It is becoming increasingly clear that without a coordinated and concerted effort by civil society, Ghana will slip completely into tyrannical rule. The signs are clear; you do not need a soothsayer to know this. What is sad is that on a daily basis we sing the national anthem in which we pledge to resist oppressors’ rule and yet oppression has become entrenched in the body polity and will get worse if the citizenry remains mute.
Ghana has been described as a peaceful country in a region (West Africa) that has been plagued by many conflicts in the past three decades or so. But this peace has not been obtained because the people are docile and cowards. This peace has been achieved through the foresight and vision of our forefathers and especially the first president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah of blessed memory. Through his educational and development policies, Dr Nkrumah sought to open up the whole country to bring the people together. It is this togetherness that is now being exploited as weakness.
The peace Ghana is said to be enjoying now is only on the surface, masking deep-seated tensions that have the potential to explode. These tensions are largely political; created by a mindset in recent years which insists that only a segment of the population has the right to rule. And so, all efforts are being made to disenfranchise voters in order to minimise the chances of the opposition winning the 2020 elections.
Democracy under threat
Democratic governance is expected to ensure that fundamental liberties as are enshrined in national constitutions are respected. Defined as ‘government by discussion’ democracy as a system of governance allows for the respect of dissenting views in formulating and implementing public policies. It would appear however that a narrow view of democracy prevails today focusing on ballots and elections and not the broader sense of the concept as put forth by Rawls and Habermas and several other writers. These authors and all advocates of democracy caution on the shortcomings of narrowly conceiving the idea of democracy as public balloting. The effectiveness of ballots themselves depends on what goes with balloting such as free speech, access to information, and freedom of dissent. Freedom of dissent is becoming a rare commodity in Ghana today.
Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 outlined two major threats to democracy that have negative implications for upholding democracy as a whole and these are playing out in Ghana today. These are: 1) the selfish interests of individuals especially of the power holders who use their positions of state authority to amass wealth for themselves and their cronies, and 2) the tendency to use majoritarian positions to sideline and marginalise other groups. Because of the social contract between the citizens and the state as espoused by Rousseau, laws of the state are supposed to be universal, applicable to all citizens. But when majority groups use that position to pass laws without any input from the minority groups, such laws are no longer universal. When minority groups obey these laws, they are no longer free citizens in that country but slaves. When we use the majority in parliament to pass laws that deny the vote to many citizens, this is no longer democracy but tyranny.
The rise of tyranny
An offshoot of majoritarian rule under democratic regimes is the tendency of some rulers to assume dictatorial postures. We should be reminded of the fact that dictators such as Hitler of Germany (1933 – 1945) and Mussolini of Italy (1922 – 1943) came into power through democratic elections. These leaders changed world history in a rather brutal way through the terror they unleashed and the millions of lives lost during the second world war (1940 – 1945). Dictatorship is defined as a system of government controlled by an individual or a group/committee who hold absolute power. Dictators throughout history have used force or the threat of it to stay in power. In modern times, they forbid elections or manipulate the electoral systems to stay in power.
A survey of the terrain shows that there are currently (2020) 50 absolute dictators in the world. Of this number, 19 are in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), 12 are in the Middle East and North Africa, 8 in the Asia Pacific region, 7 in Eurasia, 3 in the Americas and 1 in Europe (planetrulers.com). The rise of modern dictatorship is a direct result of the failings of democracy. In many developing countries, democracy has yet to deliver on the promise of accountability as well as freedom and equality, which are the fundamental principles upon which democracy claims superiority over other forms of government. Greed, marginalisation, nepotism and corruption are making it impossible for governments to apply state resources efficiently to grow the economies and to create the wealth and jobs for the growing populations. Civil strife and even wars thrive in such contexts.
Plato warned humanity on how democracies can degenerate into tyranny in The Republic (380BC). According to the philosopher, the key driving feature of democracy is the desire for freedom and so emerges a plurality of interests. Plato predicted that the only way anything could be achieved under it is to have a strong leader that can unite the various interests (see Goldhill, 2018). Such strong leaders ultimately become tyrants.
Modern day dictators (tyrants and demagogues) derive their power from the people through democratic elections. Once they are in power, though, they start a systematic process of dismantling and crippling the checks and balances that make democracies work. Dorfman (2020) and Walt (2020) detail some characteristics of modern-day dictatorships. Dorfman for instance puts Victor Orban of Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil in this category while both Dorfman and Walt agree that President Donald Trump of the USA exhibits similar tendencies. There are many democratically elected leaders around the world today that can be similarly described. I am inclined to include Ghana in that category.
Characteristics of ‘democratically elected dictators’: Examples from Ghana
The characteristics of modern-day tyrants as derived from a review of the literature are presented next and discussed within the context of Ghana.
