The role of civil society organisations in a democracy

Nick Opoku (M)

It is an honor to be invited by the Headquarters of the Southern Command of the Ghana Army to this seminar on the theme ‘Military and Democracy’; and to speak specifically on the topic: ‘The role of Civil Society Organisations in a Democracy’.

With the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections just about 4 months away, this topic is more critical than ever.

To provide some historical context, explore the philosophical basis of the work of civil society organizations, and perhaps most importantly, to give my intervention today, some sense of structure, I believe it will be useful if I divide my speech into 3 sub-topics:

(i)             How far we have come as a nation with the practice of democracy in the 4th Republic;

(ii)           governmental accountability and the need for open government; and

(iii)         the role of civil society organizations in a democracy like Ghana.

This way of looking at the issue, is particularly useful to gain, what I believe is a 360 degrees perspective of the issue. My objective for doing so is also to ensure that at the end of this discussion, we will all walk away with not only a broader but also a more complete understanding of the work civil society organizations and how crucial their work is to sustaining democracy in Ghana.

(i) How far we have come as a nation with the practice of the democratic system of government in the 4th Republic

On January 7, 1993, the Fourth Republic began against the background of 11 years of what some describe as ‘quasi-military authoritarian rule’; disputes over the outcome of the transition presidential polls, and the boycott of the ensuing parliamentary elections. That election in 1992 was initially dismissed by many. And with some justification. Some even called it ‘transition without change’. What is interesting, however, is that, despite its obvious imperfections and birth defects, the transition to multiparty democracy, with the adoption of the 1992 Constitution and the inauguration of the new democratically-elected government in January 1993 has ushered Ghana into the longest period of democratic governance.[1] The 4th Republic is curiously Ghana’s oldest Republic, and to say that not many believed this would be possible is an understatement.

As many of you are aware, since the beginning of the Fourth Republic, we have held seven (7) successive multi-party elections; each on schedule. The vote casting and counting in all these elections have been pronounced, to varying degrees, free, fair and transparent by domestic and international election observers.

Three (3) of these elections—elections 2000, 2008, and 2016—have produced alternations of power. Our presidential term limit, established by the 1992 Constitution through Article 66 (1) and (2), is respected and uncontested, unlike in some neighboring African countries. Two main political parties—the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC)—have become largely institutionalized.

The mechanisms of checks and balances have played a powerful role in strengthening our democracy. The judiciary —which is the enforcer-in-chief of our Constitution—is to some extent, and depending on who you ask, more or less independent. Private citizens can challenge the actions of the various arms of government and institutions in court when they believe such actions are unlawful, and the courts have the mandate to either validate them as lawful or invalidate them as unlawful. Beyond the courts, Independent Constitutional Bodies (ICBs) such as that the Office of the Auditor General, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the National Commission on Civic Education (NCCE) and the Electoral Commission serve as checks on the exercise of executive power and protect citizens and non-citizens alike against human rights abuses, amongst others. In addition, despite a few cases of harassment, the freedom of the press has been largely respected, enabling a vibrant media community to thrive and speak truth to power.

It is therefore fair to say that Ghana’s democracy has been legitimized since the beginning of the 4th Republic. In other words ‘democracy is the only game in town today’, to borrow the words of Prof E. Gyimah-Boadi, the former Executive Director of CDD-Ghana.

(ii) Governmental accountability and the need for open government

Colleagues, in a democracy, the relationship between the government and citizens is that of a Principal-Agent relationship. The Principal (citizens: people like you and I) exercise their franchise to elect representatives who form a government. The elected officials also appoint other members of the government. The Agents (the Government) enter office with the mandate to implement policies and programs for the welfare of citizens (the principal). In short, in a democracy, the principal-agent transaction begins with an election. The framers of our Constitution recognized this principal-agent relationship. That is why Article 35 (1) of the Constitution provides that:

‘Ghana shall be a democratic state dedicated to the realization of freedom and justice; and accordingly, sovereignty resides in the people of Ghana from whom Government derives all its powers and authority through this Constitution.’

In order for the government (the agent) to uphold its obligations to the people (the principal), it must be open, accountable, and transparent.

This is the only way for the principal (citizens) to ensure that the agent (the government) is pursuing the mandate for which they were voted in office. That is, to act for the benefit of the principal (citizens)—and not the other way round.

The Directive Principles of State Policy, which spell out ‘in broad strokes the spirit or conscience of the constitution’, to borrow the words of the Committee of Experts in their Proposals for a Draft Constitution of Ghana, are clear.

 Article 36 (1) of the 1992 Constitution provides that:

The State shall take all necessary action to ensure that the national economy is managed in such a manner as to maximize the rate of economic development and to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every person in Ghana and to provide adequate means of livelihood and suitable employment and public assistance to the needy.’

