new Parliament only went to buttress his bleak outlook of the NDC and NPP.

If the two sides of Parliament do eventually agree on something, it will be to fleece the nation, Ernesto says full of cynicism.

“What we are going to see is an unhealthy collaboration between the NPP and the NDC in cutting deals against the people of Ghana,” he predicts.

Complaints like this lead one to wonder if Ghana’s democracy is overrated.

Nathan doesn’t think so.

“It should still be celebrated,” he says, well aware of the “clear disillusionment” with the NDC and NPP.

That there are no viable alternatives to the NDC and NPP has been apparent for over two decades.

Nathan remarks that “the lack of a viable non-corrupt, non-clientelist alternative breeds voter discontent”; the kind seen with Ernesto and the Economic Fighters League.

Ernesto and his cohorts have advocated for a constitutional review that guarantees a proportional system of governance.

For him, the hung Parliament is much more than a cry for more bi-partisanship from Ghanaian voters.

“They are not just saying the NPP and the NDC should work together. They want an inclusive democracy.”

The expectation is that in the next few years Ghana’s democracy gets back on a progressive path.

Col. Aboagye seems exacerbated and short of solutions as he reflects on the way forward.

His harsh assessments stem from a desire for Ghana to do better.

The future of Ghana’s democracy will hinge on better enlightenment from the masses. That he is sure of.

“I don’t know but all I am saying is that there is a lot of work that we need to do as a society. We need to understand that democracy is not the easy option,” he says.

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The author, Delali Adogla-Bessa works with Citi TV/Citi FM.

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