1. A major threat to democracy is suppression of academic freedom. When universities can no longer represent the concerns and document the daily struggles of citizens, public policy making is denied the ingredients essential for responsive governance. In Ghana, despite universal rejection, a public universities bill will be passed by the majority parliament that seeks to deny academic freedom and to put the administration of the universities under political control. The academy has become politicised with key members of lecturer’ unions being appointed by the government to positions for which advertisements and merit recruitment should have been followed. Vice Chancellor appointments to UEW, UDS Wa, UDS, Navrongo and the university in Somanya as well as the Deputy Rector of the Journalism school in Accra are key examples.
2. Systematic efforts to intimidate the media through closing down media houses, arbitrary arrests of opposition journalists and at the same time building an official pro-government media network. The examples in Gnana are just too brazen. Radio stations aligned to the NDC are being closed down on a daily basis at the same time that the mainstream media has become focused on criticizing the opposition rather than performing the time-tested role of journalists – to be the voice for the voiceless.
3. Politicising the civil service and the security agencies including appointments of cronies to top positions and the demotion and or dismissal of those not deemed to be in the camp of the president. Recruitment to the security agencies in Ghana is so much politicised that only NPP members have the chance of being selected. Even when educational institutions were closed due to the COVID-19 issue, police training schools remained open to receive and train new recruits to be deployed during the forthcoming elections.
4. Using government surveillance against opposition political agents and abuse of human rights. Government agents make provocative commentaries that have in at least one instance led to the murder of a journalist: yet no action is taken by the security agencies. At the same time opposition political operatives are hauled before the CID and the courts for all manner of innocuous comments. Koku Anyindoho (then Deputy General Secretary of the NDC), the current Chairman of the NDC and the National Communications Coordinator as well as the Chairman of the PNC were invited by the CID or are facing charges in court for all kinds of laughable charges. These are typical examples of arbitrary use of state power to intimidate the opposition. The AWW bye election debacle in which many opposition members were maimed remains fresh in our minds. The rule of law pertains to only those in the President’s camp and so reports on wrong doing and corruption are promptly shelved and nobody gets ever to be punished.
5. Using state-power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents. The deliberate collapse of many banks is a typical example. The destruction of the press house belonging to a perceived political opponent is another example. State contracts are now given freely, sometimes flouting the PPA, with impunity to political friends of the President. That the government itself is filled by the family and friends of the President is common knowledge.
6. Stacking the supreme court with people known to support the President’s views and generally rewarding, through promotions, judges that support and deliver judgements that favour the President. This president alone in three and one-half years appointed 10 judges to the supreme court. If this stacking continues, another term for this president would see the supreme court needing an auditorium sized sitting space to be able to hold full court meetings.
7. High level corruption to enrich themselves and their families. The scandals associated with this government are unprecedented in the history of Ghana.
8. Attempting to rig elections through voter suppression. The EC and the NIA are in cahoots with the NPP to flout the Constitution by insisting on the use of passports and the NIA card to compile a new voters register knowing very well that the majority of the voter population in the opposition strongholds were deliberately denied the NIA cards. A supreme court stacked by the President will likely clear this and I can foresee chaos during the exercise, which will most likely lead to a rethink of this deliberate attempt to disenfranchise voters.
9. Demonising the opposition at every opportunity and lying blatantly about their own achievements. This government at every opportunity even at unrelated events will demonize the opposition, on how a bad economy was handed over to it in 2017, and on the incompetence of the previous government. Yet, the government lies blatantly about its own achievement. Having failed to deliver on the many promises that got them elected, the only route to a semblance of relevance is to lie and to keep lying. The lies on the economy are too many despite the dwindling foreign exchange reserves, the fast depreciation of the cedi, and the concomitant high taxes to keep pace with the corrupt spending. Many investors (ordinary citizens and pensioners) who have found their funds no longer available due to the deliberate closure of banks, investment companies and savings institutions have died or are debilitated by all kinds of illnesses. Yet, the government behaves as if the opposition is to blame.
Democracy is under threat in Ghana. It is sad though to note that civil society has become so cowed that the voices of reason have become very lonely. The Peace Council, the religious organisations, NGOs, think tanks, academia etc. have become silent observers: some are benefiting from the bounty and so care less about the rest of society. Feber (2008, p.2) observed that the manner in which we are oppressed and privileged affects our life chances while Johnson (2006) noted that the dynamics of privilege often are invisible to those who benefit from them. We are at the cross roads: going forward with the system will further entrench tyranny. The only way left is to resist oppression and this is the reason for putting together this write up. We need all to know the signs of tyranny and to be aware of them.
Rousseau developed the idea of the ‘social contract.’ He explained the need for people to live within a society thanks to the social contract between them and the state. By joining the social contract, individuals accept to alienate their natural liberty to embrace the conventional liberty. Therefore, thanks to the social contract, individuals have a new kind of liberty: civil liberty and the state becomes the guarantor of three main rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The state of Ghana as is currently governed by the NPP is in no position to guarantee these fundamental rights to all citizens, I submit. We need another direction which is to step up our mobilization to resist all attempts at voter suppression and dictatorship. This country needs to be refocused to take care of the marginalized, the vulnerable, women and children, not the few who are politically connected.
Written: Prof Stephen B Kendie, Chairman – Progressive Intellectuals