The dying art of protest in Ghana

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Our country is faced with a debt crisis, high inflation and a devalued cedi. As a nation, we are riddled with corruption, poverty, illiteracy, bad governance, rural-urban migration, and inaccessibility of economic opportunities. Cost of living is ever rising and the future of the youth is unclear.

And yet, what do we do? We stay home and complain. And vote new cohorts of politicians into power.

Figures from the 2021 Population and Housing Census indicate that unemployment tripled in the last decade.

Our youth and professionals alike are fleeing from the depressing and seemingly hopeless state we find ourselves in to seek greener pastures abroad.

In fact, trained nurses have been leaving in such droves in search of better working conditions that the UK government has red-listed them from being recruited because of the deficit being created back here at home.

And yet, we just stay home, and leave it to God.

How protest causing reforms elsewhere

Two elections ago, Alfred Obeng-Boateng, member of parliament for Bibiani-Anhwiaso-Bekwai made the astonishing promise to his constituents that if they voted for him, he would help them leave Ghana for better opportunities in Europe. He won.

A professor of sociology at the University of Manchester in England, Gary Younge, described the 2010s as a “combustible” decade. He predicted that the decade of 2020s “promises to be more combustible than the last.”

In a “combustible” situation, democracies stand against injustice and demand reform.

That is why the people in the countries we are bolting to do not just run away when they are faced with daunting challenges. They fight for reforms; they protest against injustice; they march, picket, sit down, sit in, occupy, petition, and lobby, in the face of tyranny, corruption, and austerity.

In the U.S. for instance, four of five of the biggest ever demonstrations occurred during the tenure of Donald Trump against his ultra-right stance on many issues. Students in the UK protested because of increased tuition fees. Spanish youth occupied the main squares across the country, demonstrating to the slogan: “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.” This movement would morph into a political party.

In October 2019, Chileans protested against their government’s decision to increase fares for subway rides in Santiago. The demonstrations turned into a movement dubbed “The Social Outbreak.” This movement demonstrated against a neoliberal policy that had engendered extreme inequalities, high-cost of living, and an eroding social welfare. In a polity not unlike Ghana, where citizens have very few or non-existent avenues to share their grievances, Chileans sustained the protests for months. This resulted in a plebiscite that saw the country’s 1980 Constitution, inherited from a military regime, to be rewritten.

South Koreans made history in that same decade. Their protests, known as the Candlelight Revolution, caused the impeachment and removal of their president from office.

It was the same decade that saw a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, douse himself in petrol and set himself alight; a spark that ignited the Arab spring.

As Gary Younge predicted, the 2020s, although fairly young, has already produced some historic protests.

A Ghanaian Arab spring

In fact, Ghana’s current president jumped onto the Arab spring in his campaign to the Jubilee House. He warned that if things were not set right this country could be destabilised.

But, since the onset of the Fourth Republic, our governments have often, deliberately or inadvertently, advanced an argument that narrowly defines democracy. It goes like this: the people should vote because it is their civic duty; they should allow the winning party to form a government and rule for the next four years. Protest, which is a cornerstone of any functioning democracy, is frowned upon.

But, without protests, most of the democratic rights we take for granted and enjoy today wouldn’t exist. For instance, without strikes by the garment workers in the US, workers would still be doing seven-day schedules, no free weekends.

Notwithstanding how crucial protest is, it seems we have been effectively cowed. Civic participation has been reduced to elections.

This arrangement suits our elected officials who wish for citizens to passively believe that politicians will spend taxpayer money prudently; that they will not sacrifice public interest for corporate greed; that they will protect the vulnerable and minority groups from powerful and populous ones; that they will ensure the labour force is not exploited; that systems will be built to solve perennial problems. Regardless of prejudiced appointments into critical democratic institutions, politicians want us to trust the process.

Although most of us now realize that this arrangement is only a fairy-tale, we seem to have been bought into their idea of what democracy should be.

We have seen how our governments have abused power without any consistent and effective public pressure. They have entrenched impunity by their blatant disregard for accountability. The yearly Auditor General reports show how billions of cedis are wasted and stolen by public officials. Called honourable and excellencies, they have been dishonourable in implementing campaign promises. Scholarships for the poor have been hijacked by the powerful and the well-connected. Getting basic public services seem as though one is trying to enter the eye of a needle if she doesn’t know anyone. Public institutions are sabotaged to create frontiers to loot. They use archaic laws to gag critical voices. The list of these abuses is long.

Citizens of countries whose situation are comparably better than ours fight consistently to improve their living conditions.

And this is why I find it rather baffling that we look on while those who begged to lead us now take us for granted even when our situation continues to degenerate due to mismanagement on their part.

We, after all, are not cut from a docile cloth.

How protests saved Ghana’s lands

When the British colonial regime wanted to use legal means to steal our lands in the late 1800s, our forebears fought back. No matter their hang-ups, which have contributed, one way or another to our present predicament, the traditional authorities joined the western educated elites in the territory to prevent the passage of the Crown Lands Bill.

According to a paper by Charles Boateng, “by the end of 1897, the Lands Bill had died, leaving land in the hands of the Gold Coasters.”

Without their indefatigable efforts, we would be in a similar situation as Zimbabwe or South Africa after colonial occupation.

The 1948 riot is popularly known as a protest by ex-service men. However, it is less known that many unemployed young men and women across the country protested after the shooting of the ex-service men. Unfortunately, what started as orderly protest turned deadly. At the end of the protest, 29 people had died, between 237 to 266 were injured and over £2 million of damage was caused by the protesters.

This protest is what eventually led Ghana to gain its independence ahead of other sub-Saharan countries.

So, why have protests in post-independence Ghana lost their steam? Before independence, irrespective of our differences, the goal was one; to gain freedom.

But the Fourth Republic seems to have ushered in a sharply divided country, where people can’t see anything outside the prejudice of partisan politics. An ensconced middle class that has trodden on the back of the masses to gain political power has often turned against the people who propped its ladder to the top. This may have resulted in a fatigue and a dis-trust of those who want to lead the people to protest.

In the face of real possibility of betrayal and the danger of being victimized, it is also clear that if the people don’t devise a means to be heard, a means to ensure that their concerns are addressed, our country, which some have said is not far from being knocked into a coffin, might end up six feet under.

Nobody wants that.

But it has to be said, because a people who pretend to be blind, create its own destruction. And the illusion that has been peddled by lazy politicians and clergy men is that ours is a country insulated from terror and horror. This fog must be removed from our minds.

It must be said that, unfortunately, trust in governments destroys democracy. The concept of good governance only survives and thrives on constant public scrutiny and challenge. To succeed, it demands incessant disruption of the comfortable relationship between elected officials and their cronies: controllers of the mass media, political entrepreneurs, and friends in high places.

“A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become. Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me.”

It is imperative for us to allow the above words by the American essayist and novelist, James Baldwin, to sink in. And to accept the fact that what challenge and disruption mean, in essence, is protest.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This article is well written. I love it! It has caused the boundaries of my brain to shift. I am sweating profusely and I know my mind had been written.

  2. infact this article has carried me already and am thinking differently. infact if this country must work then there must be a cool revolutionary approach towards the seat of power .

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