By Alemayehu G. Mariam
The Triumph of Multiparty Democracy in Ghana
Ghana has become the poster country for the triumph of multiparty democracy, stability and economic growth in Africa; and sadly, Ethiopia has been rendered the iconic failed African state ruled by a one-man, one-party dictatorship with widespread human rights violation. President Obama traveled to Accra recently to pay homage to Ghanaian democracy; but he did not miss the opportunity to be brutally frank with Africa’s brutal dictators: “History is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
It is an obvious question, but one that must be asked and answered: Why is democracy in motion in Ghana, and on life-support in Ethiopia? More bluntly, what do Ghanaians got, we ain’t got?
Two African Countries in Parallel Universes
Ethiopia and Ghana are a study in contrast. Both are unique among African countries. With the exception of a short-lived Italian occupation between 1936-41, Ethiopia has always maintained its freedom from colonial rule. Ghana was the first sub-Sahara African country to gain its independence from colonial rule in 1957. Both countries had leaders who were dedicated to African unity. Kwame Nkrumah was arguably the greatest advocate of pan-Africanism and African unity. Emperor Haile Selassie was arguably the most central figure in the formation of the Organization of African Unity, which he managed to headquarter in Ethiopia. Both Ethiopia and Ghana have suffered greatly at the hands of military strongmen. Mengistu Haile Mariam’s disastrous experiment in socialism between 1975-91 plunged Ethiopia into the abyss of economic and political chaos; and massive human rights violations were the hallmarks of that dictatorship. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 paving the way for the current dictators to cakewalk straight into political power. Since 1991, the current dictators have ruled Ethiopia by ethnically dividing the people and imposing their will with appalling brutality.
Between 1966-81, Ghana had successive military coups. Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings came to power in 1981 (and remained in power for two decades), suspended the constitution and banned political parties. In 1992, he engineered the promulgation of a new Ghanaian Constitution which restored basic freedoms and multiparty politics to Ghana. He served two terms as president and voluntarily stepped down as required by the Constitution.
In December 2008, 8.2 million Ghanaians went to the polls to elect a president and members of parliament. The four major political parties contested the elections vigorously through massive grassroots efforts and voter registration campaigns. The candidate of the National Democratic Congress, Professor John Atta-Mills, defeated the outgoing President John Kufuor by a razor thin margin in a run-off election. President Kufuor not only conceded defeat gracefully, he also cordially congratulated the president-elect. Ghanaian voters also threw out of office well-known incumbent parliamentarians from the four major parties who had taken them for granted. In the end, all of the opposition parties accepted the results of the election as determined by Ghana’s Electoral Commission, legitimizing once again the principle that the only pathway to legitimate power in Ghana is free and fair elections.
In May 2005, for the very first time in millennia, the seeds of democracy germinated in Ethiopia’s arid political landscape pockmarked by royal absolutism, military socialism and pluto-kleptocratic dictatorship (rule by rich thieves). But those elections gave birth to a stillborn democracy. The ruling dictatorship declared victory before the votes were fully counted and declared a state of emergency. In the wake of the elections, the dictatorship made a killing field of the country. By official account, 193 men, women and children were massacred, and 763 severely wounded in two separate incidents of police violence. (The actual post-election casualties far exceed the numbers officially reported.) Nearly all of the leading opposition leaders and other civil society representatives and journalists were jailed, along with more than 30,000 ordinary citizens. In the 2008 local elections, opposition candidates won just 3 (three) of 3.6 million seats! Make-believe parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in May 2010.
Ethnicity and tribal allegiances are potent forces in Ghana and Ethiopia. Both countries are multi-ethnic societies with ethnic inequalities and historical rivalries. Ethnic tensions in Ghana are occasionally heightened by social and economic inequality. Although some Ghanaian politicians have resorted to ethnic appeals to garner votes, there have been very few instances of ethnic violence triggered by political party rivalries. Amazingly, the Ghanaian Constitution prohibits tribal or ethnic-based political parties: “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” (Article 55 (4).)
In Ethiopia, ethnicity and tribal affiliation are the foundation and the lifeline of the of the current dictatorial regime. Article 46 (2) of the ruling dictatorship’s constitution provides: “States shall be structured on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people.” In other words, “states” shall be structured as homogenous tribal homelands based on four criteria, in much the same way as the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. The tribal homelands in Ethiopia are officially called “kilils”. We believe they could be more accurately described as “Killilistans” since the “kilils”, like the Bantustans, represent territory set aside for the purpose of concentrating the members of designated ethnic/tribal groups in a nominally autonomous geographic area. Ethiopia’s dictators have used a completely fictitious theory of “ethnic (tribal) federalism)”, unknown in the annals of political science or political theory, to glorify these “Kililistans”, and to impose their atrocious policy of divide and rule against 80 million people for nearly two decades.
Ghana has maintained friendly relations with its neighbors, and has followed a foreign policy that has contributed to regional cooperation, peacekeeping and tension reduction. As an active member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Ghana has been able to substantially increase its exports and serve regional markets. Ghana has also contributed troops for peacekeeping missions in Liberia and other African countries. President Rawlings played a critical peace-making role when he arranged the signing of the Akosombo Accord of September 12, 1994, which accelerated the implementation of the Cotonou Agreement of July 1, 1993, effectively ending the civil war in Liberia.
