Detained activist Barker-Vormawor claims ‘Ghana is falling behind on everything’

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Wednesday, 27 April 2022 12:01

As the row over political rights in Ghana intensifies, Oliver Mawuse Barker-Vormawor, convenor of the #FixTheCountry movement, tells The Africa Report the government is shutting down free speech and stepping up surveillance of dissidents.

Oliver Mawuse Barker-Vormawor was expected in court on 26 April to face treason charges, but the case has now been pushed back a month as the prosecution says they need more time to gather evidence.

After four weeks in police custody, having been charged with “threatening a coup” in a social media post, Barker-Vormawor last month secured bail of 2m Ghana cedis (US$260,000) and is more determined than ever to fight for political change.

Rights organisations in Ghana, such as the Centre for Democratic Development, condemned Barker-Vormawor’s detention as “more damaging and destabilising” than the original post.

Barker-Vormawor is the lead convenor of the #FixTheCountry group that calls itself a “non-partisan and non-political civic movement by Ghanaian youths for Ghana”.

“We need to have a conversation about a new constitution for Ghana. By calling for a new constitution for a new generation of young people we have been labelled as treasonous,” he says.

Barker-Vormawor’s struggles with the justice system point to political battle lines in Ghana after multiple protests against the government’s electronic transaction levy (the e-levy), its identity card plan and the need for more accountability.

Campaigners are focusing on the Restrictions Act pushed through by President Akufo-Addo’s government and currently lambasted by activists as clamping down on political rights.

“Ghana is completely falling behind on everything,” says Barker-Vormawor, “there’s not one single metric by which we’ve gained or improved in terms of the protection of free speech.”

Constitutional amendments

Government officials are pushing back hard against the #FixTheCountry. Activists complain the government is dismantling rights to free speech and protest in the process.

“The Minister of National Security, Albert Kan-Dapaah, had told me that we’re not going to allow the committee to have a demonstration […]  over his dead body,” Barker-Vormawor said. “We decided it was a test of whether we are in a constitutional democracy and whether we can realise the promise of the constitution.”

Barker-Vormawor is currently working on doctoral research with the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge in the UK. A decade ago, Barker-Vormawor was a Constitutional Researcher and the Access to Justice Advisor to Ghana’s Constitution Review Commission. Appointed by then-President John Atta Mills, Barker-Vormawor was asked to assess the country’s 1992 Constitution and to suggest amendments.

Breaching the peace

Since then, Barker-Vormawor has ramped up his criticism of the constitution and the government. He was arrested on 11 February at Kotoka International Airport and charged with “offensive conduct conducive to breaches of the peace”.

Tipped off by friends that he was likely to be arrested, he tweeted on 10 February: “We know who; and what we are dealing with when we ask for more for ourselves and our families. So, of course, I know I will eventually be arrested and likely tortured. Possibly, killed.”

“If I am ever arrested by the regime security or their affiliates, I beg this of you. Do not trend any hashtags, calling for them to release me. To do that will be legitimising their violence and their false justice system.”

On 12 February, the police said they had arrested Barker-Vormawor because of what they called his “inflammatory social media post” which aimed to provoke direct action if the government’s controversial e-levy bill was passed.

DCOP Kwesi Ofori, Director-General of Public Affairs said: “The post contained a clear statement of intent with a possible will to execute a coup in his declaration of intent to subvert the constitution of the Republic of Ghana.”

But Nick Opoku, Legal and Governance Policy Analyst for the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) told The Africa Report that state attitudes towards the #FixTheCountry movement were not consistent with typical protest procedure: “What we found throughout the #FixTheCountry protest was that the police service either acting in concert with the attorney general, used the courts to block the organisation of the #FixTheCountry protests and that’s not proper.

“Ordinarily, if you seek to block protest movements from organising a protest, what you do is that you file an application, and then the other side is also allowed to come to court to make arguments opposing your grounds for wanting to refuse them to go out and protest. But the police consistently used exparte injunctions or applications to seek injunctions from the court, without the court having the opportunity to hear from the #FixTheCountry people.”

Barker-Vormawor told The Africa Report that he wanted to be arrested in a public place as a matter of personal security: “I knew this was going to happen at some point. I know the Ghanaian security forces have a documented history of disappearing people. So I decided to disclose that I was flying to Ghana, hoping they would [arrest me] at the airport.”

After claims that Barker-Vormawor went missing after his arrest, the police released a statement: “…we clearly stated that Mr Barker-Vormawor was arrested by Tema Regional Police Command to assist with investigations. In line with our standard operating procedure, the police proactively ensured that his family and his lawyer were given access to him.”

After charging Barker-Vormawor with a misdemeanour, the police extended the charges against him to treason, allowing them to hold him for much longer.

His lawyer, Akoto Ampaw, a former law firm colleague of President Akufo Addo, was unable to reach him.

Amnesty’s International Report 2021/22 criticises the deepening authoritarianism in Ghana and “excessive use of force” in some cases. Three of its case studies involve reporters and journalists filming police misconduct.

For example, “National Security operatives arrested and allegedly assaulted reporter Caleb Kudah from Citi FM after they found him filming abandoned state-funded vehicles within their premises.“

This was not his first arrest.

Before #FixTheCountry’s first demonstration, Barker-Vormawor was arrested and then released after three hours.

