Notes on the History and Government of Ghana

In the lecture I attended titled History of Ghana given by Dr. Kwame Osei Kwartec of the History Department at University of Cape Coast, I learned about the basic structure of Ghana’s recent history. The colonial period in which Ghana was established as a British Crown Colony brought economic and social changes, including a change in currencies; the building of harbors; increased mining; the construction of roads and railways; the introduction of Western education; the creation of hospitals; and the emergence of the middle and working classes.  In the early nineteenth century, Britain elected governors that organized alliances with native tribes and introduced the British legal system to protect their interests along the Gold Coast.  King Prempeh I, the Asante chief ruler at this time, refused the offer of Britain’s protection and governance.  Prempeh, along with the chief commissioner of the Asante, Yaa Asantewaa, engaged in war with Britain, and the Asante people were eventually conquered and forced under British rule.  The first political party was formed in Ghana in August of 1947 and was led by Paa Grant.  This party was named the United Gold Coast Convention; its slogan was “self-government within the shortest possible time.”  It did not petition for Ghana to immediately become an independent state from Britain.  In the 1950s nationalist activities in Ghana increased and elections were held in 1951, 1954, and 1956 in order to establish a Ghanaian government.  Ghana was declared an independent state in 1957.  The state was led by Nkrumah, who expanded education and promoted a socialist infrastructure, from independence to 1966.  A military coup in 1966 ended Nkrumah’s governance without violence.  The new military government was called the National Liberation Council (NLC), which claimed to be a provisional government until an election could be realized.  Political parties were again legalized and a multi-party election was held in 1969.  Dr. Kofi Busia, a member of the Progress Party, was elected as leader of the nation.  In 1981 Jerry Rawlings leading a military coup took power and dissolved all political parties, but declared that his end goal was reinstating democracy.  In 1992 a new democratic constitution was passed and the previous administration was absolved.  The current fourth republic has been in effect for twenty-one years as the longest standing government system since independence.

While listening to the history of Ghana told by a Ghanaian, I was struck by how Westernized Ghana’s history seemed. Maybe this is because history is written by the conqueror, or maybe it is because the Western documentation of events was preserved in a more permanent written form than the native Ghanaians’ oral storytelling.  How does this affect Ghanaians’ view of Ghana’s history and their national identity?  Language (and the metaphor present in language) can strongly influence how a person relates to a subject.  For example, Dr. Kwartec spoke of African tribes that were colonized by European powers.  Was the speaker using terminology that he had read in foreign academic textbooks or the translation of the term used at his home to describe the factions of African peoples?  If the former, the word “tribes” conveys a certain incivility and archaism when compared to other descriptive options, such as peoples, nations, countries, or kingdoms.  If the latter, the speaker’s words may have simply been the common agreed-upon terminology between Africans and may even show pride, strength, and heritage if used with the connotation of family ties and ancestry.  Maybe the drastic changes in government policy over the past fifty years have caused a lack of coordinated histories of Ghana’s early people, and that is why Ghanaians looked at Western records – to fill in the gaps.  This could have infused Ghanaian history with an outsider’s biased perspective.

The frequency of governmental change over the past half-century also creates another interesting circumstance for the people of Ghana.  The current and fourth republic has been the longest-standing government since Ghana’s independence in 1957.  This means that every Ghanaian over the age of twenty-one has experienced revolution in his or her life time.  In addition to causing discontinuity in state programs, I wonder if this has created disjointedness in generations’ characters. Elders grew up in a time of political unrest and they must teach the lessons they learned to a younger generation that has never experienced an alternative style of government or an uprising against the official state institution. As told by Dr. Kwartec, Ghana’s checkered history has created a country that is currently striving to represent its diverse peoples in a stable democracy while maintaining its connections to the traditions of indigenous African societies.

