On Ghana’s democracy

Below is the full text of a keynote address given by ACET’s founder and president, K.Y. Amoako, at the 10th Anniversary Memorial Lecture of the late Oyeeman Wereko Ampem II at the Great Hall of the University of Ghana, Legon.

Positive Politics for Ghana:

A Stronger Democracy for a Stronger Economy and a Stronger Future

Your Excellency John Agyekum Kufuor, former President of the Republic of Ghana

Ms.  Marriet Brew, Minister of Justice and Attorney General

Professor Ernest Aryettey, Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana,

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

The University of Ghana, Legon, holds a special significance in my life, for many reasons. Here, as a young man in the 1960s, I decided to dedicate my life to the world of economics and development. Legon helped launch me on a full and fortunate career, spanning four decades, from the World Bank in Washington D.C., to the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, back home to Accra, where in 2008 I founded the African Center for Economic Transformation

It’s also here as a student at Legon that I met the most important person in my life—my dear wife Philomena. I came for an education, but I left with so much more than that.

This Great Hall also brings back memories, one of which is of particular relevance today.

Fifteen years ago, I returned here to deliver an Alumni Lecture on economic development and reform in Ghana. Speaking in this same Hall, I reflected on our history as a beacon for African independence, stability, and growth. And I suggested that we must continue to push forward with the already notable political and economic reforms undertaken.

“In those endeavors,” I said, “the black star cannot wane.”

Last year, when Ghana’s leaders came together in a national economic forum at Senchi to address our mounting economic problems, I took the opportunity to revisit many of the same themes. I made the case for bold policies to support Ghana’s economic transformation, but I also emphasized one overarching point—that Ghana is not just any nation. That we have an exceptional history, valuable resources, and proven successes on which to build.

Today, I want to develop these ideas further. But, my friends, be warned! I intend to expand the conversation beyond my traditional comfort zone.

I’ve talked for years about Ghana’s past, present, and future economic development. Many of the same people have heard me say many of the same things—primarily, “Transform… TRANSFORM… TRANSFORM!”

But today, inspired by the great man in whose honor we gather, I want to talk about more than economic development and more than economic transformation. I want to talk about our society at large—Ghana’s past, present, and future as a state worthy of its eminence.

So I’m going to do something that, historically, I’ve been wise enough to avoid: talk politics. I realize that once I venture onto such treacherous terrain, I could be run out of town. But I trust with so many friends and associates nearby that I’ll be well protected!

That’s not to say I will ignore economic interests entirely, nor would that be a fitting tribute to Oyeeman Wireko Ampem. But if we are going to talk about Ghana’s future, we must talk about Ghana’s politics as well as Ghana’s economics—because they jointly affect our country’s long-term prospects and the welfare of our people.

The title “Oyeeman,” which was conferred upon the late E.N.Omaboe by the Akuapemhene, means “promoter of the society.” For that reason, I cannot think of a better opportunity, or a better venue, to have this conversation.

Before I continue, allow me to express my deep appreciation and gratitude for being part of today’s program. It is an honor. I knew and respected E.N. Omaboe as a pioneering Ghanaian economist and statistician, as a fellow contributor to African public policy—and as a great son of Ghana. I’m sure he would be heartened at the sight of the John A. Kufuor Foundation and the Atta Mills Memorial Foundation coming together for today’s purpose—or any purpose!

Indeed, as Ghana embarks on another presidential election, I think it’s important that we take a moment and appreciate these two organizations, founded in honor and service of two former presidents from two different political parties, uniting today. In a way, this event is symbolic of Ghana’s multiparty democracy, its peaceful transfers of power, and its status as an admired African state.

But now I ask you: how much stronger could Ghana be—politically and economically—if we were able to translate the unity symbolized today into positivity for the future? Because as much as Ghana has going for it, our nation is not without fault.

Our leaders and institutions are not above reproach.

Our democracy is not guaranteed.

Ladies and gentlemen, I said a moment ago that I wanted to talk about Ghana’s past, present, and future as a state worthy of its eminence. I intend to do that in two ways:

First, by being a realist — and describing what I see as some the most dangerous cracks in our foundation.

Second, by being an optimist — and making the case for a new way forward.

I’d like to begin by calling your attention to a recent event sponsored by the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. The event’s topic and title: “Are Ghanaians Fed Up With Democracy?”

Now, according to a close associate who attended, the folks at the Wilson Center admitted that the title might be a little too sensational, but the fact that such a renowned organization even felt compelled to bring in African experts to debate Ghana’s democracy is eye-opening.