Ethiopia’s dictators have poured fuel on the volatile politics of the Horn by invading Somalia in January 2007, a country which has suffered greatly under the scourge of “warlordism” since the early 1990s. They justified their invasion as an “invitation” by the Somali transitional government, and as a defense of Ethiopian sovereignty. They boasted that they will be out in a couple of months after they drive out the “terrorists”. Two years later, they were the ones who were chased out of Somalia with their tails between their legs leaving behind a colossal mess of death and destruction. In its 2008 report entitled “So Much to Fear: War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia”, Human Rights Watch documented war crimes, civilian deaths and the destruction wreaked on Somalia as a result of invasion: “Since January 2007 at least 870,000 civilians have fled the chaos in Mogadishu alone— two-thirds of the city’s population. Across south-central Somalia, 1.1 million Somalis are displaced from their homes.” Recently, there has been growing tension with Kenya over the issue of adverse environmental impact on the ecosystem of Kenya’s Lake Turkana from a hydro-electric power plant under construction on the Omo River in Ethiopia. The dictatorship’s military adventurism has been principally responsible for escalating tensions in the region.
The “Magic” of Ghana’s Nascent Democracy?
Is there “magic” to Ghanaian multiparty democracy? No! Whatever success Ghana has achieved in institutionalizing democracy, the Ghanaian people and their leaders have earned by offering their blood, toil sweat and tears. President Obama offered the best explanation when he attributed Ghana’s democratic success to respect for and institutionalization of the rule of law:
Now, time and again, Ghanaians have chosen constitutional rule over autocracy and shown a democratic spirit that allows the energy of your people to break through. We see that in leaders who accept defeat graciously — the fact that President Mills’ opponents were standing beside him last night to greet me when I came off the plane spoke volumes about Ghana; victors who resist calls to wield power against the opposition in unfair ways. We see that spirit in courageous journalists like Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who risked his life to report the truth. We see it in police like Patience Quaye, who helped prosecute the first human trafficker in Ghana. We see it in the young people who are speaking up against patronage and participating in the political process.
Although Ghana’s democracy is still in its infancy, the evidence on critical measures of democracy demonstrates that Ghana has a great and promising future.
Respect for Rule of Law and Civil Liberties
There is little doubt that Ghanaians enjoy a relatively high degree of political freedom; and the rule of law is largely respected by Ghanaian leaders. The 1992 Ghanaian Constitution guarantees a panoply of political civil, economic, social and cultural rights to citizens. Press freedom in Ghana best illustrates the liberties enjoyed by Ghanaians. In 2008, Ghana (population 23 million) ranked 31 out of 173 countries worldwide on World Press Freedom Index (Ethiopia ranks 142/173). There are more than 133 private newspapers and 2 state-owned dailies. There are some 110 FM radio stations broadcasting in all parts of the country. Foreign media operate freely and internet access is uncensored by the government. Citizens express their opinions without fear of government retaliation, and the media vociferously criticizes government policies and officials without censorship.
The rule of law is largely observed in Ghana. The government follows and respects the Constitution. It abides by the rulings and decisions of the courts and other fact-finding inquiry commissions. The government has undertaken actions to conform its laws to the standards of international human rights conventions. The Ghanaian Supreme Court serves as the ultimate guardian of the rule of law. It maintains its institutional independence, and is not timid about overruling unconstitutional government policies and decisions. Amazingly, under Article 2 (4) of the Ghanaian Constitution, failure to obey or carry out the terms of a Supreme Court order is a “a high crime”, which in “the case of the President or the Vice-President, constitutes a ground for removal from office under this Constitution.” Under Article 2 (1), “a person” can seek declaratory relief against an alleged unconstitutional law or act of any person by petitioning the Supreme Court. Amazingly, under Article 64, any Ghanaian citizen has the right to “challenge the validity of the election of the President in the Supreme Court within twenty-one days after the declaration of the result of the election.”
An independent judiciary is vital to the observance of the rule of law and protection of civil liberties. Article 125 provides that the Ghanaian “Judiciary shall be independent and subject only to the Constitution.” Article 127(2) further provides that “neither the President nor the Parliament nor any person whatsoever shall interfere with judges and judicial officers or other persons exercising judicial power, in the exercise of their judicial functions”. All state organs are constitutionally required to comply with judicial orders. Most importantly, the Supreme Court has judicial review powers (that is, the power to determine the constitutionality of the actions of the presidency and parliament). Various surveys have shown that the majority of Ghanaians have confidence in their judicial system even though they also believe that some underpaid and under-trained judges are likely to fall prey to bribery and other corrupt practices.
