The 2020 elections were a turning point – but towards what? by Goosie Tanoh

Read Time: 10 minutes
Goosie Tanoh

The 2020 elections were historic in several ways.  They crystalised several trends that have been developing in our body politic for years now and which will be decisive for the future of the 4th Republican experiment. In this series of short articles, I would like to look at some of these.  I would like to examine for example why, for the first time in our history, Ghanaian voters have given control of the executive and legislative branches of government to different political parties and what that will mean for our future. I would like to look at the Parties’ performance in the election and its aftermath – e.g., mass street protests and their place in our democratic journey.  I would like to look at the performance of various state and establishment agencies in the conduct of the elections.  For example, what is the significance of the EC’s attempt to deny 20,000 registered voters the right to elect a representative to Parliament in Hohoe North?  How could the EC be so slovenly in its computation and declaration of presidential results leading to some observers questioning the EC and its Chairperson’s competence, and unfortunately,  the integrity of the results announced? How could it be so blatantly opaque and unaccountable in its dealings with the political parties and the public leading to an unprecedented number of legal challenges? 

In this first piece, I want to discuss political violence generally and as we experienced it in the 2020 election. I am particularly concerned about the co-option of state security agencies for partisan agendas.  I am interested in four questions.  

  • The first is: was there truly an unprecedented level of violence – or is this just “opposition propaganda”? 
  • The second is where has all this violence come from?   
  • The third question is what danger does this violence pose to our society? 
  • And fourth and most important: what must we do to change the narrative? 

Was there unprecedented political violence during the 2020 elections?

Yes.  The Ghana Police Service says there were 61 election-related incidents across the country between 7th December and 9th December 2020.  The mass media tell us that in places like Techiman South, Sene, Sefwi Wiawso, Ablekuma, Tarkwa Nsuaem, Essikado–Ketan and Upper Denkyira West, persons in military uniform threatened civilians involved in collating votes. 

And, for the first time in the Fourth Republic, many of these incidents involved firearms, leading to the deaths of at least 6 innocent Ghanaians: 

  • Tajudeen Alhassan, age 39, from Techiman South
  • Abdala Ayaric , age 18, from Techiman South
  • Samira Zakaria, age 14, from Savelugu
  • Rita Otuo, age 15, from Odododiodio
  • Emmanuel Dompra, age 36 years, from Odododiodio
  • Ibrahim Abass, age 30, from Ablekuma Central

May they rest in peace.  And may their deaths not be in vain!

Who were these shooters? Who takes institutional responsibility for their crimes? The Ghana Armed Forces (GAF), the Ghana Police Service (GPS), and the National Security Council (NSC) are silent. The Presidency is silent.  We know that the Ablekuma Central shooter (killer of Ibrahim Abass; wounder of a journalist and a Police Officer) has identified himself as an NSC officer stationed at Jubilee House.  Of course, the NSC has no legal right whatsoever to bear arms. Why is the president (and Chair of the NSC) silent?

Where did all this political violence come from?

The December violence was not surprising.  Everything pointed towards violence.  First, under the Akufo-Addo administration, we saw NPP militias attack senior police, national security personnel, national security installations and courts.  All in broad daylight.  All with complete impunity. 

Then in January 2019, we saw the attack, again in broad daylight, on the Ayawaso West Wuogon (AWW) by-election. One of the perpetrators described this attack as a “dress rehearsal” for the 2020 elections.  That attack forced NDC to withdraw from the by-election. We saw live TV coverage of the Emile Short Commission that investigated the AWW attack.  All Ghanaians learned how NPP militiamen were “trained”, armed, and deployed as part of an unlawful armed unit in the NSC Secretariat.  Unfortunately, the President dismissed the Emile Short Committee’s findings and recommendations saying the committee had misunderstood its terms of reference. So, again, nobody was held responsible for that attack.  

Then, of course, there were violent incidents during the voter registration exercise, including a Minister of State firing live ammunition at civilians claiming self-defence.  The writing for December was clearly on the wall.

But the truth is that the violence started long before the Akufo-Addo presidency.  It has been building up in our society for decades.

There is no mystery per se about how violence creeps into politics.  All society is about creating and sharing wealth.  Violence is always present and growing whenever an organised minority in society seeks to expropriate the wealth of the majority for itself.  Of course, exploiters prefer to confuse and divide the exploited – using race, gender, tribe, religion, sexual orientation, and even party affiliation rather than resorting to violence.  They prefer to keep the exploited so busy fighting each other that they cannot identify their real enemies or organise to defeat them.  But there always comes the point in time when the exploited masses begin to suspect what is going on.  At that point, the exploiters resort to intensifying violence to protect the overall system.  