For decades, Ghana has been seen as a leader in African stability and governance. When Barack Obama in 2009 scheduled his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa as president of the United States, he chose Ghana, because, as he said, we show the world—quote—“a face of Africa that is too often overlooked.” I don’t think any of us in this room would disagree. Ghana is built on a foundation of peace and stability, of democratic governance, of commitment to rule of law, of respect for civil society, and of impressive economic growth. This is our legacy.

This is why we are not just any nation.

But a foundation is only as strong as its building blocks, and here in Ghana, our two sturdiest building blocks—growth and governance—are weakened.

We are all well aware of the economic challenges, brought on by fiscal imbalances, swelling deficits, and a slowing growth rate that dropped from 15 percent in 2011 to 5.4 percent in 2014—and could drop below 4 percent within a few years. This is why the African Center for Economic Transformation promotes policies and reforms to transform the structure of economies to support long-term growth and development strategies through diversified production, competitive exports, increased productivity, upgraded technology and enhanced human well-being.

Now you may be thinking: “Wait a minute! He promised not to talk about this again.”

I only promised to talk about more than transformation and development, which brings me to Ghana’s other great building block. For there is a fundamental truth consistent across geography and history: development depends on good governance.

And unfortunately, Ghana’s governance is not what it needs to be. It is falling short of its potential—and our citizens are aware. Ghanaians may not yet be “fed up” with democracy, but they are losing patience.

Trust in public institutions and officials is on the decline—and it has been for a decade. Between 2005 and 2014, according to the latest Afrobarometer research, the number of Ghanaians who expressed “a lot” or even “some” trust in just about every facet of our democracy has dropped.

  • From 75 percent to 40 percent for the presidency.
  • From 68 percent to 36 percent for the parliament.
  • From 62 percent to 42 percent for the judiciary.
  • From 54 percent to 34 percent for local government bodies.

Lest you think these numbers simply reflect dissatisfaction with the political process, think again. Trust has dropped in every measurable facet of the state apparatus, including the police, the army, the tax department, the Electoral Commission, and the ruling and opposition national parties.

One obvious factor is the perception of pervasive corruption—a perception that extends beyond public officials to include Ghana’s business community and even its traditional and religious leaders, who are generally considered “less corrupt” but compromised nonetheless.

But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2008, 45 percent of Ghanaians rated their living conditions as fairly bad or very bad. By 2012, that number had almost doubled to 80 percent. Eighty percent! Many of these are people who are living in the dark, whose job prospects are bleak, whose wages are not rising.

Not long ago, the African Center for Economic Transformation, in conjunction with the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, conducted a study on Ghana’s state capacity to drive economic transformation—and, in turn, generate inclusive growth and economic prosperity for its citizens. What did we find?

  • That Ghana’s administrative capacity is hampered by a lack of adequate financing and human resources.
  • That the technical capacity of the civil service is generally weak and not configured to help drive growth and transformation.
  • That the regulatory capacity is only moderately able to enforce the nation’s laws and regulatory regimes.

The cumulative effect of all these factors is taking its toll. On our economy’s ability to rebound. On our citizens’ ability to get ahead. On our country’s ability to develop.

That’s because Ghana is facing what I call “a second generation of governance” problems.

All those issues that made up the widely accepted good governance agenda that gained traction in the mid-1990s—removing dictators, securing peace, holding elections, and liberalizing markets, among others—that was the first generation.

And in dealing with those issues, Ghana led the way. We were among the first African countries to embark on serious economic reforms in the 1980s, and we were among the first to transition to multiparty democracy in the 1990s. But those successes have brought another wave of governance challenges—a second generation—that Ghana continues to combat: being transparent and accountable, governing effectively, spending efficiently, ensuring regulatory quality, and controlling corruption.

The truth is, as much as the rest of the world sees Ghana as a leader in democratic governance, the bloom is off the rose, as the saying goes, here at home—a situation I refer to as the Ghana paradox. Foreign dignitaries come to visit. Donors hold us up as an example.  Many of these friends want so badly for us to succeed that they often ignore our failures —just like the piano player in the bar who refuses to acknowledge the brothel upstairs, an anecdote I have often used.

We also think of ourselves as standard-bearers. But our citizens are increasingly dissatisfied. They openly doubt the validity of the democratic systems around them.

It’s easy to wonder if we’re on the right road at all, if these cracks in our foundation point to a bigger problem. It leads us to an important but uncomfortable question:

Are democracy and development in harmony—or in tension?

Before I continue, let’s take a moment to consider this question in full.