The job of the Principal (government) is therefore well cut out for them.

However, we should note that it is in the spirit of holding government to account—the very idea of open government—that we say in the preamble of our Constitution that ‘IN THE NAME OF THE ALMIGHTY GOD…We the people of Ghana…. AND IN SOLEMN declaration and affirmation of our commitment to Freedom, Justice, PROBITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY;’

It is no surprise the Directive Principles of State Policy which enjoin government to take all the necessary action to maximize the welfare of citizens also dictate in Article 36 (5) that‘…within two years after assuming office, the President shall present to Parliament a coordinated programme of economic and social development policies, including agricultural and industrial programmes at all levels and in all the regions of Ghana.’

Article 67 of the Constitution also provides that ‘The President shall, at (i) the beginning of each session of Parliament and (ii) before a dissolution of Parliament, deliver to Parliament a message on the state of the nation.’

The very idea of ensuring that the executive give an account of their deeds to the people (the principal), is why we have these provisions in our Constitution.

In addition to the role of Parliament in holding government to account, the Constitution is also clear on the role of the media in Article 162.

Beyond parliament, the media, and other agencies whose responsibility it is to ensure horizontal accountability like the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Office of the Auditor General, amongst others, citizens also have a role to play because governmental accountability needs an Active Citizen.

Amongst the key duties of a citizen, according Article 41 of the Constitution, are: (i) to uphold and defend this Constitution and the law [therefore when you and I as citizens find any law or action of an institution which we deem to be unlawful, we have a responsibility to go to court to have the said law or action invalidated by the courts]; (ii) to protect and preserve public property and expose and combat misuse and waste of public funds and property [therefore we have a duty to prevent and fight corruption and the waste of public resources]; (iii) to co-operate with lawful agencies in the maintenance of law and order; (iv) to declare income honestly to the appropriate and lawful agencies and to satisfy all tax obligations; etc.

Colleagues, these are some of the key duties of an active citizen. But how many citizens of Ghana are actively performing their roles?

For the purposes of this topic, let’s look at the data on political and civic engagement for example. According to Afrobarometer Round 8 survey conducted in Ghana between September and October 2019,

     (i)             Question: ‘When you get together with your friends or family, would you say you discuss political matters frequently, occasionally, or never?’ The answer? Only 23% say ‘frequently’, with a full 35% responding ‘never’, and 41% with ‘occasionally’.

    (ii)           On the question of who has attended a community meeting in the last year, almost half of Ghanaians responded ‘no’.

    (iii)         When it comes participating in a demonstration or marches over the past year, the answers are similarly sobering: 64% of Ghanaians responded that they would ‘never’ do so.

     (iv)          On conversations with representatives, the numbers are more dismal: 85% of Ghanaians say they have never contacted a member of parliament and 70% say the same of assemblymen and women.

This data shows that many citizens fail to actively engage or monitor the performance of government in order to hold them to account.  This is why civil society organisations (CSOs) are critical—DEMOCRACY IS NOT FOR A LAZY SOCIETY and CSOs help fill this void by holding the powerful and our government to account.

Civil society organizations may have emerged in the 1800s when there was an attempt to challenge and hold to account the colonial administration. We had groups like the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights Protection Society (ARPS) that protested against the Lands Bill of 1897 which sought to allow the colonial government to take over public lands. We also had the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) largely composed of the educated elite in the Gold Coast, which amongst others, protested against the incorporation of ‘traditional authorities’ in the colonial system.

This shows that the idea of citizens mobilising to promote one cause or the other is nothing new. Many of you gathered here today, belong to old school associations, home-town associations, etc. These are all forms of civil society organisations which exist to promote key issues.

In addition to those groups, we have groups that

(i)  Organize around public service delivery. These groups are usually community-based and provide direct services such as portable water, good sanitation, amongst others, for the benefit of communities across the country. An example is the Coalition of NGOs in Water and Sanitation (CONIWAS), which works from various locations across the country to promote the water and sanitation sector.

(ii) There are also those that organise around interests and are often member based. For example, Trades Union Congress (TUC) which is the mouthpiece of unionized labour in its dealing with government and with the employers association; the Ghana Medical Association (GMA) which represents the interests of physicians, surgeons and dentists working throughout Ghana; the University Teachers Association (UTAG) which represents the interests of university teachers throughout the country; the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) which represents the interest of all students across the country, amongst many others.

