Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, Ghana received high praise for its containment measures but as lockdowns were lifted prematurely, that image has slipped away and cases have risen. As the country prepares for a general election in December, its democracy appears to be at risk of a similar backslide.
Ghana has been governed by President Nana Akufo-Addo and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) since the last elections held in 2016. Though US President Barack Obama once said Ghana was a “model for democracy” in Africa, the current government now appears to be reversing this trend through repressive policies and corrupt practices.
Ahead of the general election in December, Akufo-Addo’s government is forcing all citizens to re-register to vote, despite the pandemic still restricting movement for many citizens. The government announced the new voter registration requirement without any public consultation or due process.
The measure was pushed through despite significant controversy in Parliament and has come under fire from many, including the Ghana Medical Association, which said the re-registration process may expose citizens to COVID-19 and will violate coronavirus prevention protocols.
According to Akufo-Addo, the re-registration is intended to prevent voter fraud – however, no proof of fraudulent voting has been shown. Opposition groups, on the other hand, say the re-registration process is entirely unnecessary and has the effect of eliminating a crucial number of opposition voters from the electoral process.
These types of authoritative measures, rarely seen in Ghana, signal a shift in the country’s governance from a democratic process to something that more resembles authoritarianism. The ruling party has even begun condoning violence and political intimidation.
In July, Member of Parliament Mavis Hawa Koomson came to a voter registration centre in Kasoa with a group of staff and fired a weapon in the air, terrorising and threatening citizens. Koomson, who is also the minister for special development initiatives, reportedly came to the registration centre because she heard the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) party was bussing in voters to help them register.
Koomson has held office since 2012 and, as a member of the NPP, likely considers the move to register NDC supporters to be a threat to her re-election. Koomson later said she fired the shots because she felt her and her staff were unsafe.
There has also been an increased military presence, supported by the ruling party, to “maintain order” at registration centres, especially in the Volta region. The military says their deployment is intended to prevent citizens from neighbouring Togo from registering to vote. However, the opposition party NDC and others in Parliament have said the soldiers are intended to keep the ethnic Volta and Togolese Ghanain minority in the region from participating in the election.
“The voters registration process is governed by law and if you have cause to question any person of his citizenship, do so rightfully in accordance with the law, not with the intimidation of a gun or a weapon,” said Parliament minority leader Haruna Iddrisu.
The chief of the ethnic Aflao Traditional Area in Volta has also called on military troops to stop the “brutalising of innocent civilians” after several incidents involving soldiers around the Aflao area.
Alongside these tactics, the Akufo-Addo government has also moved to stem public criticism of its policies during Covid-19 and the run-up to the December election.
In May, police raided the offices of Radio XYZ, a station affiliated with the NDC opposition. The National Communications Authority then shut down both Radio XYZ and another outlet affiliated with the NDC, Radio Gold, claiming they had breached regulations. This move against media outlets ahead of the election only highlights what is the beginning of a corrupt abuse of power on the part of the ruling authorities.
Broader cases of corruption have also been brought into the spotlight recently, showcasing the government’s deep-rooted efforts to keep officials in power despite evidence against them.
In late June, Akufo-Addo and the ruling party ordered Auditor-General Daniel Domelevo, a renowned advocate against public corruption, to take all 123 days of his “allotted leave”. The order is largely seen as a response to Domelevo’s role in charging Senior Finance Minister Yaw Osafo Marfo and four other officials for corruption.
In late 2019, the auditor-general found evidence that the Finance Ministry officials were involved in an unusual payment of US$1 million to British consultancy firm Kroll & Associates — it’s unclear whether the firm delivered any services in exchange for the payment. The move to censure Domelevo drew condemnation from over 500 civil society organisations.
Domelevo also uncovered that some members of Parliament and other high-ranking officials in positions of privilege have received scholarships from the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund), a charity intended to support disadvantaged Ghanaians.
This type of corruption hampers efforts to preserve Ghana’s reputation as a democratic haven in Africa and could throw the country into disarray as it struggles with the impacts of Covid-19 and heads to the polls this December. What was once a shining example of a liberal democracy in a region rife with conflict may be on the precipice of sliding into violence itself.
It is incumbent on the international media to start paying attention to the erosion of democracy in one of Africa’s strongest success stories. Journalists and analysts have a responsibility to highlight how corruption, violence, and new authoritarian measures are damaging Ghana’s democratic values.
* Tareq Hassan is a Manchester-based political analyst and researcher specialising in Middle East and African affairs.