It embodies a deeper debate about governance, capable states, and economic development—a debate as to whether a developing country government with a multiparty system can “deliver the goods” to the same degree as a “developmental state”—one characterized by the presence of a strong development-oriented leader, centralized power, and a lower degree of political competition.

Whereas Ghana fits squarely in the first category, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopia, Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore, or any of a host of East Asian societies over the past half-century come to mind in the latter class of countries.

These countries have shown remarkable economic progress. There’s certainly a compelling argument to be made that countries with less political competition have a leg-up when it comes to development.

Let’s look at Ethiopia. In the last five years, economic growth has reached double-digits—with infrastructure projects and light manufacturing representing the bulk of this growth. In 2012 and 2013, 37 percent of total public capital expenditure went to road construction alone—up almost 20 percent from the year before.

Rwanda has enjoyed growth rates of similar strength—upwards of 7 percent since 2000 but reaching as high as 13 percent in recent years. Most countries in the world never dream of these kinds of figures—especially when rising from the ashes of one of humanity’s great calamities, the genocide just years earlier. I recently wrote an op-ed with President Kagame, published in several newspapers worldwide and focused on Rwanda’s transformative growth. It described, in part, how Rwanda is working to link agriculture support with broader services, such as electricity and education, to accelerate growth across sectors.

The academic literature helps shine some light on how these states are faring so well with their development agendas.

At one level, it’s intuitive. In a government with lesser partisan strife and less uncertainty around the preferences of leadership, it’s possible to plan for the long-range future. It’s possible for government officials to invest in plans that might take years or even decades without fear of another party stepping in and derailing investment.

Scholars such as Tim Kelsall and Mushtaq Khan also explain the matter in terms of clientelism, or patronage. The distribution of favors and the economy of bribes is inevitable in high or low income countries. In the United States, for instance, crony capitalism is as old as the republic itself. But ample research shows that developmental states, with their centralized systems of power, tend to be better at managing and controlling the rents. And, since there are fewer competing groups to fight over the spoils, money is often redirected right back into state development.

This is one perspective on why Rwanda and Ethiopia—or the Asian Tigers for that matter—have succeeded as they have. But it’s just one perspective.

There is a broad consensus among experts and economists, such as my good friends Joseph Stiglitz and Akbar Noman, that developing countries are best served by a strong, capable state that provides visionary leadership, manages resources, and directs development. However, a capable state doesn’t have to be a developmental state, with its highly centralized systems of power or single-party rule. A multi-party democracy can be a capable state, provided the democratic processes don’t undermine the traits I just outlined.

So where do I stand on the question I posed? Do I believe democracy and development are at odds? Does that explain Ghana’s problems?

Here is what I’ve learned and firmly believe: one size does not fit all. Country circumstances dictate the way forward. Rwanda, ravaged by destruction, has taken its only viable way forward to return from collapse.

But Ghana’s way is different.

I lived in Ethiopia for many years. I worked with Prime Minister Meles.  Meles was my friend. I respected and admired him and applaud Ethiopia’s development efforts.

Same in Rwanda, where I know President Kagame well and also consider him a friend whose accomplishments I admire greatly. In fact, we are jointly staging the African Transformation Forum next March in Kigali to allow countries to exchange experiences on their transformation strategies.

But I am also a proud Ghanaian. And a proud believer in what our country has accomplished. In our context, we cannot and should not retreat from a history and heritage that so many others want to emulate.

That’s why we cannot turn our backs on our democracy. Equally, it’s why we cannot let our democracy descend into further disarray.

So how then might we replicate the successes of an Ethiopia or a Rwanda without weakening our democratic principles?  How might a multiparty democracy take on the developmental advantages of a more top-down state?

Ladies and gentlemen: I don’t know the answer for certain. But I can offer a highly-educated guess.

There are reforms we can make to our political system that might better reflect Ghana’s capacities and needs. What’s more, these reforms can potentially help our divided factions come together to craft a more coherent vision of development and muster the resources to implement it.

Taken together, I call these reforms positive politics for Ghana. Earlier, I promised that I would make the case for a new way, more optimistic way forward. This, my friends, is it.

The phrase—positive politics—might sound familiar.

Just last month, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s recently elected leader, began his victory speech by stating, “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways. This is what positive politics can do.” Prime Minister Trudeau talked of conveying optimistic, hopeful messages in the course of a national election. Of engaging citizens in a meaningful way to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”

We know why this is relevant to Ghana. We are well into our next election cycle, even though the election itself is still a year away. Already, the negative rhetoric and accusations have begun, on both sides. This is common in many Western democracies, like the United States, a perpetual campaign that feeds on itself.

