A democratic nation in which good governance, justice, fairness, and transparency thrive can only be built by the collective efforts of every member of the nation duly performing their role as required.
However, citizens tend to be oblivious to their role as agents capable of ensuring effective accountability and transparency; qualities that characterise a better society. The ignorant thinking that power lies in the hands of the ruling government continues to be a very deterring factor for people to speak up and question the authority in power. While few citizens stand out and speak up in the face of wrong doings and injustice, many continue to maintain a position of neutrality.
In some West African countries like Togo, citizens who attempt to voice out their grievances are quelled by strong resistive forces put in place by the governments that perpetrate gross injustices. Hence, enforcing civic space restrictions.
However, there are some countries in the region that could be regarded as role models within the context of civic space restrictions. Ghana is one of such.
According to the civic space monitor (or CIVICUS Monitor), an online tool that is used to monitor and track the state of civic freedoms in 195 countries across the world, Ghana has earned a status of ‘narrow’. From updates provided by the West Africa Civil Society Institute and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network and curated by CIVICUS, this is the best rating among ECOWAS member states.
According to the monitor, being narrow implies that, "the state allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, violations of these rights also take place. People can form associations to pursue a wide range of interests, but full enjoyment of this right is impeded by occasional harassment, arrest or assault of people deemed critical of those in power. Protests are conducted peacefully... The media is free to disseminate a wide range of information, although the state undermines complete press freedom either through strict regulation or by exerting political pressure on media owners."
Pertaining to the latter, and perculiar to Ghana, journalists live in a state of insecurity, facing brutality and life threats from citizens, civil servants and influential persons alike.
Recognising this anomally and the need to bolster citizen’s role in ensuring that government is accountable, the School of Continuing and Distance Education of the University of Ghana organised the 70th Annual New Year School Conference at the University of Ghana. This took place from 14 - 19 January 2019 under the theme "Building Strong Institutions for Democratic Consolidation in Ghana."
The conference witnessed the participation of civil society actors, public officials, media, academia, students and the public to share views on strategies to build a stronger civil society for effective accountability in Ghana.
Mr. Ace Anan Ankomah of the social movement Occupy Ghana and Ms. Josephine Nkrumah of the National Commission on Civic Education (NCCE) were among the guest speakers.
According to Mr. Ankomah, there is a critical need of social movements as agents of positive change in Ghana; to hold the elected government accountable for their actions, consolidate democracy and bring about good governance. He highlighted a couple of instances when citizens under the umbrella of Occupy Ghana made public officials answerable to their actions.
He pointed out that some actions of the Occupy Ghana movement led to the recovery of GH¢ 67million from surcharged certificates, abolishing the unjustified payment of allowances for members of state boards, putting pressure on the passage of the "Right to Information (RTI)" bill to become a law amongst others.
He emphasised that the power citizens have to demand accountability is backed by the Constitution of Ghana which states that, "the sovereignty of Ghana resides in the people of Ghana in whose name and for whose welfare the powers of government are to be exercised in the manner and within the limits laid down in this constitution", (Chapter 1, article 1).
Mr. Ankomah also mentioned that a key duty of citizens is to protect and preserve public property, expose and combat misuse and waste of public funds and property.
“Citizens should therefore hold the feet of the political powers to fire so that they do not do as they want”, he appealed.
Ms. Nkrumah added her voice to the need for citizens to be actively involved in issues of accountability and good governance in Ghana. To achieve this, she reckoned on the need for civic education to be included in the curriculum at all levels.
“It is important for civic education to be taught at all levels of our education system to produce strong, protective and informed citizens”, she said.
This will build citizens who can actively participate in the political process and promote an understanding of the ideals of democracy. This is crucial because it will enable the education system to groom the next generation of decision makers to make informed decisions.
Going by the tenets of the constitution which placed power in the hands of the people as opposed to popular belief that power is beheld by the government, she said "we are who we are because we do not know what we are".
Ms. Nkrumah therefore urged citizens to take their rights in their hands first by educating themselves and not forgetting to level up these rights to their required responsibilities.
Such lessons on civic awareness and citizenship as lectured in Ghana, by Ghanaians and to Ghanaians are laudable and empowering.
It is elucidating to participate in such an event and watch diverse stakeholders (government, civil society, academia and citizens) sit around the same table and share thought provoking perspectives to advance national growth.
It is imperative for African leaders in governments, within civil society and the academia to follow Ghana’s example. They should jointly organise such forums and apply the lessons shared during such forums to fast track Africans’ effective participation in Africa’s development.
Our future is in our hands!