Ghana is becoming a ‘disguised dictatorship’, say worried activists

By Jonas Nyabor
Posted on Thursday, 22 July 2021 15:09

Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo (John MacDougall/Pool via AP, File)

Africa's most respected democracy is showing worrying signs of backsliding. From protests against election-rigging being closed down by pliant courts, to violence from police against activists pushing for change, activists claim the second term of President Nana Akufo-Addo has taken an authoritarian turn. Not so, say the government, who blame the poor economy they inherited.

Ghana’s largest opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) staged a large protest on July 6 against killings and rising levels of insecurity in the country. Protestors walked through the streets, dancing and chanting to loud music, before presenting their petitions to the presidency and parliament.

The protest put the spotlight on recent brutalities and killings, including those carried out by state security agencies. “The nonchalance towards these incidents, by the president and his government, [is] no longer tenable,” said Ruth Sedoh, the party’s deputy national youth organiser who made demands for “immediate removal of all ‘bandits and party thugs’ integrated into the country’s security agencies.”

During the protest, one of the incidents highlighted was the killing of five people during the 2020 general elections. Another one was the killing of two young men, allegedly by soldiers, during violent demonstrations over the murder of a social activist last month.

There have also been several incidents of brutality meted out by security officials on citizens and journalists. “It is a paradox that a fighter [of] fundamental human rights is supervising the gradual erosion of those rights under our constitution,” said Dominic Ayine, deputy attorney general in the John Mahama administration.

Denied requests

For a long time, Ghana has been considered a model democracy in Africa; but for several months now, public protests have been disallowed, with the Covid-19 pandemic presenting the perfect excuse for blocking of all forms of picketing.

Although civil protests and campaigns are a democratic right, local police use emergency laws – signed by President Akufo-Addo to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 – as the basis to curtail gatherings. The police have denied requests from several groups to hold protests and prosecuted those that have defied them.

I agree that if there is a way to ensure that the military is not the first point of call when there is an issue in terms of civilian control, we will be very [happy].

Ghana’s Public Order Act (ACT 491) requires that organisers of protests notify the police ahead of time, in writing, to guarantee their protection. However, the police have the right to request postponement of such events, on grounds of public safety and health concerns.

In June 2020, armed police officers arrested Ernesto Yeboah, leader of Economic Fighters League – a radical Nkrumahist movement – after disrupting a Black Lives Matter (BLM) night vigil that the group had organised in solidarity with the US movement. After 14 hours in police custody, Yeboah was charged with allegedly breaching public order laws.

In September 2020, a planned peaceful protest led by the Alliance for Social Equity and Public Accountability (ASEPA) – against the government’s Agyapa Mineral Royalties deal that sought to mortgage Ghana’s future revenues from mineral resources – was blocked by police, who cited Covid-19 safety concerns.

After the 2020 general elections, sporadic protests took place across Ghana after the opposition announced that it would not accept the electoral commission’s verdict for incumbent President Akufo-Addo. Dozens of party supporters were arrested but later released without prosecution. Subsequently, the police secured a court order to stop all future election-related protests.

“Bloodline of every democracy”

A few months later, pressure began to mount on the government, challenging President Akufo-Addo to effect his promise to address worsening unemployment, rising levels of violent crimes, escalating cost of fuel, among other issues.

After building momentum and galvanising support on social media with hashtags like #FixGhanaNow, #FixTheCountry and #FixMotherGhana, conveners scheduled a demonstration on 9 May. However, the police shot it down with an order secured from a lower court to restrain the campaigners. But the activists challenged the order at the country’s apex court and got it quashed.

It is a paradox that a fighter [of] fundamental human rights is supervising the gradual erosion of those rights under our constitution.

Oliver Barker-Vormawor, a lead campaigner for the #FixTheCountryNow movement, told The Africa Report that impediments to their planned protest are attributable to their non-partisanship stance. “Outside the ways in which the police and the courts have been used to close the civic space for dissent, we have several examples of many of our activists whose jobs have been threatened,” he said.

He added that Ghana could slip into a ‘disguised dictatorship’ should the government, through agencies such as the police, continue to suppress non-partisan public protests. “Protests are the bloodline of every democracy. If people are denied the opportunity to assess the government and express that dissent in a visible form, then we have effectively changed the soul of democracy into a disguised dictatorship,” he said.

The #FixTheCountry movement is planning a demonstration for 4 August – a holiday that celebrates the country’s founders. It will be the first non-partisan protest in over a year. However, the police concession to the NDC’s protest may lead to all other groups – whose right to protest has been curtailed for various reasons in the past – taking action.

In May, Selorm Branttie – vice-president of think tank IMANI Africa – said the #FixTheCountry campaign “sets the tone for a very focused movement that will [expose] the supposed shortcomings of the current government” and could hurt Akufo-Addo’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) in the 2024 elections.

Freedom of expression

On his part, Dr. Kojo Asante – director for Advocacy and Policy Engagement at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) – said consistently suppressing citizens’ right to protest could lead to a “sporadic explosion of people’s anger and dissatisfaction.”

“This expression of dissatisfaction or frustration is part [of] the democratic processes and sometimes it is better for people to air out their angst through demonstrations than to suppress that,” he said.

According to Dr. Asante, the police must be willing to offer needed protection for anti-government demonstrators or risk confirming the “narrative that there is a deliberate attempt to frustrate young people who want to express themselves through that medium.”

Government answers back

Akufo-Addo’s administration has not directly responded to claims about dictatorial turns. However, it has spoken to peripheral issues such as the ‘Fix the country’, saying they are being resolved.

“We are four months into our four-year mandate. The government’s job is to fix problems. This is what we have been doing since 2017. It is very important to place the performance of our government over the last four years – after inheriting an economy with ‘no meat on the bone’ – on record,” Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia wrote on Facebook in May.

Defence minister Dominic Nitiwul has received his fair share of criticism over the military involvement in stopping protests. But now he [would prefer] if soldiers are called in as the last resort.

“I agree that if there is a way to ensure that the military is not the first point of call when there is an issue in terms of civilian control, we will be very [happy]… The military should not be the first point of call when we are dealing with the civilians,” he said while addressing parliament in June, following the killing of two youths by soldiers during a protest at Ejura.

Multiple questions to Ghana’s Information Minister remained unanswered by the time this article went to press.

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