This has been our history.  We have been through slave-based agriculture (“before the white men came”), to high-intensity trans-Saharan or trans-Atlantic slave trading, to massive colonial exploitation, to unstable neo-colonialism in which the rate of exploitation has been increasing decade after decade.  In each case, the minorities exploited the majority. They justified it in various ways – divine right, do-them-before-they-do-you, worship of false gods, cultural “civilising” missions, or comparative advantage.  Whenever these justifications failed to persuade, then direct violence was rolled out. 

British colonialism was remarkably successful in downplaying the wars of conquest it fought against rival elite systems and people generally unwilling to be exploited by British companies.  It fostered ethnic, religious, and other divisions amongst the people of the Gold Coast.  Kwame Nkrumah’s genius was to cut through those petty identities and build a pan-African-nationalist movement above petty tribal and religious identities and use that unity to defeat colonialism and build foundations for a society that used its resources equitably for its development rather than for the profits of foreign investors and their local agents. Nkrumah’s values and basic programme were so popular that it took internationally directed military violence to kill the independence revolution and restore minority exploitation.  Unsurprisingly, once the military genie was released in 1966, it took till 1992 before we could stabilise civilian constitutional rule in the Fourth Republic.

The 4th Republic emerged from the struggles of 31st December “revolution” with a social-democratic constitution on the one hand and a political elite that by and large accepted the neoliberal development framework promoted by the World Bank, IMF, and WTO on the other hand.  Despite pious rhetoric about constitutionalism et cetera, this system measures everything (systems, institutions, people) by the amount of financial wealth they generate.  Inevitably, neoliberalism acquiesces in local politicians, technocrats, and bureaucrats enriching themselves through the processes of making public natural and institutional resources available to transnational corporations.  For the NPP this was old hat – business as usual.  The NDC had a sharp learning curve to negotiate. But many of its big men also soon realised that it was easier to practice patronage politics based on official corruption than to lead a party permanently mobilised to fight for social equity – a struggle that naturally includes internal party accountability and democracy. 

So, although they were quite different in 1992, NPP and NDC have moved closer and closer over the last 2 decades on the question of elite entitlement. Each successive administration takes us to new levels of brigandage.  As knowledge of, and resistance to this institutionalised looting and distrust of the political establishment spreads, the Establishment has increasingly moved towards authoritarianism and violence.  Interestingly, the two main parties have become so alike that they compete not so much on vision and programmes but on not being as corrupt as the other.  It is this collapse of legitimacy and the panic of the political elite that is driving the rise not only of political violence but of efforts to co-opt state security agencies into partisan violence as we saw in December.  Violence is inevitable where there is systematic corruption.  Therefore, any move to eliminate political violence requires that we address corruption and other abuses of power by the political class.

What danger does political violence pose to Ghana?

Violence and especially militarisation of politics undermines the Constitutional State. Once bankrupt politicians begin to resort to violence to protect their corrupt interests, it is difficult for them to turn back.  Worse, once bankrupt politicians entice military and militia commanders to do their dirty work for them (especially election rigging) then power has started shifting away from civilian institutions to “the men with guns” – even without a formal coup d’état.  Once the political system has lost its legitimacy to the point that it can only survive by force, then there is no reason for those who wield the instruments of force to look to civilian politicians for leadership or validation.  If politics is about force and it is soldiers who must risk life and limb for it, then they can go into business for themselves.

“Power tends to corrupt.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  Violent power is also addictive.  And even where those who hold it somehow avoid addiction, they find that they cannot step back for fear of reprisals – or dismount from the proverbial Tiger’s back.  As mentioned earlier, it took a quarter of a century after the 1966 coup for the military to withdraw completely to barracks (where they have remained now for 27 years).  In that period, there were 6 successful “revolutions”, and God knows how many failed coup attempts.

Violence and especially militarisation of politics corrupts and undermines the military itself.  Soldiers are not per se better or worse than civilians. However, the military as an institution is not designed to rule a country – any more than a university is.  Politics is corrosive of non-political institutions.  The politicisation of the security forces changes their internal dynamics radically.  Once senior officers take sides in a partisan dispute whether out of political conviction, ethnic allegiances, or for personal benefit, you can be sure that soldiers of competing persuasions, ethnicity, etc. will also feel justified in responding violently.  Discipline breaks down.  And instead of a professional service that is the nation’s pride, you have armed camps biding their time to grab for power – creating an inherently unstable situation.

Violence, and especially militarisation of politics, destabilises the relationship between the military and civilians.  The politicians who use the military to brutalise citizens are training the military to disregard the constitution and citizens’ rights and even to regard them as “enemies”.  This attitude inevitably breeds hostilities that, as we know from our history, can last for decades after military rule ends.  It is just a question of time before dissenting civilian forces begin to respond to the military with violence.

