Paul Victor Obeng speaks at Africa Day 2010
Ghana is often recognised as guiding light for democratisation in Africa. It is a country where citizens now have a proper choice in electing their representatives and where multiparty democracy has firmly taken root. NIMD recently invited a key Ghanaian politician from this period – Mr P.V. Obeng – to talk about his experiences as part of the annual ‘Africa Day’ in The Hague.
Mr Obeng was for twelve years Chairman of Secretaries and member of the military-led Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). He was also one of the keen drivers behind the process of democratisation. He presented his experiences during a workshop session at Africa Day, the annual event celebrating Africa and African development organised by the Evert Vermeer Foundation.
In his lecture, Mr Obeng described how the democratic process in Ghana evolved under the new government in 1981, in what he classified as a popular revolution rather than a coup d’etat. From the very beginning, coup leader Rawlings declared that “government would be brought to the doorstep of the people”, indicating the intention that any future democratic system would be based mainly on decentralised administration and authority.
The PNDC government was of the view that Ghanaians needed to be prepared step by step for this new decentralised democratic system and the revolutionary administration started to rebuild or reform much of the existing local, regional, and national administrative machinery of governance. One of the decisions in this process was to create People’s Defence Committees intended to be local organs of popular power and political initiative, and exposing common Ghanaians to democratic principles.
In line with this process, a dedicated National Commission for Democracy (NCD) was formed in 1982 with the main function to serve as bridge between the revolution and the people and with the ultimate aim to implement democratic changes within the system.
The appointment in 1984 of Justice Daniel F. Annan (also a member of the PNDC) as Chairman of the NCD gave the commission new impetus, as he was deemed acceptable by both the opposition forces and the traditional established classes. In that same year the NCD invited the public to submit proposals on future forms of democratic government, and public meetings were held to discuss how to realise true democracy in Ghana.
As a result of these and other efforts, the NCD published its findings in a "Blue Book", its main advice focused on the creation of elective District Assemblies. In 1988 the related municipal and district elections were held, and Mr Obeng described how ordinary people were elected to these assemblies – for example, a guard winning against a judge, or a cleaner defeating a doctor – in line with the revolutionary principles of anti-elitism and increased grassroots power.
In July 1990, these successful local elections were followed up by the development of a new constitution. This marked the final step in the transition to democracy since it established the institutions and legislative framework needed for multiparty politics. After lifting the ban on political parties, the first presidential and parliamentary elections in over a decade took place in late 1992.
Mr Obeng highlighted the need for management of opposing forces in the regime as key to promoting the democratic agenda, as some hardliners envisioned a career in the army rather than in a democratic society. He also stressed the importance of independent institutions like the Electoral Commission to ensure free and fair elections.
NIMD through its local partner the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has played a facilitating role in the democratic consolidation process in Ghana since 2002, and intends to record this remarkable account in more detail in order to draw key lessons for other programmes.