Ghana Election: Fault Lines in a Resilient Democracy

Despite a positive record as one of Africa’s most resilient democracies, electoral violence has threatened every election cycle, and now does so again.

Expert comment Published 3 December 2020 2 minute READ

For the first time since Ghana returned to civilian rule and multi-party politics in 1992, voters have a choice between a sitting and a former president, as well as being able to choose from a wide-ranging list of 12 presidential candidates – including three women – and a woman is also standing for vice president on a major party ticket in another first.

On three previous occasions, power has peacefully transferred between the two major political parties – the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) – with any grievances resolved through the legal system, not on the street. But this time, beyond restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 lockdown, preparations have been dominated by a threat of election-related violence and the integrity of the voter register.

Political vigilantism has always played a big role in electoral violence in Ghana since the 1990s, and political parties have justified creating vigilante groups by pointing to a perceived bias of national security forces towards the ruling party. This has made such groups a type of private security service for top officials, and easy to recruit from Ghana’s growing population of poor, unemployed, and disenfranchised youth.

Debate over the role of vigilantes came to a head after an incident at the Ayawaso West Wuogon Constituency by-election in January 2019, when about a dozen people suffered gunshot injuries in clashes between political party supporters and a group of alleged security operatives.

This led President Akufo-Addo to establish the Emile Short Commission of Inquiry to investigate causes of the violence, and its work led to the adoption of the Vigilantism and Related Offences Bill in July 2019, with both major parties only recently signing a Roadmap and Code of Conduct to disband vigilantism in Ghana.

The second perennial source of electoral tension among political parties is the integrity of the voters’ register, as voter identification has long been a concern raised by political parties during any electoral registration exercise. It is critical the electoral process does not exclude voters because they lack formal means of identification, but the acceptance of multiple means of ID in the past – from birth certificates to driving licenses – has made it difficult to establish the identity and nationality of voters beyond any margin of doubt.

For the 2020 election, evidence of identification has once more been at the centre of considerable disagreement and debate among political parties, within the public sphere and in the national media.

Ever since 2015, the NPP has been adamant Ghana needs to compile a new register due to allegations it includes minors, foreigners, and other ineligible voters. But the NDC argued the register was credible for 2020 elections and only required the normal cleaning.

In January, the Electoral Commission (EC) announced its decision to compile a new register, with proposals to amend the Constitutional Instrument (CI 91) on evidence of voter ID in order to limit the required identi-fication evidence to just three methods – passport, the new National ID Card known as the ‘Ghana Card’, or a guarantee from two existing registered voters.

Consolidating democratic credentials

The 2020 general election is expected to be as competitive as previous iterations, with an awareness among Ghanaians that the stakes are extremely high. Having deployed observers to monitor registrations, the Ghana Coalition of Domestic Electoral Observers (CODEO) has reported some intimidation and violence, but found a ‘generally peaceful’ electoral environment in the run-up.

Ghana’s government, civil society organizations, and international partners have all promoted inclusive political dialogue, confidence-building among political actors, and trust in the electoral process. Perhaps most strikingly, the NPP and NDC – despite being bitter rivals for power – have found bipartisan consensus on managing the dual challenges of vigilante groups and voter registration. Despite calls for heightened vigilance and additional security measures, major disturbances on ballot day are unlikely.

Ghana has demonstrated its ability to deliver well-managed elections over the last seven election cycles, which has consolidated its democratic credentials in Africa, and this looks likely to continue in the eighth.

But whoever comes to power does need to step up measures to address not only the devastating socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, but also the persistent triggers of electoral and broader societal violence, driven by Ghana’s youth bulge and long-term developmental challenges of employment and inequality.