(iii) Then there are those that organise around ideas and work to promote particular causes. These organisations mobilise for reform and help shape public opinion. In a highly partisan society like Ghana, these organisations are a voice of moderation and reason and usually bring balance to discussions on critical national issues by looking at such issues more dispassionately. This group of CSOs also scrutinise bills put before parliament, and major public agreements; for example, the Defence Cooperation Agreement between Ghana and the US ratified by Parliament in 2018.  On matters of economic policy/development, we have organisations such as the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), etc. On democracy and good governance, there are organisations such as the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), Institute for Democratic Governance (IDEG), etc. On energy policy, we have organisations such as the Africa Center for Energy Policy (ACEP). On matters related to strengthening the work of parliament, we have organisations such as Odekro, the Parliamentary Network for Africa, amongst many other organisations. As the CSO space matures, we can expect to have CSOs which will begin to focus on and scrutinise security services. Please note that when they do this, they do so not to undermine your work as security agencies.

Ladies and gentlemen, this last group of civil society organisations (CSOs) exists to monitor and evaluate government performance and service delivery and hold government to account. That is the crucial role they play in a democracy like Ghana.

 

How do they do that?

One, in terms of monitoring and evaluation for instance, CDD-Ghana, uses tools/projects such as:

  1. ‘I’m Aware’: I’m Aware provides Ghanaians with free simple user-friendly data on the state of public service delivery in seven (7) areas: education, health, sanitation, water, security, roads, and agriculture across all regions of Ghana. The objective of the ‘I’m Aware’ project is to strengthen the demand for accountability and responsiveness in Ghana by improving citizen awareness and engagement with duty bearers about public service delivery issues in their communities.

 

  1. District League Table (DLT): the District League Table is a simple ranking tool, which measures the level of development in all 216 districts across Ghana. It ranks all the districts based on six (6) key sectors – health, education, sanitation, water, security and governance. These indicators are aggregated into a single index, and districts are ranked from 1st down to 216th place in terms of level of development. The objective of the District League Table is to increase social accountability in Ghana for improved development. It does this by opening up space for dialogue between the State and citizens through the provision and tracking of essential information on well-being at the district level. It also seeks to help the government of Ghana to better understand the unique development needs of each district.

 

  1. Corruption Watch: Corruption Watch, as the name suggests, is an anti-corruption campaign. It seeks to promote integrity in public life by demanding and activating the responsiveness and accountability of all actors in the anti-corruption space to ensure corruption cases are investigated, suspects are prosecuted in accordance with law and stolen funds are recovered by the State. The goal is to make corruption risky and unattractive by closing opportunities which encourage corruption in Ghana, by sustaining citizen and media spotlight on corruption cases from exposure of corrupt cases and officials, to closure of the cases.

 

  1. Afrobarometer: Afrobarometer is a non-partisan survey research project that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, civil society and other topics in more than 30 countries across all regions in Africa. The goal is to give the public a voice in policymaking by providing high-quality public opinion data to policymakers, policy advocates, civil society organizations, academics, news media, donors and investors and everyday Africans.

Two, in terms of Research and Analysis of government projects, the objective of our work is help to identify challenges affecting the implementation of public policies and provide responses to overcome them based on lessons learned from previous successes and failures on similar policy areas. CDD-Ghana uses tools such as the Manifesto ProjectThe objective of the Manifesto Project is to inform and influence national agenda-setting and policy for inclusive development by gathering and synthesising data and evidence from diverse sources and feeding these as inputs for political parties in the development of their manifestos ahead of the 2020 elections. The Manifesto project identifies and highlights critical problem areas, challenges and gaps in specific sectors and thematic areas which militate against national development and progress and thus demand appropriate policy or other remedial intervention from political decision-makers. The final document, which was launched recently, is available for free download on CDD-Ghana’s website.

CDD-Ghana also undertakes training, capacity building and empowerment of other citizens to participate in governance and hold government to account.

To inform and educate citizens, we also make ourselves available for discussions in the media, public forums; publications such as the Democracy Watch newsletter, and the use of various social media platforms, etc.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to briefly talk about the role of CSOs and the Media and in elections and how these two organisations interface with security agencies like the military.

It is important to emphasise that CSOs and the media aim to hold constitutionally elected government(s) to account, and not to undermine government. It is the constitutional mandate of CSOs and the media to do so.

In terms of elections:

  1. CSOs and media organisations carry out programmes to educate voters on electoral processes, and to highlight the key concerns of citizens in order to draw the attention of policy makers. These organisations also carry out election observation activities to ensure that electoral processes are free and fair. CSOs in particular also carry out activities aimed at peace mediation. Eg. National Peace Council.
  2. CSOs and media organisations also work with security agencies (whose constitutional mandate it is to ensure the maintenance of law and order) to track and respond to threats of violence.

So my dear friends, when you see media professionals and members of CSOs out there during elections, these are the tasks they perform. So please treat them as your friends, and do not slap them! (Laugh)

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