Occupy Flagstaff House: Wake up call for Ghana’s democracy?

Africa’s democracies are at risk if economic concerns are not addressed.

A major traders' union launched a four-day strike to protest against the rising cost of business in Ghana [AFP]

Ghana marks Republic Day on July 1. It is normally a day of sober reflection on past political struggles, with some interaction between political leaders and senior citizens, honouring sacrifices made for independence and of course, all those who have toiled to make Ghana a better place. But this year was different.

A group calling itself Concerned Ghanaians for Responsible Governance (CGRG) – and claiming to be of a middle-class extraction – emerged in the democratic space to call for an amelioration of the daily economic hardships that every Ghanaian faces. The group assembled at the Efua Sutherland Children’s Park in the capital, Accra, and marched to the Flagstaff House, the seat of the government, to present a petition to President John Dramani Mahama.

This protest by relatively well-off professionals – christened #occupyflagstaffhouse – was triggered by the deteriorating economic situation and governance in the country. Ghana’s currency, the cedi, has been unstable recently, depreciating against the major currencies over the last seven months. This has been compounded by low access to water, health, rising levels of joblessness and worsening inequality, utility price hikes and lack of reliable energy for both domestic and commercial purposes. There are also reports of corruption involving senior public officials and their cronies in business.

New taxes

As if that were not enough, the government announced the introduction of new taxes. Ghanaians are overstretched and reeling under the severe economic pressure.

The expectation is that the leadership would be sensitive and carefully consider the challenges posed by the economy. But on the contrary, such positive steps are rare from Ghana’s political leadership; hence CGRG is of the view that the government is either insensitive, or clueless about how to deal with the challenges.

In popular struggles, numbers are important to bring about change. In this latest protest, about 300 tech-savvy professionals poured onto the capital’s streets to register their angst over the deteriorating governance of the country. However, many of the protesters who spoke to the media sought, strangely, to distance themselves from other segments of the Ghanaian population, especially those perceived to be either poor or uneducated or both, by claiming they were the “middle class” – not the riffraff of society. Some also claimed they were marching for those who do not truly understand the issues.

The resort to “classism” by tagging the poorer sections of Ghanaian society as undesirables might be a deep-seated syndrome of the middle class. The purpose of the protest would have been better served if it was articulated more clearly as part of a larger struggle. This point is particularly important because the poorer, rural and less educated segments of society are dealing with far greater hardships than those endured by the self-styled middle class.

The attempt to present this protest in class terms – with the assumption that they are more likely to be heard – diminishes the struggle’s potential to force a serious non-partisan discussion on how to find credible solutions to the difficult challenges facing the country. This stands to widen the gap between the group and those outside it.

Every Ghanaian, rich or poor, middle class or underclass has an equal stake in this country and so no single group’s view is more important than the other. Thankfully, Ghana’s constitution guarantees this inalienable right.

Shambolic response

The government’s response to the protesters and their demands has been shambolic, to put it mildly. Senior officials led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Hanna Tetteh mocked the numbers that joined the march. The Mahama administration this week said the protesters were “spreading hopelessness” in the country and assured Ghanaians that the government was addressing their concerns.

Ghana has been touted as the star of Africa. In other circles, it was seen as the gateway to Africa. But this status is not sustainable if its citizens’ basic economic needs are not met.

Political protests that characterised most North African countries – in tandem with the Arab Spring – were triggered by the harsh economic conditions that forced citizens to revolt against the ruling elite. In some countries, citizens lost trust in their leadership. Concerns such as inequality, unemployment and lack of basic services threaten democratic systems and nations anywhere, but especially in Africa.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in its 2014 report on Economic Development in Africa, which was launched in Accra two days after the start of the protest, underscored the need for African leaders to tackle economic development strategically by investing in areas that can generate employment.

According to the report, 15 million young people on the continent enter the job market every year and the pattern and nature of economic growth is simply not delivering the necessary number of jobs. Unemployment, especially among the most restless segment of society, poses a serious security threat to fledgling democracies in Africa and across the world.

Now the protest in Ghana has entered a new phase. On July 11, the group launched a new campaign tagged The RED Campaign – #REDFRIDAY. The campaign seeks to engage society through social media. Ghanaians are encouraged to wear locally-made dresses and wear the colour red to indicate solidarity with the campaign. They are also encouraged to post photos and videos of themselves wearing red on various social media via hashtags #redfriday and #occupyflagstaffhouse.

The concerns raised by the protesters and countless individuals and diverse groups – ranging from faith-based organisations, academia, farmer-based associations, non-governmental organisations, women groups, students and political parties – constitute a clear sign that Ghanaians deserve better governance than what the current system is delivering.

Until the basic economic issues confronting the population are addressed, the country’s democratic system may not be sustainable. Unfortunately African leaders do not have the luxury of time on their side, and the earlier there is an overhaul of the economy in Ghana – as well as other African countries – the better for Ghana’s fledgling democracy it will be.

Sylvester Bagooro is a Programme Officer at Third World Network Africa.

Kwesi W Obeng is programme officer at Third World Network-Africa and deputy editor of African Agenda.