‘Arise Ghana’ anti-government protests: It’s the economy, stupid

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Protesters in Accra on Wednesday 29 June 2022/CREDIT: Twitter #AriseGhana.
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Ghana experienced significant anti-government demonstrations in the capital, Accra, in 2022, organised by a new protest group, ‘Arise Ghana’ (#AriseGhanaProtest). Arise Ghana was ‘protesting against worsening economic conditions – inflation is running at 37% in Ghana and a third of people under 30 are unemployed – as well as the new levies imposed by the government’.

New ‘levies’ – that is, taxes – including a COVID-19 Health Recovery Levy and an Electronic Transaction Levy (e-levy). Seeking to deal with the economic problems, the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) government controversially contacted the IMF in July 2022, the 18th time since the early 1980s that Ghana has sought such assistance, to request an emergency bail out of billions of dollars. During 2020–22, COVID-19 and, from February 2022, the war in Ukraine seriously impacted Ghana’s economy, and the incumbent NPP government became increasingly unpopular.

Arise Ghana protesters were incensed at the rapid, and sudden, decline of Ghana’s economy, including the imposition of the new taxes and the NPP government’s attempt to get a substantial IMF loan. So why did the protests erupt? And what do they mean for the future of Ghanaian democracy?

A decade of development

This followed several decades of economic and developmental improvements. From the economic nadir of the 1980s, Ghana began to recover economically during the 1990s. Observers explained this as an effect of good governance, including developmental programmes directed at Ghana’s poorest regions: the Volta, Northern and Upper regions.

Economic growth was boosted from 2007 with the discovery of offshore oil and natural gas. In 2019, the International Monetary Fund described Ghana as ‘the world’s fastest growing economy’, with ‘skyrocketing’ growth. Johnson-Dollie reported in 2022, that Ghana had made ‘a total turnaround to become the world’s fastest growing economy. These successes all stem from good governance and a shift towards sustainable development’.  

Ghana’s human development indicators (HDI) improved, including increased average life expectancy, rising from 56.8 years in 1990 to 63 years in 2017. Ghanaians were also ‘becoming better educated – with the mean years of school attended rising from 4.9 to 7.1 over the same period’. The result was that Ghana’s HDI advanced from 0.455 to 0.592, placing ‘Ghana in the medium category and ma[king] it the leading country in sub-Saharan Africa’.

Why so much poverty?

Ghanaians and foreign observers are puzzled at the extent of poverty in a country identified in 2019 as the world’s fastest growing economy. Ghana produces gold, cocoa and oil, yet has seen the cedi decline in value by more than 40% against the US dollar in 2022, making it one of the worst-performing currencies in the West African region, whose countries have all suffered from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On 29 June 2022, Accra saw demonstrations against the cost of living, price inflation and government corruption. Hundreds of people took to the streets, led by opposition politicians, Sammy Gyamfi, National Communications Officer of the National Democratic Party (NDC), Bernard Mornah, a former chairman of the People’s National Convention, and Rex Omar, a well-known highlife musician. Gyamfi is close to the NDC’s probable presidential candidate, former president John Mahama and some saw his involvement as tacit encouragement for Arise Ghana from Mahama. Twenty-nine people were arrested at the demonstration, and 12 police officers were reportedly injured in clashes, blaming on demonstrators throwing stones at them.

The 29 June Arise Ghana demonstrations were followed by another on 5 November 2022. Another is scheduled for 15-17 November, also organised by Arise Ghana. The November protests are the latest in a series of demonstrations stimulated by the fast-rising cost of living and claims of corruption at the highest levels of Ghana’s government. Soaring price inflation has made it extremely difficult for ordinary people to get by in a country where around 25 per cent of the 30 million population manage to exist on around USD2 a day.

Risk of a “big explosion”

Former Chief of Defence Staff of the Ghana Armed Forces, Brigadier Joseph Nunoo-Mensah, and briefly a member of the Provisional National Defence Council government of Flt-Lt Jerry John Rawlings, and more recently a member of the NPP, claimed in July 2002 that there was a risk of a ‘big explosion’ in Ghana. Referring to the June 2022 Arise Ghana demonstration, Nunoo-Mensah claimed that ‘someone with the character traits’ of Flt-Lt Jerry Rawlings – who successfully led a coup d’état on 31 December 1981 and ruled Ghana for two decades – would 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 were dismissed as being without foundation in much of Ghana’s media, informed interviewees, to whom the author spoke to in July and November 2022 in person in Accra or Kumasi or via Zoom, believed that the NPP would lose the next presidential and parliamentary elections, due in late 2024, unless there were significant economic improvements. The elections are however two years ahead and it is conceivable that a Rawlings-type figure could emerge and lead an extra-legal challenge to the NPP government with the aim of ousting it unconstitutionally.

On 5 November over 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Accra, again to protest at the fast-declining economic conditions and demanding President Nana Akufo-Addo’s resignation. The immediate context was an economic crisis that drastically undermined the value of the cedi and sent food costs escalating to record levels. Consumer price inflation was more than 37% in September 2022, a 21-year peak despite aggressive policy tightening. On 5 November, demonstrators marched past police dressed in riot gear. Many protesters wore red clothes – a traditional symbol in Ghana of war – waving placards and chanting ‘Akufo-Addo must go’ and ‘IMF no’.  

Whether Nunoo-Mensah’s concerns are justified is a moot point. However, public opinion in Ghana is becoming very animated at the declining economy, with attendant price rises which many – or most – Ghanaians cannot easily afford. Conditions in 2022 are reminiscent of those in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Rawlings grabbed power via coup d’état, discussed in detail in my forthcoming book on the politics of Ghana during the rule of Jerry John Rawlings. Rawlings, who died in November 2020, is a highly controversial figure in Ghana, and most Ghanaians are pleased to live in a democracy, contrasting the freedoms now enjoyed with the repressive conditions of a decade of Rawlings’ rule when human rights violations were common.

Conversely, most Ghanaians would agree that Rawlings’ values and legacy – that is, social justice, equality, and probity – are comprehensively absent in Ghana today. Similar circumstances which have led to Arise Ghana were present when Rawlings and his comrades mutinied in May 1979. It remains to be seen if history will repeat itself and Ghana will again find itself embroiled in prolonged social, political, and economic turmoil as a result of governmental failings. The likelihood, however, seems small.

A different world

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, such radicals could hope for at least rhetorical support of ‘progressive’ countries to support attempts at popular revolution.

The world is very different today: the Cold War is long over; there are no clear ideological divisions between the leading political parties in Ghana. Ghanaians are weary of political conflict and economic disappointments. Dreams of a self-sufficient economy are untenable in the realisation that economic globalisation cannot be avoided, least of all by autarchy or similar attempts to develop from within.

In addition, the junior ranks of Ghana’s military, Rawlings’ original support base, are no longer a hotbed of demands for fundamental political and economic change as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, there is no sign of a second Rawlings: a figure equal parts of charisma and controversy whose political legacy continue significantly to inform political and economic debates in Ghana regarding the best way to achieve a workable democracy and a polity with just economic development.

In another way, however, Ghana is very much like it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the author first visited the country: wealth increasingly polarised between rich and poor, amid promises by government to bring about a better life for all. Jerry John Rawlings was around in Ghana in the late 1970s to focus such concerns politically and lead 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 in Ghana is likely to be unresolved and inchoate societal conflict.

Jeffrey Haynes (tsjhayn1@londonmet.ac.uk) is Emeritus Professor of Politics at London Metropolitan University, and the author of Revolution and Democracy in Ghana: The Politics of Jerry Rawlings. 

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