While the world waits with bated breath for the sure to be polarizing results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Africa is preparing to host a dozen presidential, parliamentary, and legislative elections.
With participating countries concentrated in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Great Lakes, this high-stakes election cycle is being pitched as a bellwether for the long-term stability and resiliency of Africa’s democratic system. Now, as ballot box dates draw closer, Africa’s democratic systems have been forced to confront the brazen efforts of sitting politicians to disrupt electoral proceedings, dissolve opposition parties, and extend presidential term limits.
Africa’s electoral environment this year is defined by global economic recession, lower development figures, and the ever-present threat that Africa could become the next epicenter in an accelerating COVID-19 pandemic. On the ground, electoral officials and voters must also contend with security challenges posed by militant activity in West and sub-Saharan Africa and escalating geopolitical tensions.
In Ghana, government-run preparations for the upcoming December 2020 presidential and legislative elections have already been identified as a cause for concern by independent electoral specialists. President Nana Akufo-Addo, the incumbent who is running for a second term as a member of the New Patriot Party (NPP), has been accused of promoting, supporting, and enforcing voting legislature that unfairly advantages his re-election chances.
In a move that signals the not-so-slow-paced encroachment of Ghana’s electoral institutions and democratic integrity, Akufo-Addo has also used military assets and state security groups to threaten violence against disenfranchised Ghanaian ethnic groups and opposition party members in the National Democratic Congress (NDC).
Without the public’s consent or due legislative process, Akufo-Addo’s government has required all eligible voters to re-register on the electoral roll. In practical terms, this has the effect of diminishing opposition support by making registration more difficult (or downright impossible) for opposition voters – whose voter registration centers are known to security services. To make matters worse, Akufo-Addo’s decision to mandate in-person voter registration ignores urgent WHO guidelines on limiting public gatherings, a choice that is sure to increase the risk of new COVID-19 clusters developing across Ghana.
As voter registration centers are now becoming a focal point for fear and insecurity in Ghana, citizens across the country now have to worry about unprompted political violence in addition to heightened risks of COVID-19 contraction. Ghana’s Minister for Special Development Initiatives, Mavis Hawa Koomson, recently traveled to an opposition-friendly district and fired several warning shots at a crowded voter registration center. Incredibly, Hawa Koomson’s actions were not condemned by President Akufo-Addo or his administration, with some speculating that similar acts of violence could become a standard practice as the country inches closer to election day.
As though a sitting minister shooting a firearm at a registration center without proper repercussions wasn’t enough, Ghana’s military has since been mobilized under the questionable pretense of quelling disorder at voter registration centers. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the deployment of these military units is concentrated at and around registration centers in NDC-leaning districts.
While these measures have passed under the guise of monitoring social distancing to curtail the spread of COVID-19, this doesn’t come close to explaining additional deployments of military assets for house-to-house searches, political harassment at voter registration centers, and a brutal property destruction campaign against minority ethnic groups in Togoland and the Volta Region. In the latter case, the inhabitants of these regions are not recognized as legitimate Ghanaian citizens by Akufo-Addo’s administration.
With instances of governmental misconduct mounting, President Akufo-Addo has now ordered Daniel Domelevo, Ghana’s Auditor General and the head of the country’s Supreme Audit Institution, to take his accumulated annual leave for at least 123 days. In addition to overseeing nationwide electoral protocols, Auditor General Domelevo was also tasked with combating corruption in Ghana’s public sector.
In service to this role, Domelevo uncovered corruption at the highest levels of Akufo-Addo’s government, prompting investigations into a significant number of sitting parliament members and a string of high-profile ministers, including the Minister of Finance, Ken Ofori-Atta, the Minister of Education, Matthew Opoku Prempeh, and one of Ghana’s three Deputy Ministers of Agriculture, Kennedy Osei Nyarko. By placing Domelevo on forced leave, the Akufo-Addo government may be in breach of both Ghanaian labour and constitutional law.
Attacks on the press are also being reported. After months of publicly criticizing the media, Akufo-Addo’s campaign to suppress negative coverage began in earnest in early May 2019 when he deployed security personnel to launch full-blown raids on two major radio stations who were supportive of the opposition NDC movement. Since then, government officials have permanently shut down both radio stations, claiming that they were operating with expired fair use media licenses.
Europe and the international community, preoccupied with containing COVID-19, have yet to offer any guidance or monitoring for Ghana’s elections. The EU deployed an Election Observation Mission to Ghana in 2016 and a follow-up mission in 2019 where it monitored constitutional and electoral procedures having found that the country had a “track record for well-run, inclusive and peaceful elections”. However, this year there appears to be no such mission scheduled when Ghana’s elections and democracy are most at risk.
While Ghana set a shining democratic example to the rest of Africa, the last several months have typified the conduct of an authoritarian government attempting to concretize its hold on power. With ballot box dates fast approaching, this election may be a critical turning point for Ghanaian democracy.
To prevent a serious escalation in political violence and to ensure fair and safe election outcomes for all Ghanaian citizens, it is imperative that the West keeps a close eye on electoral proceedings over the coming months and for international election observers to be sent immediately to Ghana to monitor the deteriorating situation.