Since taking office in 2017, president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, has demonstrated a pattern of heavy-handedness, authoritarianism, and privilege that contradicts his carefully crafted global image of a “debonair and progressive African leader.” The latest controversy in Ghana involves a bill that would criminalize displays of same-sex affection and advocacy for LGBTQ rights, punishable by up to a decade in prison. Ghana has a mixed record on protecting LGBTQ rights, but for much of the past four years in particular, LGBTQ Ghanaians – as well as their allies and advocates – have faced an unsettling crackdown from the federal government.
This recent dispute points to broader erosion of rights and freedoms in a country often portrayed as a rare democratic “success story” in West Africa. The advancement of democratic values in Ghana creates the complicated narrative when acknowledging the creeping authoritarianism and religious conservatism, as well as vast social inequality driven by two decades of neoliberal economic policies.
An example of developing authoritarianism in Ghana is displayed through weakening media freedoms. In 2019, an undercover journalist who was investigating corruption allegations against the former president of Ghana’s football association was murdered outside his home. There have also been an increase of reported cases of torture and physical abuse of journalists by Ghanaian security forces, drawing the attention from local and international advocacy groups. The reading Exposing Corrupt Politicians by Claudio Ferraz and Frederico Finan explores how media, especially credible media, enhances political accountability (Ferraz and Finan 2011).
The interconnectedness of violations of media freedoms in Ghana and the importance of credible media demonstrates the significance of preserving media freedoms and the encouragement of credible media help guard important aspects of democracy. When media freedoms are attacked by the government, as happening in Ghana, the media is infiltrated by biased information and inaccurate media. It is critical for free media to exist for citizens to accurately hold their leaders accountable. When the government is regulating the media, the audience is seeing what the government provides. Government control of the media links directly to democratic erosion because the executive has additional power to achieve their personal goals in office through the means of providing media that benefits themselves or their party; especially, in the age of media carrying so much influence on politics.
In addition to undermining media freedoms, Akufo-Addo’s administration has itself been dogged by multiple corruption scandals, as well as allegations of nepotism and cronyism; despite pledging to combat corruption and the weakening of state institutions under his predecessor.
More recently, prior to the 2020 presidential election, the government deployed the army to the eastern Volta region of Ghana, as an alleged coronavirus reduction measure and to stop migrants from crossing the border. Lawmakers even called the deployment a “peacekeeping force” that aided in preventing foreigners from voting in the elections.
Critics condemned this deployment as a form of voter intimidation because the Volta region is a stronghold of the opposition, the National Democratic Congress, or NDC. During this time, more than 60 violent incidents occurred, and five deaths unfortunately ensued across the country. These events are implications of a democracy under threat. As seen in How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, democracies are dying by elected leaders gradually subverting the democratic process by many means to increase their power (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). Levitsky and Ziblatt introduce many key points including that democratic erosion is happening in barely visible steps, blatant dictatorship has disappeared, and two norms – mutual toleration and forbearance – are critical to preserving democracy (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018).
These key points can be applied to what is happening in Ghana. In this situation in Ghana, some groups believe that the deployment of troops was a coronavirus mitigation measure and others believe this was an abuse of executive power. In other words, this could be a subtle step towards an eroding democracy. Even further, the region where the troops were sent to is a stronghold of the NDC opposition; this can be seen as a weakening of mutual toleration and forbearance causing an erosion of recognizing the opposition as legitimate and respect of the opposition.
The world has taken notice to these discrepancies to democracy and continues to draw attention to what is happening in Ghana. Specifically, the CEO of Afro-barometer, Joseph Asunka said, “Ghana’s 1992 constitution has created a political system that vests enormous amounts of power in politicians and their allies, and next to nothing in ordinary Ghanaians.” This “undemocratic” and “unaccountable” system is “a cancer that is rapidly nibbling away the essential organs of our institutions of democracy,” he added. This criticism from Asunka is just one of the many forming in response to authoritarian tendencies occurring in Ghana. The question now is whether observers will put aside oversimplified opinions and start paying attention to the democratic erosion happening in Ghana and in many other parts of the world. Ghana has made great achievements in the name of democracy but needs to work to continuously to upkeep their progression and prevent democratic erosion from destroying the democracy they worked diligently to build.
“Photo by Richmond Osei, (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.”
Hi Spencer! I really enjoyed reading your blog post about Ghana. Prior to reading this, I had very little knowledge about Ghana and was surprised to learn that it is a democracy. I find it very interesting that President Akufo-Addo portrays himself as a progressive leader globally when, in fact, he is the opposite. I agree that media freedom is crucial in order to maintain fundamental democratic principles and hold politicians accountable. When I was reading your post, I really liked when you said, “when the government is regulating the media, the audience is seeing what the government provides”. I completely agree with this statement and that free media is critical to have a healthy democracy. When I read this part, my first thought was North Korea, which is an extreme example of media control; however, that is what immediately popped into my head. In North Korea, the government controls everything that their people see. By doing this, Kim Jong-Un is able to control what his citizens think because he determines what information they are exposed to. It does not matter if the information has no truth to it at all. When a country’s government starts to control the media and what people have access to, it is an immediate red flag that the executive branch has too much power. With the dwindling free media still left in Ghana, it appears that they are headed down a path towards authoritarianism. This could mean that their future might look similar to North Korea if they continue on this path. I also agree with you in regards to COVID-19 responses, which have been used as an excuse to expand executive powers in multiple countries. This is very concerning and should be viewed as a huge threat to democratic principles.