Competitive Political Parties
Ghana has a competitive multi-party political system. Article 55 of the Constitution guarantees “Every citizen of Ghana of voting age has the right to join a political party.” Political parties are free to organize and “disseminate information on political ideas, social and economic programmes of a national character.” Tribal and ethnic parties are illegal in Ghana under Article 55 (4) cited above. There are some eight registered political parties. The two dominant parties, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) are said to represent an estimated 80 per cent of the Ghanaian voters. There are few ideological differences among the parties. In the highly contested December 2008 elections, a run off was ordered by the Ghana Electoral Commission since neither of the two majority party candidates won more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Independent Electoral Commission
The Ghanaian Electoral Commission is the institution created in the Constitution to ensure Ghanaians’ right to self-government and clean elections. The Commission is responsible for voter registration, demarcation of electoral boundaries, conduct and oversight of all public elections and referenda and electoral education. Under Article 46, the Commission is guaranteed independence: With certain exceptions, “the Electoral Commission shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority…” The presidential run-off election in 2008 was managed by the Electoral Commission with extraordinary impartiality and professionalism, despite political pressure, threats and intimidations. The Commission is widely credited in Ghana and internationally for sustaining democracy, political pluralism and constitutional rule.
Civil Society Institutions
Civil society institutions in Ghana are gradually emerging as vital social forces. They are mostly concentrated in the urban areas. The major ones include unions, international NGOs, professional media, legal, educational and research organizations and faith-based service groups and associations. Civil society institutions are becoming increasingly important in legal and legislative reforms and in playing vigorous advocacy roles for under-represented groups. Many of these institutions have made significant contributions by working with the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice in securing civil rights for disabled persons, prevention of domestic violence, and strengthening the rights of women and children. Private research organizations (think tanks) in Ghana have done some extraordinary work, and their contributions to public policy analysis, empirical data collection and innovative policy proposals should be the envy of other African countries.
Transparency and Accountability
Corruption is a problem in Ghana, but less so than in many other African countries. Ghana was ranked 67 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. Ethiopia ranked 126/180. Corruption in Ghana is considered “opportunistic” instead of systemic (that is, where major institutions and processes of the state are routinely and extensively used by corrupt officials and others connected to them for their own advantage). Various surveys have shown that underpaid and under-trained judges were likely to succumb to bribery and other forms of corruption. Small time corruption is said to be rampant among the police and customs officials. The independent constitutional Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, mentioned above, was established to “to investigate complaints of violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms, injustice and corruption; abuse of power and unfair treatment of persons by public officers in the exercise of their duties, with power to seek remedy in respect of such acts or omissions and to provide for other related purposes” and “bring an action before any court in Ghana and may seek any remedy which may be available from that court”. Even though there is a difference of opinion on the efficacy of the Commission, there is evidence to show that it has made gains in anti-corruption efforts over the past decade. In 2005-06, the Commission undertook corruption and conflict of interest investigation against incumbent President John Kufuor and other top public officials, resulting in the resignation of certain ministers. But there are also encouraging examples of public integrity and personal sacrifices for the common good. For instance, the current President, John Mills, has refused compensation for his official services, directing that his salary and allowances be used for charity.
Threats to Ghanaian Democracy
Ghana’s multiparty democracy is still in its infancy and faces many threats. Some argue that the recently discovered “resource curse” of oil could derail democracy in Ghana as it has in other oil-rich West African countries. Inability of the government to improve the economic status of the rural and urban poor and provide better health care services to citizens could pose serious challenges. Lack of effective local governments in the rural areas could result in widespread dissatisfaction and instability. Failure to remedy the gross under-representation of women in leadership positions could retard Ghana’s democratic progress. Lack of investments in the educational sector could undermine Ghana’s long-term economic growth. The resurgence of ethnic politics aggravated by socio-economic problems could pose a grave threat to Ghana’s infant democracy. Numerous other challenges loom in the horizon, but Ghanaians appear prepared to meet them, and never to return to the days of tyrannical military strongmen.
The “X-Factor” in Ghanaian Democracy
Ghanaians have shown Africa’s tin pot dictators that multiparty democracy is not some fanciful Western ritual that is unworkable in the continent. They have shown that a non-ethnic, non-tribal multiparty democracy is the only viable option that could guarantee stability, equity and economic development in Africa. That is the secret, the “X” factor, in Ghana’s success. By constitutionally requiring that political parties NOT be ethnic- or tribal-based, Ghanaians laid a solid foundation for a single Ghanaian nation under the rule of law. They succeeded in creating a multiparty democracy that has the capacity to overcome the petty politics of ethnicity and tribalism. Amazingly, along the way they managed to create a political culture that integrates their humanity into a framework of national unity to forge a single Ghanaian identity.
Ghanaians have come to understand that they can do no nation-building by erecting impregnable walls of tribalism and ethnicity among themselves. They have also learned that democracy can not grow on the barren fields of tyranny where human rights are trampled upon and flagrantly disregarded. Even Ghana’s military leaders appreciated this fact when they bowed to the rule of law and returned to the barracks. Ghana today has become a beacon of hope to Africa. Ethiopia, as a collection of “Killilistans”, is a sad reminder of the darkest chapters of African history. We can all be very proud (and perhaps a bit jealous) of our Ghanaian brothers and sisters as they march united and confidently into the 21st Century secure in the knowledge that their rights are protected by the rule of law and their collective destiny rests sheltered in the palms of their hands.
Now, that’s what the amazing Ghanaians got, we ain’t got!
(The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)