Violence and especially militarisation of politics retards  society. The culture of the ruling elite is the culture of society.  Given its culture and expertise (the administration and application of violence), military politics will always be violent and repressive – no matter what long-term social objectives it aspires to.  It does not take long before civilians living under military/militia rule start using violence to resolve every social disagreement, especially where constitutional agencies like the courts do not appear to be able to guarantee justice.  We have all seen how, despite the end of military involvement in domestic policy in 1992, the incidence of civilians resorting to militias and macho men in land and natural resources disputes is rising.   

And, because the model of politics available to soldier politicians is literally “galamsey”, military governments will be corrupted.  You can be sure that soldiers who cannot immediately access the pork barrel are actively looking for an opportunity to get their share.  You can also be sure that more professional soldiers will seek to “clean house” and return to professional soldiering.

Of course, the Security Services are not alone.  Other state institutions like the EC and the Judiciary have lost public trust when it comes to elections.  However, a loss of impartiality on the part of the Security Services poses a much more “clear and present” danger to our democracy.

How can we change the narrative?

The genie has started escaping from the lamp.  The fire is burning, but slowly.  All is not lost.

We have come back from the brink before.  15 years after the 1966 coup unleashed militarism into our politics, the PNDC, itself a product of this militarism, took on the challenge of building professionalism and political neutrality back into the Security Services.  It took many years and was a dangerous and risky process. Lives were lost.  It probably could not have been achieved then without a quasi-military regime in charge.  How can we achieve this today under a constitutional system?  I have some ideas.

First, we must face our problem squarely.  We must stop pretending that Ghana is somehow a special case.  The laws of social development govern us as much as any other society.  What has happened to other countries can happen to Ghana if we behave like those other countries collectively behaved.

Second, facing the problem squarely means understanding and dealing with the underlying problem of exploitation/corruption.  Of course, any scientific analysis of corruption takes you to the more fundamental problem of imperialism and our neo-colonial values.  However, it is enough, for now, if we tackle the conduct of those we elect to State office to represent public interests. If we can tackle the impunity of our state officials, we will find the strength to deal systemically with foreign exploitation – one step at a time. 

Third, a campaign against impunity must be broad-based.  We must send a clear message to politicians and the national social elite that the days of impunity are over.  Thousands of brave NDC members have been in the streets over the last 2 weeks protesting suspected EC rigging.   If we can find a more embracing slogan, these thousands can become tens or hundreds of thousands.  We may not agree on who should win the 2020 elections.  However, we can agree that the decision is for the electorate and not the EC or other state agencies to make.  We can also agree that we do not want soldiers and political militias to feel empowered to use the weapons we pay for with our taxes to bully us into accepting any particular outcome.  We can agree that we are tired of all the weekly corruption scandals and the regular white-washing of these scandals by our leaders.  We can agree to mobilise around a slogan like: “No more impunity!”.

Fourth, a campaign against violence and impunity must itself be non-violent.  We must be consistent as regards our values.  We must also be tactical.  Any act that smacks of violence simply provides an excuse for a crackdown by the Security Services. They will then claim that they are acting in the public interest against terrorists.  We must seek to draw attention to our agenda and win and mobilise.  We must not seek to terrorise other citizens.  Acts such as burning tires though harmless in themselves suggest aggression that makes many innocent citizens uncomfortable or afraid.  The point is to demonstrate the public will. We can use our allies in the media (who are threatened daily by violence) to saturate the newspapers and air-waves with our message.  We can demand that the establishment speaks out.  And yes, we must have protest marches, sit-ins, and teach-ins.  And court actions to protect our constitutional rights.  Every pulpit, every mosque, every shrine should send out the word:  no more Impunity!

If we begin to act as peaceful but determined citizens and not merely watch and grumble like spectators, we can create the atmosphere that will enable decent public officials and institutions, whether military or civilian, to begin to act professionally; to act lawfully in the public interest, to refuse unlawful orders, and not simply defer to big men and women.  We can create hundreds of Domelovos and Amidus.  We will create the conditions that will compel our religious establishment and agencies like the National Peace Council to show some mettle.   Even NPP activists are quietly concerned about the trends we are seeing. Many would like to protest the trends they are seeing and the injustices of Party leadership bodies.  An activist moment will also allow us to correct Party-state relationships that disempower and regiment grassroots party activists and unreasonably empower the political elite.


If the violence and intimidation that characterised the 2020 elections lead to a mass rejection of violence and a campaign to end impunity in our country, then horrible though these losses have been, we can mark Election 2020 as a departure towards a better future for all Ghanaians.

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