We do not have that luxury in Ghana. Our democracy is not 240 years old. We are not an industrialized nation. People are hungry. People are in the dark. They need jobs. They need electricity. They need to see the dividends of democracy, not another cycle of election year overspending that siphons funds away from necessary development. This is a trap into which both our major parties have fallen in the past.

There’s no better way than Ghana’s way, but by God, we need to act. We must make our democracy sounder. We must give our citizens reason to believe in what we’ve built and to trust our institutions. We must strive to become what the rest of the world is so keen to see. We must eliminate the Ghana paradox.

So let’s be bold.

Let’s use the occasion of our coming election to accomplish in Ghana what Prime Minister Trudeau so proudly touted in Canada. In fact, let’s aim even higher.

For Ghana, positive politics needs to be about more than “sunny ways” and successful political campaigns. It needs to be about fixing our second generation governance problems. It needs to be about restoring trust in our institutions. It needs to be about strengthening our democratic ideals.

I’ll be more specific. I think there are a few distinct areas on which we could focus immediately to build a better foundation for the future. I call them the Four Pillars of Positive Politics for Ghana. They are:

  • Our constitution
  • Our political parties
  • Our public sector
  • Our leadership

Let’s discuss each pillar in more detail.

First, regarding our constitution, we need significant reforms. It’s widely accepted that Ghana, under its 1992 Fourth Republican Constitution, made remarkable achievements. But after almost a quarter of a century, it’s clear that our current constitution—and the system it supports—is not serving us well.

This view is not mine alone. Eminent scholars, constitutional experts, the political parties, and a large section of the population agree on the need for some fundamental reforms. We may not always be in agreement on the specifics of those reforms, but we will fail our future generations if we let politics get in the way and we do nothing. A few years ago, the Constitution Review Commission established by the late President Mills produced a massive report—almost one thousand pages—that was informed by millions of Ghanaians and intended to reorient our 1992 Constitution toward development, rather than political, principles. Ultimately, the review produced 97 amendments, but so far, no action.

Let me mention just two areas that several civil society organizations, including think tanks such as the Institute of Democratic Governance (IDEG), under the leadership of our esteemed friend, Emmanuel Akwetey, deem essential to Ghana’s future.

First, the relationship between the legislature and the executive presidency could be reformed in such a way that the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances would become more distinct and firm. This would strengthen the ability of members of parliament to perform oversight functions and improve accountability across all areas of government.

Second, radical reform at the local level would decentralize decision making and allow chief executives and assembly members to be chosen in open, multi-party elections. Often referred to as “democratic devolution of Executive power,” it has the potential to deepen the political system at the local level, promote more inclusive governance, and heighten political engagement among populations.

Indeed, recent data by Afrobarometer and the Nation Commission for Civic Education have shown that more than sixty percent of those surveyed would like to elect chief executives of the assemblies directly, indicating a significant swing in public opinion toward the democratic devolution of executive power.

The recommendations of the Constitution Review Commission that addressed these and other far-reaching proposal have yet to be acted upon due to political disagreements in parliament and procedural disputes in the courts. And yet, our second generation governance problems are not going away. Our population’s doubts about democratic stability are not going away. Our prospects for economic transformation will not last forever.

Action in this regard cannot be optional.

The second pillar of positive politics for Ghana concerns our political parties. We need to improve their performance. And by that, I mean that we must ensure they are working for the betterment of Ghana’s democracy—and by extension, Ghana’s citizenry—rather than for the betterment of their members.

Too often, our political parties appear to operate solely as election machines, paying too little, if any, regular attention to Ghana’s public policy needs. Party manifestos are ad hoc and not always realistic. Financing is weakly regulated and hardly accountable. Rational development discourse gets drowned out by personal political disputes. Of course, the sense of perpetual political campaigning, brought on by election overload, doesn’t help.

There are many ways to improve this system. For example, turning manifestoes into medium-term policy programs as a basis for campaigning and educating the public. Or establishing a joint commission to regulate party activity and support program development. Define a shorter campaign period to free up more time for productive governing. The point is that if Ghana’s political parties become more policy and development oriented rather than election oriented, Ghana’s democracy will only get stronger.

The third pillar of positive politics concerns our public sector. To make it stronger, we must reward merit. This is not to say Ghana’s public service is lacking qualified technical expertise; rather, some ministries are quite strong. But our research at the African Center for Economic Transformation has revealed that quality and consistency vary greatly across departments, and there are gaps in the management and incentives structures that hinder its technical capacity. Most damaging, however, is the public sector’s lack of independence from the surrounding political climate.

