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Ghana Survives a Fractious Election But Will the Centre Hold for West Africa’s Model Democracy?

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Ghana’s fourth Republic plods on, jerkily, but the nation that first ushered Africa into independence and democratic rule came to some recent reckoning as the world’s attention was fixed on the country ahead of its 2020 general elections. The challenge, going into the elections, was a simple one: Will this beacon of hope in the sub-region be able to consolidate its democratic gains and continue to inspire a continent characterised by political instability? 

Not only has it done that, it has left for generations to come many historical moments – and events – hopefully, to learn from and to further strengthen its democracy.

A Historical Election

The December 2020 general election was historic on many fronts: it was the first to have been conducted in the country during a pandemic – Covid-19; the first to feature a sitting president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, and a former president, John Dramani Mahama, from the two major political parties – the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP); and the first since 1993 to feature a female running mate from one of the major political parties.. 

Legitimising disenfranchisement

Significantly, for the first time in its fourth republic history, a group of people were disenfranchised. Electorates in the yet-to-be created Guan District Assembly which constituted by the Santrokofi, Akpafu and Lolobi (SALL) areas in the Oti Region, were, in accordance with an Electoral Commission (EC) press statement, deprived of their right to elect a Member of Parliament. They were served notice of this on the eve of elections – December 6.

“As a result of the creation of the Guan District Local Government (Guan District Assembly) Instrument, 2020 and pending the creation of the Guan Constituency, eligible voters in the Guan District will vote only in the Presidential Election but not in the Parliamentary Election in the Buem Constituency,” the EC statement read.

As it turns out, the ‘firsts’ will not only be limited to the pre-elections period but events after as well. The Chairperson of the Electoral Commission (EC), Jean Mensa, announced the elections’ verdict on December 9, 2020 (after being unable to deliver on the promise of declaring results within 24 hours) without results from one constituency – Techiman South. According to Mensa, results from the constituency would have no effect on what had been received and collated from 274 of the 275 constituencies.

Clumsy Counts from the Election Management Body

The results as declared by Mensa were subsequently amended by the commission at least three times – another first.

The presidential election outcome as declared and amended by the commission has since been challenged by the NDC candidate, John Dramani Mahama, with a petition filed at Ghana’s Supreme Court. This is not the first time a candidate is seeking redress in the apex court after an election. Precedence was set after the 2012 presidential candidate of the New Patriotic Party, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, prayed the Supreme Court to overturn election results which declared NDC’s candidate, John Dramani Mahama, winner. The petition was dismissed after eight months of legal tussle.

A Hung Parliament

Again for the first time, none of the political parties which contested the elections won a clear majority in Parliament. According to the EC, out of 275 constituencies, the NPP and the NDC won 137 seats apiece and an independent candidate, Andrew Amoako Asiamah, a seat. Asiamah, was the Member of Parliament for Fomena Constituency in the Ashanti Region on the NPP ticket. He was expelled from the party a few weeks after the elections over disagreements with constituency executives and his seat subsequently declared vacant by the Speaker of the Seventh Parliament, Prof Mike Aaron Ocquaye. 

Asiamah has indicated his decision to align with the NPP side of Parliament.

The number – 137 apiece for the two sides – remains the same in spite of judicial contestations by both the NDC and the NPP to overturn parliamentary results in some constituencies. As such, a hung Parliament is what is currently in place.

Soldiers in parliament

The drama around the election extended to Parliament House on January 6 and 7 when Members of Parliament convened to elect a Speaker and subsequently to be sworn-in as elected representatives. The ceremony which was expected to last two hours from midnight of January 6, ended after 10 a.m January 7. 

The contest between former speaker of Parliament, Prof Mike Aaron Ocquaye, nominated by the NPP caucus, and former first deputy speaker of the seventh Parliament, Alban Sumana Bagbin, nominated by the NDC side, supposed to be by secret balloting as stipulated by the constitution 104 (4) of the 1992 Constitution and Standing Order 9 (1) of Parliament, was interrupted about three times after the NDC caucus insisted  MP-elects from the NPP side must not display their ballot papers to their party leadership. Altercations, including the exchange of abusive words, kicking of ballot booths ensued during proceedings.

A major highlight of the night was what many call the ‘invasion’ by armed military officials into the house to ostensibly settle the confusion. Their presence attracted commotion from the NDC side who sang the national anthem and revolution songs in their bid to stand up to what they term ‘oppressor’s rule’.

However, the crowning moment of what many Ghanaians have called disgraceful conduct from the ‘honourables’ or Parliament, was the snatching of yet- to be counted ballot papers by an MP-elect, Carlos Ahenkorah. He was subjected to beatings – meant to force out the papers he had attempted to chew, according to a member of the NDC, – after his plot was foiled. 

Ahenkorah was a Deputy Minister for Trade and Industry but was forced to resign in 2020 when he visited election registration centres in spite of testing positive for Covid-19. His apology explaining his action, has not gone down well with many.

The riotous and acrimonious proceedings notwithstanding, Alban Suman Bagbin was elected Speaker of the eighth Parliament.

What Do these events Mean for Ghana’s Democracy?

Ghana’s institutions and democracy are not perfect. Indeed, there is no perfect democracy or  anywhere in the world – As events of last week from the United States of America where supporters of President Donald Trump stormed Capitol Hill have shown, no democracy or country is immune from unexpected tussles. Therefore, although some of the events preceding the 2020 elections and afterwards should be a concern for Ghanaians, they present us with opportunities to fix our institutions and work on our democracy. But are our leaders willing to deny themselves of the benefit of the status quo for an equal and democratic society where institutions work for the common good?

The outcome of the elections, especially massive loss of the governing party, NPP, from holding a majority in Parliament with a total of 167 seats in 2016 to the current 137, in spite of the much-touted free Senior High School, is an indication of the growing sophistication of electorates. It is a wake-up call for politicians that the Ghanaian electorate is discerning and cannot be bought off with occasional ‘goodies’, propaganda and populist policies. With this massive blow, politicians will be disabused of the perception that electorates will accept whatever is thrown at them.

With the nature of the current Parliament, the success or otherwise of governance and government business will hinge on consensus building and collaboration between the two caucuses and government. Considering the history of ‘the minority can have its say but the majority will have its way’ in previous Parliaments, how will the current Legislature work? Can the Executive, which has been accused of disregarding input from civil society, citizens and opposition political parties, work effectively with the hung parliament presided over by a speaker from the opposition party? 

Again, for a Legislature which has since the inception of the fourth republic been considered a ‘rubber stamp’ doing the bidding of the Executive, often because the President has always come from the majority in Parliament, a hung parliament with a speaker from the opposition is expected to be much more critical of the government and ensure against executive excesses. 

Ghanaians, and indeed the world, wait to see how this will pan out.

Caroline Anipah is the Programme Officer of DUBAWA, Ghana. She holds an MPhil in Communication Studies and an undergraduate degree in English and Political Science from the University of Ghana. She is a trained journalist and has engaged in various research activities with notable institutions including Ghana Statistical Service, German Development Institute (GIZ) and the USAID Evaluate for Health over the years. She has also worked with the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) on a regional (West Africa-wide) comprehensive research on the state of the media. She brings to the project and team, her experience in both media and research.

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