#OccupyBoG: Social protest movements and radical political change in Ghana

OccupyBoG/CREDIT: The Herald
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OccupyBoG is the most recent example in Ghana of new era social protest movements. A universally recognised part of the democratic process, such peaceful social protest movements comprise groups of people sharing a common interest in influencing institutions to strengthen the economic and democratic processes by, first, giving a general voice to the citizenry and, second, bringing about reform to make those in charge responsive to ordinary people’s demands.

Social protest movements in Ghana utilise various methods to pursue their goals including: advocacy, public awareness programmes, policy research, lobbying of parliament, public opinion polls, and organised protests. Political and economic protests have a long history in Africa, and Ghana in no exception. Simultaneously both products and generators of change, they have potential capacity to transform the nature both of politics and of economic outcomes.

Protests may lead both to tangible (such as, policy implementation, liberal reforms, and political alternation) and intangible forms of change, including perceptions, imagination, and awareness. They can also lead to advances in democracy, accountability, and collective knowledge. This outcome is not however inevitable. Recent experience in Ghana demonstrates that social protest movements have the capacity to focus popular and media attention on an issue of governance but do not necessarily have the power to influence government capacity to deal with the problems they highlight.

Scholars have examined social protest movements in Ghana in both historic and contemporary contexts. Social protest movements in Ghana have a long history, appearing in both colonial and post-colonial times. Sometimes they are successful. For example, during the 1890s, a protest was organised by the Aborigines’ Protection Rights Society which laid a foundation for concerted anti-colonial political action, which finally led to Ghana’s independence in 1957. Later, in 1978, Ghanaians took to the streets to protest at a plan for government, the (in) famous Union Government, fearing that the then head of state, General Kutu Acheampong, was seeking to perpetuate himself in power and the military in government in perpetuity. Acheampong was, however, unsuccessful and popular demonstrations were pivotal in a process which saw the reintroduction of democracy to Ghana in 1979.

In 2014, protesters took to the streets again, protesting at the parlous state of the economy and the decline of Ghana’s infrastructure, indicated by frequent power cuts, rising fuel prices and high price inflation for food and other essentials.Following these demonstrations, a new wave of social protest movements emerged, including Occupy Ghana (also known as Occupy Flagstaff House), Arise Ghana, and FixTheCountry. All sought to pressurise government for policy changes, with a pronounced focus on social, political and economic justice. #OccupyBoG is the most recent example.

Traditionally in Ghana, civil society seeks to focus popular dissatisfaction in two main ways: first, there is pressure from institutionalised civil society organisations, including what are popularly known as the ‘professional’ organisations, including lawyers, journalists, and doctors.They employ a variety of methods – including advocacy and press conferences – to make their concerns known both to government and the general public. Second, there are the more ad hoc, less institutionalised, social protest movements, including Occupy Ghana, Arise Ghana, #FixtheCountry, and #OccupyBoG. They emerge due to collective frustration among many Ghanaians, especially the have-nots: the young, females and religious minorities, who feel that they do not benefit from democracy and an open economy.

OccupyBoG emerged in response to Ghana’s continuing, unprecedented financial crisis which highlights the Bank of Ghana’s perceived inadequacies and associated government failings. In early October, hundreds of protestors demonstrated on the streets of the capital Accra, demanding that the governor of the Bank of Ghana and his two deputies resign following the loss in the 2022 financial year of about 60bn cedis (USD5.2bn; £4.3bn). The opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) party-led the demonstrations.

Protesters dressed in red and black, symbolising mourning in Ghana. They chanted “stop the looting, we are suffering”. The demonstrators’ claim was that the bank printed money illegally at the behest of the government, resulting in the cedi’s depreciation and annual price inflation of around 50%.

OccupyBoG claimed that the central bank governor, Dr Ernest Addison, was guilty of recklessness and mismanagement, because of the USD5 billion unprecedented loss. High inflation, according to the World Bank, meant that around 850,000 Ghanaians have become impoverished due to the effect of high price inflation on their purchasing power in relation to basics: food, fuels and utilities.

The #OccupyBoG demonstration attracted the attention of Ghana’s media, and there was much popular support for the protests. In addition, it does seem likely that such public demonstrations – more are planned – in tandem with copious social media posts, press conferences, and media reports to stimulate and perhaps extend extra-parliamentary opposition to the incumbent government.

This is likely to lead to government attempts to arrest leaders and ban further demonstrations via court decisions. What then is to be done to make government accountable to Ghanaians, in the context of widespread concern that the government is remote and adrift from the concerns of ordinary people?
Many Ghanaians would agree that the proclaimed values and legacy of former president Jerry John Rawlings – that is, social justice, equality and probity – are absent in today’s Ghana.

This concern is ably expressed by recent and current social protest movements, including #OccupyBoG and FixThe Country, which serve both to highlight and to fuel popular fears and frustrations at democratic shortfalls and serious, and worsening, economic problems. Such issues were at the forefront of concerns more than 40 years ago, when Rawlings and his comrades staged a successful coup d’état on 31 December 1981. The famous saying, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr”Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (Literally, ‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing’) seems appropriate.

Will history repeat itself and will Ghana again find itself embroiled in prolonged social, political and economic turmoil as a result of serious governmental failings. One view is that it seems unlikely. This is because, since the early 1980s, political radicalism, once focused in the junior ranks of the armed forces, has been tamed and controlled by successive governments. In addition, it seems highly unlikely that there would be a military coup in Ghana; not least because most Ghanaians value democracy and few would want to see it replaced by unelected military rule.

Another view is that with attention focused on next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, short term political outcomes will be greatly affected by popular demonstrations. This occurred in the Arab Spring events of the early 2010s, and it is not inconceivable that Ghana will see a similar build-up of popular anger in the run up to 2024’s elections. How this would impact upon the electoral fortunes of the main parties, NPP and NDC, is a fascinating topic.

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. 

This article appeared first with our friends at The Herald. Click here to read it there.

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