Evidence of meritocratic treatment of civil servants in Ghana seems to be mixed, as Ghana scored fifty out of a hundred in a recent Global Integrity Report for each of the following measures: the protection of its civil servants from “political influence;” professional criteria used in hiring; and the absence of “nepotism, cronyism and patronage” in personnel decisions by management.

The institutions and staff responsible for many of Ghana’s core functions have to be first-class, with appointments based on competence and ability to deliver results, not made as payments for political debts. Otherwise, we undermine public trust, and inadvertently call into question the integrity, independence, and capability of our institutions.

Finally, the fourth and foremost pillar of positive politics: we need unimpeachable leadership at every level of society. The American political scientist Robert Rothberg sums up the qualities for effective political leadership this way. I quote: “Accomplished leaders have a clear strategy for turning political visions into reality. Through well-honed analytical, political, and emotional intelligence, leaders chart paths to promising futures that include economic growth, material prosperity, and human well-being.” Rothberg continues: “Such leaders are rare in the developing world, where often institutions are weak and greed and corruption strong and where responsible leadership therefore has the potential to effect the greatest change.”

In other words, in our circumstances, it is customary to put most of the blame for our problems—or to give most of the credit for our successes—to whomever happens to be the president—be he John Dramani Mahama, or before him John Atta Mills, or before him John Agyekum Kufour—not to mention John the first, Jerry Rawlings.

To me though, when we speak about transformational leadership, we should be talking about leadership at all levels of society, not just at the executive level. Positive politics is our collective responsibility.

Take our Chiefs:

As traditional rulers, our Chiefs are the custodians of community resources and assets, and they have a key role to play in ensuring the proper stewardship of these resources for inclusive growth and prosperity—and not fall prey to political manipulations that will impede that goal.

Or take our business community:

The government must promote the macroeconomic policies and regulatory environment to allow businesses to flourish, to lead in the production of goods and services, and to create jobs for our growing labor force, particularly our young people. Therefore, CEOs and captains of industry hold the key to unleashing the full potential of Ghana’s private sector—which means boosting local economies as well as bottom lines.

Or take our religious leaders:

In our recent political history, religious leaders sometimes have taken on prominent political roles, such as arbitrating disputed election results or advocating for transparent processes. We should be grateful to them for that, which is above and beyond what we Ghanaians—a very faithful people who flock to the churches and mosques—already require of them. But when necessary, we should condemn the abhorrent behavior of those religious leaders whose greed or ostentation negates their moral authority and feeds into the most corrupt elements of our political system.

Let me make one more point on leadership by referring to the old adage: a people get the government it deserves. Meaning, in electing and appointing our leaders, we should bear in mind the qualities that Mr. Rothberg refers.

Along those lines, we need to bring more gender equality to our government. When looking at female representation in elected and appointed political positions, Ghana pales in comparison to many of our peers. Consider Rwanda, whose parliament is 57 percent women—the most in the world! Senegal ranks number six. South Africa is number eight. Ghana? We’re all the way down at number one hundred-eleven. In other words, there are less than 40 women out of the 230 members in our parliament today.

In many ways, women can do much for the positive politics we sorely need. If any of my fellow men here today want to argue this point with me, I have a simple retort. An old African proverb: “The gates of heaven are open at the command of mothers.”

There are no shortcuts to the solutions to the needs that I’ve outlined today. But I do think there is a path forward, right here in front of us, supported by these four pillars I’ve just described: our constitution, our political parties, our public sector, and our leadership. It’s in our power to make them all better, all stronger. They are among the most foundational elements of our democracy, and in order to attain and then sustain the long-term economic growth and transformation that Ghana requires, we simply cannot afford to ignore their deficiencies.

In closing, I’d like to make one final, important point: in these deficiencies, Ghana is not alone. Far from it. Tanzania. Uganda. Mozambique, Senegal. The list goes on. These are among other multi-party democracies, just like ours, with similar second-generation governance problems. They have their own cracks in their foundations. They have their own challenges to overcome.

So if we can correct our current course, we’ll do more than make Ghana stronger. We’ll once more lead the way for the rest of Africa, just as our fathers and grandfathers did when they demanded their independence almost 60 years ago.

So again I say, let’s be bold.

Let’s learn from the mistakes of the past and focus on what’s most important for the future.

Let’s greet the coming election and enter into a new era, so that the Black Star remains Africa’s brightest beacon.

Let’s see what positive politics really can do for Ghana!

That will allow Oyeeman—the late E.N.Omaboe– to smile down upon us.

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