Many variations of government were present in the indigenous cultures of African societies; however, most of these societies shared many characteristics.  These common features include valuing the good of the group over the good of the individual, the understanding that the group revolves around extended family and lineage, valuing land as property of an entire family, strong feelings of loyalty to family, holing important ceremonies to mark major life events, deep respect for elders and ancestors, and the inter-weaved nature of religion in everyday life.  These societies also had governments in which political authority was in the hands of the chiefs and which revolved around consensus making.

Two main pre-colonial political systems were acephalous governments and cephalous governments. In the acephalous political system, political power and authority within clans was decentralized.  Lineage defined political units, all members of which shared a common family head.  The role of political office holders included maintenance of law and order, being intermediaries, leading the arbitration of disputes, applying social sanctions, and providing restorative justice.  In cephalous political systems, one ruler led an entire group.  For example, one man headed each indigenous African clan.  Dr. Michael W. Kpessa was very forward in his lecture about clarifying that European descriptions of African governments and life do not accurately represent African life.  Words create bias and misrepresentation, and by placing European terms of top of African ones the context and connotation of what is being observed changes.

In contrast to acephalous and cephalous indigenous governing systems, Dr. Seidu M. Alidu of the Political Science Department at the University of Ghana defined democracy as a body reflecting six key factors: free and fair elections, the guarantee of fundamental rights, democratic institutions (for example, a judiciary system), respect for civil liberties, a vibrant civil society, and uncensored media.  In Ghana the 1992 constitution, the Political Parties Law, and the Republic of the Peoples’ Law provide the legal framework for political participation.  The 1992 constitution guarantees citizens’ civil liberties.

Since the new constitution has been in use, multi-party elections have been held on multiple occasions without violence or military intervention.  This ability to peacefully transfer power from one party to another party with different beliefs is the keystone of democracy.  Without this the changing opinion of the people would not be reflected in the country’s government, which would then not be a democracy.  In the past twenty-one years, Ghana’s fourth republic has achieved this democratic milestone.

Additionally, political organizations promoting free press and human rights have continued to strengthen Ghana’s status as a democratic state.  However, Dr. Alidu’s lecture gave me the impression that although Ghana’s current constitution and other legislature are fairly and well written, these policies are not accurately reflected in people’s everyday lives.  Corruption is visibly present in the government.  For example, two individuals that committed the same crime may not be reprimanded equally in practice although under the law, they should be treated the same.  If one has political connections, he may not be charged.  Descriptions of acephalous governing systems remind me of the structure of Ghana’s current democracy.  Both aim to represent all citizens and use consensus to make good governing decisions.  The main distinction between these two styles of government is that acephalous government is integrated with religious beliefs and democracy tries to separate religious and state affairs.  By comparing information from two of the mentioned lectures, I noticed that Ghanaians have repeatedly rebelled against the idea of cephalous-style governments.  For example, in 1966 a military coup ended the non-democratic rule of Nkrumah.

It was very interesting to learn that Ghana’s constitution is in many ways similar to the United States’ constitution and policy.  This may be attributed to the fact that both governments claim to be democracies and therefore use the same basic influences.  My favorite moment of Dr. Alidu’s lecture was when I learned that Ghana had implemented an electronic finger-print identification system for voting in elections.  Elections are something that the United States still uses paper to document.  Ghana’s willingness and desire to continuously better their government is inspiring.  With the mentality “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” a government cannot expect to adequately cope with the people’s changes in belief.

There are many types of indigenous governing and many categories of modern styles of government, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.  Ghana’s current challenge is to integrate the two, indigenous and modern, to produce a government that continues the best aspects of past traditional governing and the political structure of newer models that will allow Ghana to more easily interact with governments of the rest of the world.  Dr. Kpessa seemed to heavily support giving the traditions and values of indigenous acephalous governments a prominent role in the current western-style government.  The acephalous government provides moral and ethical guidance that a democracy does not.  It utilizes a community’s ability to work together to raise the next generation, while a democracy leaves the teaching of morality to an individual’s parents or guardians.  In this way the acephalous government may be a preferable governing style when compared to democracy.  It seems to integrate the best community and equality aspects of communism with the representation of a wide variety of people that a democracy brings into a viable social, moral, and political governing system.


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