West Africa is beset by coups and talk of potential coups. Six decades into the post-colonial era, what has gone wrong? The simple response is that we’ll keep getting coups until democracy improves so that people think it is valuable enough to defend. Ghana is ‘lucky’ so far not to be too concerned with jihadism – unlike Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali – or with resources which the world wants and Russia wants to control, e.g., uranium in Niger or oil in Gabon. But it comes down to the fact that many people in Ghana regard democracy as an environment for those in power to benefit financially and where ordinary people suffer. Ghana tried military rule, revolutionary populism, one-party state: none worked well. Seventy-five per cent of Ghanaians want democracy according to Afrobarometer data from 2022. How to deliver democracy that works well for all is the key question. Open and transparent, representative institutions is the way forward but to get them is another matter.
Ghana is afflicted today by the same concerns that led to the 1979 and 1981 take overs by the revolutionary populist, military-backed regimes of Jerry John Rawlings, as I explained in my recent book. What links the two periods is political disappointment and fatigue, economic underachievement and stubbornly high price inflation, and cultural despair at the venality of many politicians and their failure to act ethically. Rawlings’ solution was ‘revolution’: he believed in a spontaneous, people-focused, grassroots revolution which would rewrite political, economic and cultural realities in Ghana. A decade later, he bowed to what now seems inevitable: the return of multi-party democracy, the very system he overthrew in both 1981. Many Ghanaians were unimpressed by Rawlings’ attempts to address Ghana’s perennial, multifaceted problems. Now, four decades on, things appear to have come full circle: as the pre-election period hots up, the issue of what comes next is on everyone’s lips. Some say, ‘break the eight’: give the NPP another four years; others say allow the National Democratic Congress another chance; Mahama might do better this time. A few say: revolution now, if necessary, by coup d’état; #Fixthe Country will soon occupy Jubilee House, and radical elements of the NDC will soon demonstrate outside the Bank of Ghana to indicate displeasure about its perceived economic mishandling.
There is much heat but little light in all this: Ghana faces serious political, economic and cultural problems; some home-made, others beyond its control. What is to be done? Senior politicians advance plans to address the situation. Former NPP General Secretary, Kwabena Agyapong, recently put forward a six-point plan, involving: lean government; enforcing law and order, imposing discipline; ensuring compliance of rules and regulations; cutting waste in the public sector; restoring meritocracy and professionalism in the civil and public services. In addition, he advocates: urban regeneration and renewal, and protection of intellectual property in entertainment and sports sectors. Agyapong expressed his concerns like this:
‘We cannot mislead ourselves with excitable slogans that lead us nowhere. Ghana is really at the crossroads and what the country urgently needs now is a new dawn of astute political leadership with a vision that inspires hope in the youth and rekindles the faith of Ghanaians in our constitutional democracy’.
Mr Agyapong’s six-point plan seems to me eminently sensible. But is it achievable? His goals have been aspired to by successive governments in Ghana since independence. Yet, neither elected or unelected governments have registered much conspicuous success in achieving these goals. Three decades of democracy have led to a de facto two-party, highly partisan, political system, with the two main parties virtually inseparable ideologically and, when in power, ruling in remarkably similar ways, with common results: widespread dissatisfaction, disaffection and disappointment. Democracy as such is not at fault; those elected seem to find it collectively impossible to overcome systemic barriers to good governance.
What is to be done? At the time of writing (September 2023), it does not seem likely that there will be sustained extra-parliamentary opposition to the NPP government, an administration whose leading members are regularly accused of large-scale corruption and which controversially engaged with the International Monetary Fund in July 2022 to seek a new substantial loan. A year ago, former Chief of Defence Staff of the Ghana Armed Forces and a member of Rawlings’ PNDC government, Brigadier Joseph Nunoo-Mensah, claimed there is a risk of a ‘big explosion.’ Nunoo-Mensah believes that ‘someone with the character traits’ of Jerry Rawlings will emerge:
‘to save starving citizens … Another Rawlings is going to get up and cause a big mess, bigger than Rawlings’ mess. If people are hungry … I get calls … people are hungry … This is not a small issue’.
While Nunoo-Mensah’s comments of were dismissed as being without foundation in Ghana’s media, informed interviewees to whom the author spoke to in 2022 and 2023 in Accra, Kumasi or via Zoom, were unanimously of the opinion that the NPP would lose the next presidential and parliamentary elections, unless there were significant economic improvements. At the end of the current month, the first official assessment of the use of the IMF loans will be published. At the moment, prices are stubbornly high, inflation is a serious issue, unemployment is high and the cedi remains weak.
Many Ghanaians would agree that Rawlings’ values and legacy – social justice, equality and probity – have been lost. Similar circumstances which recently led popular movements, such as Arise Ghana and #FixtheCountry, to take to the streets were present when Rawlings and his comrades mutinied in May 1979 and took power by coup in December 1981. Will repeat itself? Will Ghana will again find itself embroiled in prolonged coup-induced, political, economic and cultural turmoil as a result of egregious governmental failings?
The likelihood however seems small. Rawlings came to prominence in a different era: the Cold War raged, pitting state socialism against liberal democracy and capitalism, and many young educated Ghanaians were looking for radical ideological solutions to Ghana’s neo-colonial and corrupt political and economic system. In addition, radicals expected support from ‘progressive’ countries to support attempts at popular revolution. In some respects, the world is not so different today: while the old Cold War is long gone, another may be starting, involving China, Russia and the USA; the global economic system still functions for the benefit of the rich countries; ideological distinctions between the major political parties in Ghana are rhetorical not substantive. There is one significant difference, however: unlike in Rawlings’ day, the junior ranks of Ghana’s military and the country’s university-based intellectuals no longer unite in demands for leftist reforms. Importantly, there is no sign of a second Rawlings: a figure equal parts of charisma and controversy whose presence loomed large over Ghana until his untimely death in November 2020.
Yet, the same questions remain: how to achieve a workable democracy and economic development for all not just a ‘lucky’ few? Today, Ghana is very much like the late 1970s/early 1980s: wealth polarised between small numbers of ultra-rich and the mass of the poor, despite governmental promises to improve the lives of all Ghanaians. Jerry Rawlings helped focus such concerns and led the drive to improve things for the mass of ordinary people. Today, in the absence of inspirational and charismatic figures, like Rawlings, to take forward social justice concerns of many ordinary people, the outcome of popular rage is likely to be a further undermining of societal cohesion and growing aleination. While this is most unlikely to lead to a reformist coup d’état, not dealing with these concerns can only further undermine Ghana’s democracy and economic development.
Jeffrey Haynes (email) is Emeritus Professor of Politics at London Metropolitan University, and the author of Revolution and Democracy in Ghana: The Politics of Jerry Rawlings.