In the last few weeks, several national issues have dominated media headlines and public discourse. From the visit of the US Vice President to Ghana; the adrenaline rush by Ghana’s Parliament to pass the three tax bills; attempts by the National Democratic Congress (NDC) to torpedo the approval of six newly appointed ministers; to the failed attempt by the Electoral Commission to make the Ghana card the sole document for voter registration ahead of the 2024 national elections amidst takes on Ghana’s economy and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
For the key players in Ghana’s near political duopoly, the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the main opposition NDC, the elections clock for the presidential and parliamentary elections is automatically re-set immediately after the end of an election. Since 2020, they have been super busy strategising, chastising and competing with each other on all fronts.
But there is the other bigger ‘vote’—the 2023 district level elections—which appears lost on us in the cacophony of all the “important” subjects. Ghana’s Electoral Commission has a major assignment this year to conduct elections for the renewal of the mandate of local assembly members and the election of new ones across the various metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies (MMDAs). But how much we know about this? Although the district level elections are expected to be held this year, the electoral hype has been on the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections. There are many who do not even know that there is an election this year.
Ghana’s District Assembly Elections Act of 1994, stipulates: “District Assembly elections (DLE) are held every four years and shall be held at least six months apart from parliamentary elections.” Be that as it may, district assembly elections in Ghana, have been held in 1988/89, 1994, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2019; obviously showing a certain pattern by Ghana’s Electoral Commission, to hold the elections before the general presidential and parliamentary elections.
While local level elections present the most practicable opportunity for citizens to participate actively in selecting their local representatives to the various MMDAs and contribute to local government decision-making, it has rather gained notoriety for apathy and disinterest. Consistently, the turnouts have been fluctuating, most of the time producing less than half of the turnout in presidential and parliamentary elections.
It is more than 600 days to the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections. However, the citizens’ interest in those elections is blazingly overshadowing the local level elections this year. One cannot blame the citizens entirely because the state institutions that are supposed to spearhead the district level elections appear disinterested in it.
The Electoral Commission (EC) has the mandate to announce the date for the district level elections as well as the timelines for the processes leading to it. However, as of the time of this publication, there is yet to be any official announcement of the date for the 2023 district level election & timelines for electoral processes leading to the D-day except for grapevine reports that it could be held in October.
For instance, the landing page of the EC’s website (as of April 21, 2023) shows only information on the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections with a ticking time count down to the 2024 presidential elections. The EC’s 197.9k follower twitter handle and Facebook page have no post yet on the district level elections either.
While this may not legally constitute a breach of the constitutional provision regarding the time frame allowed between the conduct of parliamentary elections, a 2015 report by the Ghana Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) said,“Arguably, the absence of a specified timeframe for the conduct of the DLE [district level election], unlike the parliamentary elections may be a contributing factor for the EC’s laxity in preparations for the conduct of those elections.”
For instance, in 2015, the district level election was postponed two times from the original date of November 2014, then to March 3, 2015, and then eventually on September 1, 2015. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that when the elections were postponed, some female candidates lost the interest to re-contest when the polls were re-opened. Even in 2019, the November 26 date that was initially announced was later postponed to December 17.
Again, as of April 21, 2023, the sector ministry in charge of local governance, the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, had no information or message on the district level elections on its website. It is the same with the websites of Ministry of Information, the Local Government Service (LGS) and the newly created Ghana Today website by the Information Services Department. What is worse, about 90% of the websites and Facebook pages of the country’s 261 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) who have a core mandate to ensure citizens participation in local governance, were yet to have any information or message on the district-level elections either.
Among the many challenges contributing to the low-level interest in district level elections, democracy watchers observe that the loud silence of the 1992 Constitution on a specific date for district level elections as is the case with the presidential and parliamentary elections is worrying. Again, the EC’s dependence on the government’s financial support to conduct the elections remains a concern.
There is no doubt that Ghana’s local government system requires reforms. Indeed, in 2019, the country failed in its attempt to amend Article 243 of the Constitution, which gives the President, the power to appoint all metropolitan, municipal, and district chief executives (MMDCEs). The amendment was to make these positions elective. A referendum to seek citizens’ support to amend Article 55 of the Constitution (an entrenched provision), which bans political parties from participating in local level elections and making such elections partisan, was also suspended. In a graphiconline publication of August 2020, a former local government minister, Hajia Alima Mahama, said the NPP government would ensure the partisan election of MMDCEs in its second term in office.
Ironically, a 2021 survey by CDD-Ghana on citizens’ support for the election of MMDCEs showed that more than seven in 10 Ghanaians (76%) favour the election of MMDCEs while Seventy-one (71%) percent of Ghanaians said they prefer that MMDCEs be elected on a non-partisan basis.
While we await such weightier reforms to take place, the mandated national institutions, civil society, the media and citizens should continue to engage the discourse on local governance processes. Can the Electoral Commission proceed to make public the date for the 2023 district level elections early enough to allow citizens to prepare and actually participate?
Can MMDAs, as part of their mandate to ensure citizens’ participation in local governance, team up with the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) to utilize their communication and information dissemination platforms to sensitise citizens and create more visibility and awareness about the elections? Can the media consciously incorporate conversations about the District Level Elections on their platforms early enough? This is not only important, but it is also our collective civic responsibility.
The writer, Abigail Larbi, is the Programme Manager, Media & Good Governance at the Media Foundation for West Africa, Accra Ghana. She can be reached at [email protected]