Why Ghana isn’t having an important referendum this week

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Sometimes what doesn’t happen is as important as what does. Ghana was on course to hold a referendum to allow political parties to sponsor candidates in local elections. In contrast to most of the world, Ghana’s local politics has been non-partisan, at least in principle. This was due to change following promises made by the NPP government when in opposition. But in the end the referendum never happened. The Archive of Activism project team explain why …

Ghanaians went to the polls to elect their local government representatives on December 17. But the referendum that was scheduled to take place at the same time on how local governments should be formed was cancelled. How has this situation come about? And why does it matter for those of us who are interested in the political participation of women?

Ghana’s present system of local government has its origins in a set of reforms introduced by the Provisional National Defence Council government of former President Jerry Rawlings. PNDC Law 207 of 1988 established 110 districts, each with a partially elected assembly. The elections were to be organised on a non-partisan basis, and the chief executive of each district was to be appointed by the nation’s president.

Key elements of PNDC Law 207 were retained in the 1992 constitution and the Local Government Act of 1993. Thus although Ghana returned to multi-party elections at the national level, parties still could not sponsor candidates in local elections, per article 55(3) of the constitution. 

The system of district assemblies was retained, with those in the major cities designated as  ‘metropolitan assemblies’ and those in the larger towns designated as ‘municipal assemblies’. The majority of the district, municipal and metropolitan assembly members (70%) were to be elected on a non-partisan basis, whilst the remainder (30%) were to be appointed by the nation’s president, in consultation with traditional authorities and other interest groups in the district, per article 242[d]. The district, municipal and metropolitan chief executives were still to be appointed by the nation’s president, although they were to be approved by a two-thirds majority of their assembly members, per article 243(1).

Promise of reform

Since 1992, the number of administrative regions and districts has increased significantly, but the combination of appointive and elective positions, and the principle that local government should be non-partisan, have both remained in place. During its national election campaign in 2016, however, the New Patriotic Party, led by Nana Akufo-Addo, pledged two significant reforms: firstly, to allow parties to sponsor candidates in local government elections; secondly, to enable voters to directly elect the chief executive of their district, municipal or metropolitan assembly.

The two proposed reforms were obviously related, but they were not inter-dependent, and had to be tackled through two different avenues. The first reform required the amendment of article 55(3) of the 1992 constitution, which is an ‘entrenched’ article, and can therefore be amended or repealed only via a national referendum, with a majority of at least 75%, on a turnout of at least 40%. This referendum was scheduled to take place in conjunction with local elections on 17 December 2019. The second reform, which would require an amendment to article 243(1), could be effected through a two-thirds majority vote on a constitutional amendment bill in the national parliament.

Justifying the cancellation

In his address to the nation on 1 December 2019, President Akufo-Addo explained why he had decided to cancel the referendum. His 2017 meetings with three former presidents (of both the main parties) had given him to believe that there was a broad-based national consensus in favour of the reforms, he said. But the subsequent decision of the main opposition party (the National Democratic Congress) to campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum had later revealed that this was not quite the case.

The president explained that he supported the amendment to article 55(3) because the current ban on party sponsorship of candidates imposed an unnecessary limitation on the freedom of association, and was in any case frequently ignored in practice. He believed that it would have been possible to obtain a majority ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum. However, as president of the entire nation, he did not want to find himself in the position of amending the constitution via a bitter party-political struggle.

Women for change

There is, however, another element in the story of the cancelled referendum. On 18 November 2019, a large coalition of women’s civil society organisations, NETRIGHT, announced that its members would be boycotting the referendum, in protest against repeated delays to the Affirmative Action Bill.

Over the past twenty years, women’s civil society organisations in Ghana have placed a high premium on non-partisanship, which they see as essential to the maintenance of their autonomy and their ability to advocate on women’s issues according to their own research, reasoning and priorities, regardless of the government of the day. NETRIGHT clearly had no intention of being dragged into a ‘Vote Yes’ or ‘Vote No’ position.

But women’s civil society organisations have been increasingly concerned by the low proportion of women in Ghana’s national parliament and in the district, municipal and metropolitan assemblies. This was highlighted back in the 2004 Women’s Manifesto (backed by a broad coalition), and taken up with consecutive government ministers (first for Women and Children’s Affairs, and more recently for Gender, Children and Social Protection).

Affirmative Action Bill

An Affirmative Action Bill has been drafted and redrafted over the past decade. In 2016, at the tail end of the previous National Democratic Congress administration, the draft bill obtained cabinet approval. But it could not pass through all the necessary stages of parliamentary debate before national elections brought a change of government.

Upon assuming office in 2017, President Akufo-Addo promised the passage of the bill into law. But it is yet to be brought to parliament, and the current administration is about to enter its final year in office. Any further delay thus has the potential to stymie the bill once again.

NETRIGHT’s statement of 18 November 2019 pointed out that women made up only 13.8% of the members of the current national parliament, and just under 7% of members of the district, municipal and metropolitan assemblies. National elections are contested on a partisan basis. But whilst in several other African countries the proportion of women parliamentarians has been dramatically increased via quota systems, this has not been done in Ghana. Under Ghana’s first-past-the-post single-member-constituency system, one of the greatest hurdles for women aspirants is gaining the nomination of a major party for a winnable seat.

In principle, then, the ban on party sponsorship of candidates in local government elections should reduce the barriers to women’s participation, since candidates can nominate themselves directly, as individuals, without having to first clear the hurdle of party nomination. A 1998 cabinet directive on Affirmative Action also provided a framework through which the appointive positions could be used to increase the numbers of women in the assemblies. In practice, however, non-partisan elections, and the combination of elective and appointive positions, have not yielded significant increases in the numbers of women assembly members.

To party or not?

Recent research on the experiences of district assemblywomen reveals that some of them, like their male counterparts, are in fact plugged into local party networks, even though the party cannot officially sponsor their candidacy. But self-nomination without formal or informal party backing also seemed to provide a route into local government for other assemblywomen interviewed in a recent study by Manuh, Darkwah, Tsikata, Ampofo and Mensah-Kutin.

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Regardless of their relationships to political parties, district assemblywomen emphasised in interviews the importance of service to local communities – as a motivating factor in their decision to stand for election, and in establishing their credibility with the electorate. The obstacles faced by district assemblywomen included constraints on their time (most of them were combining paid work or income-generating activities with their domestic and family responsibilities), and unpleasant gossip about their personal characters and capabilities.

Informed by this and many other pieces of research, NETRIGHT’s position is that an Affirmative Action Law is necessary in order for Ghana to see a significant increase in the proportion of women in the national parliament and in the district, municipal and metropolitan assemblies.

The referendum did not take place this week, but we will see what proportion of women assembly members the local elections will bring….

The Archive of Activism project team, including: Kate Skinner, Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Rose Mensah-Kutin, Jovia Salifu.

The Archive of Activism project explores gender and public history in postcolonial Ghana. Kate Skinner, Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Rose Mensah-Kutin and Jovia Salifu are members of the project team.

The project has received funding from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, through the British Academy’s Sustainable Development Programme. Additional funds have been provided by the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Global Innovation.

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