This time, his treatment and arrest were harsher. “I was assaulted then without any subsequent questions being asked. There was no interrogation. My lawyers read a statement saying that I’d been abducted by the state. And then, I think at 4 am, the police released a statement acknowledging that I’d been arrested. They deliberately misdirected my lawyers.”

Deputy Attorney General Diana Asonaba Dapaah denies Barker-Vormawor’s claims of ill-treatment in prison. The Attorney General’s affidavit states that Barker-Vormarwor “blatantly refused to comply” with the investigation process, “…[Barker-Vormawor’s] conduct has shown that he will interfere or hamper investigations if granted bail”.

Barker-Vormawor rejects this, adding: “The Deputy Attorney General’s interviews deny outright my complaints of torture without conducting the most basic enquiry into my complaints.”

Cambridge University released a statement the day after Barker-Vormawor’s release, 35 days after his arrest. “Barker-Vormawor’s legal team in Ghana have warned that there have been breaches of due process in his treatment. This has been confirmed by other independent sources. The Vice-Chancellor has written to Ghanaian authorities to express his concern for Barker-Vormawor’s welfare, requesting that the rule of law is applied and that Barker-Vormawor be granted access to a fair trial. The University is closely monitoring developments.”

#SpeakupforGhana

On its website, #FixTheCountry sets out its goals. “We are demanding a new society founded on justice. We are refusing to play by the rules of a political class that is so disinterested in the Ghana project.”

The movement began in May 2021 with a protest on 7 May, immediately classed by the government as “starting a coup”.

According to Opoku at the CDD, Barker-Vormawor’s arrest is a modern case study of the country’s attitudes to social freedoms. He said, “[Oliver’s] case comes to mind in assessing whether or not civil liberties like the freedom of association and freedom of assembly are actualised. This is a group that has over the last few months been speaking up against government social policies, systemic corruption and economic mismanagement.”

“When they self noticed a demonstration, by Ghanaian Law you don’t need the permission of the police to go on a demonstration, what you need to do is to notify the police that you want to go on a demonstration and then they can have a meeting with you and decide on the route that you seek to take in your protest, etc.”

Regardless of the potential backlash, on 4 August 2021, some 15,000 people gathered to demand greater freedom.

“It’s significant to get that number of people on the street, even in the context that the state has made it clear that it was prepared to use violence,” said Barker-Vormawor. “That was a strong indication of support.”

The movement uses online platforms and works in local communities to encourage young people to campaign for their rights. #FixTheCountry offers information to Ghanaians on freedom of speech, how to access legal support and to challenge police rulings.

It offers advice such as, “Don’t say anything or make any decisions without a lawyer: If the police have arrested you, you have the right to make a local phone call. The police cannot listen if you call a lawyer. They can and often do listen if you call anyone else.”

The #FixTheCountry movement prides itself on being independent and non-partisan. It is funded by donations, mostly via mobile money and cryptocurrency, and a gofundme page, which has raised 3,135 Ghan cedis ($416).

Barker-Vormawor describes the challenges of mobilising communities whose “…primary interest is always about credit, lack of jobs, and [economic] opportunity.”

He recounted the death last June Ibrahim “Kaaka” Mohammed, a member of #FixTheCountry. Mohammed was beaten to death in an attack that has been linked to his anti-government sentiments online.

Later that month, two protesters, Nasiru Yussif and Murtala Mohammed, were shot dead when protesting in Ejura against the young man’s death. Soldiers fired into a crowd of protesters, which led to a three-member Ministerial Committee leading an investigation into the case.

Surveillance state

Activists are also focusing on the government’s push for the Ghana card, a national identity card that links national ID, SIM cards and health insurance data.

“Another thing is the handling of the data itself, which poses a lot of grief for us in a very corrupt state,” says Barker-Vormawor.  “We suspect phone lines have been bugged by persons close to the state.”

“One of our activists detailed a [past] incident where they were working for Vodafone,” he adds.  “They were able to bribe the electoral commission to access millions of people’s data, to get fraudulently issued phone cards to get females from the company.”

In 2020, the Imposition of Restrictions Act (Act 1012) gave the government and the president the power to restrict rights, including demonstrations.

It allows the authorities “to restrict the freedom of entry into Ghana, or movement in Ghana, of a person who is not a citizen of Ghana; or for the purpose of safeguarding the people of Ghana against the teaching or propagation of a doctrine which exhibits or encourages disrespect for the nationhood of Ghana, the national symbols and emblems, or incites hatred against other members of the community.”

Since his release, Barker-Vormawor’s lawyers have discovered that the Attorney-General has filed an exparte motion for Disclosure of Electronic Information Pursuant to Sec 69 of the Cybersecurity Act, 2020 (Act 1038) and Section 102(2) of the Electronic Transactions Act, 2008 (Act 772).

Such exparte motions are typically used in criminal cases that affect vulnerable members of society or threaten national security.

He believes that the motion is being used to monitor his emails, gain access to his devices, and get the telecom companies to disclose his private information.

Barker-Vormawor’s court dates remain constantly delayed, a move which he believes is intended to interfere with his doctoral programme at Cambridge University. He said, “My lawyers anticipate this whole thing could go on for at least three years; unless the Attorney-General decides to drop the case.”

#FixTheCountry is currently challenging the constitutionality of the Restrictions Act at the Supreme Court.

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