The Moral Challenges of Ghana’s New Force Movement

The New Force
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Structural conundrums dog a new movement seeking to transform Ghana, but its biggest headache is a moral hurdle.

For weeks the giant billboards dominated the skylines of Ghanaian cities. But the most important spaces they occupied were people’s minds. Questions and wild speculations swirled endlessly about who the ‘man in the mask’ is and why he is launching his bid for Ghana’s presidency from imposing signage as opposed to crowded rally grounds.

The suspense dissipated and curiosities sated when Nana Kwame Bediako, flanked by the likes of PLO Lumumba, unmasked himself as the man behind the mask, accompanied by his new political organisation: The New Force movement (TNF).

As political branding strategies go, it was a creative and triumphant entry into Ghana’s political landscape. In a terrain ruled by two main parties—the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC)—Bediako or ‘Cheddar’ as he is popularly known, needed this bang to be recognised or taken seriously, even if momentarily. With the free coverage in local and international outlets, he has succeeded beyond measure if his goal was to make a tumultuous entrance and draw attention.

He claims his move is far from a ‘gimmick’, that he is starting a revolution to overhaul Ghanaian politics and ‘add value’ to its people. In short, a ‘salvation’ mission like the one the anti-colonialists undertook in the 1940s and 50s to liberate Ghana from imperial rule. He is, quite rightly, aware he doesn’t have the structures his two formidable rivals possess.

The NPP and NDC are buttressed by extensive and well-oiled nationwide apparatuses powered by intricate support and incentive systems, relationships between different actors and deep affective ties that have been meticulously built for decades. Moreover despite the urban centres looming large in public consciousness and migrations from villages to cities, the scholar Robin Harding observes that Ghana is a ‘rural democracy’. Yet, invoking  Nkrumah’s exploits, Bediako maintains that ‘they didn’t have a political party at the beginning, they just had a movement.’ But movements are built on something much more elusive than structures: a moral force.

In the interview from which I quote the above statement, Bediako likens himself to inspirational political insurgents beyond Ghana’s past. Topping the list are Peter Obi in Nigeria and Donald Trump in the US. Bediako and the TNF are convinced they can replicate these men’s successes in galvanising massive supporters for their political ambitions. But, in the face of moral challenges, Bediako is unlikely to succeed.

Across the world, revolutionary populism is fueled by charisma and a moral imperative. Despite Trump’s many personal failings and lack of political experience, he largely galvanised people by capitalising on the value of being an ‘authentic’ businessman capable of ‘keeping it real’ about America’s decline. He spilled ‘facts’ dwellers of the ‘deep-state’ were unwilling to voice let alone address (Michael Serazo’s new book examines the power of this).

In Nigeria, where corruption pervades the political system, Obi was seen as a ‘clean’ presidential candidate by his young ‘Obidient’ supporters—pointing again to the power of moral framing. In Ghana, however, Bediako’s personality and the public’s unenthusiastic reception of him  make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to cut himself from the same moralising cloth as Trump and Obi have done. This issue has frequently bubbled to the surface since he unmasked himself.

David Pilling’s profile of Bediako in the Financial Times diligently unveils people’s perceptions of him and his  claims to want to ‘save’ Ghana. Pilling quotes Daniel, a mall worker in Ghana’s capital: ‘We know him [Bediako], but he’s something like a joke’…‘I don’t think he’s going to be president.’ This remark makes sense only in context. Until he revealed himself as a presidential candidate, Bediako has been known to Ghanaian netizens as a socialite, a social media influencer, or a clout chaser depending on who you ask.

On Instagram and in the news, Bediako is ‘known’ for his extravagant, gold-riddled and fanciful dress choices intended to attract attention and most importantly showcase his real-estate wealth. Stories of his life abound: his son attends an exclusive private school and wore an expensive watch to an annual prom party; he has imported tigers from Dubai, flaunting them in pictures uploaded to Instagram; and though he is not a member of neither of the armed forces, he frequently dresses in ceremonial army and navy uniforms. It is through these stories that Bediako has become known to Ghanaians, as Daniel laments.

On social media, many have consumed and ‘liked’ his content, probably as mild reprieves from their own mundane, if not stagnating lives. But his sudden assertion of being the bearer of Ghana’s ‘salvation’, no matter the seriousness he musters to say it or the calibre of individuals that stand behind him as he utters it, has been met with ridicule. In this domain, he is a ‘joke’.

On the billboards and during his campaign, the extravagant clothes, golden bracelets and gold-studded caps have disappeared. In their place are simple caftans and unbuttoned shirts. This about-face is a tireless effort to retire the image of extravagance and wealth he once worked hard to imprint on the minds of Ghanaians. But that image appears to resist easy erasure, which is partly why a subReddit page Cheddar can’t be trusted exists. And also why Bediako insists people should focus on the ‘message’ and not the ‘messenger.’

The phenomena eating into Bediako and his movement’s prospects constitute ‘the moral economy’. In a recent book, The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa, by Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Justin Willis, they find that to succeed, politicians must market themselves as ‘good leaders’. This ‘goodness’ must be carefully cultivated not through doling out money to buy votes or, in Bediako’s case, showing it off online to stir envy or conjure respect. 

Instead, ‘good leaders’ ought to make sound moral claims that reflect honesty, a readiness to serve, an ability to provide ‘development’, a willingness to struggle for people’s interests, and a capacity to mobilise constituencies into effective networks of power and resources. The biggest spenders in elections who fail to accompany their money gifts with such moral claims usually don’t win. In Ghana, many know the story of Alan Kyeremateng who earned the nickname ‘Cash’ by giving out money to party delegates in the hope of securing the NPP’s ticket. Till date, Kyeremateng still hasn’t secured that coveted candidacy, forcing him to start his party of alliances.

In light of this, many perceive Bediako as a businessman given to self-interest and self-promotion, undue extravagance, showiness, profligacy and frivolity. He is certainly not a candidate many cash-strapped Ghanaians want to put their hopes in while facing a once-in-a-generation economic crisis. (He promises to extend Ghana’s coast to the Ashanti hinterlands). To counter despairing narratives about his personal and political ambitions, Bediako has sought to amplify his identity as a kind ‘philanthropist’. But this is unlikely to change a lot of minds as it is not what Bediako is known for.

Bediako is a candidate on a tall list of people deemed ‘unserious’ but want to run for the presidency. Here, Akua Donkor, Kwasi Odike, Mahama Ayariga come to mind. It would take Bediako a lifetime of work to undo his current  image. In this regard his slogan ‘leadership for the next generation’ appears apt. He is certainly not the leader for this generation let alone the impending election.

The moral hurdles of Bediako and his movement reveal the difficulties of mobilising new political parties and non-party movements to foster transformative changes in dominant-party democracies. Beyond structures, moral norms and values operating in a given political system or culture can either pose headaches or facilitate such insurgent political endeavours. The modest lesson I wish to impart is that we need to consider these factors to better understand why such parties and movements succeed or fail.

Samuel Anim is a doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick.

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