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  • Ghana's Uncertain Political Opening
  • E. Gyimah-Boadi (bio)

Supporters of democracy in Africa have been greatly exhilarated by the apparent rebirth of political freedom in the 1990s. Almost everywhere on the continent, opposition parties have been unbanned or are being somewhat tolerated, private newspapers have resurfaced, citizens are asserting long-lost civil rights, national conferences have been or are being convened, and relatively liberal and democratic constitutions have been or are being written. Still, there is much anxiety over whether this trend can be sustained and democratic gains can be consolidated.

This well-founded concern derives from the dashed democratic hopes of the period of decolonization. Indeed, the continent to this day cannot boast of even a single truly mature democracy, meaning one in which there has been a peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another party or social class in a free and fair election. The African countries with the longest records of democracy—Botswana, Senegal, and the Gambia—are still one-party-dominant regimes. Concern has also risen because only a relative handful of Africa's countries—Benin, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe, Zambia, Mali, Lesotho, and Madagascar—have managed to transfer power successfully through fairly honest multiparty elections. The process has barely started in some places (e.g., Sudan, Malawi, and Swaziland), or has become stagnant or suffered severe setbacks as the residual powers of nondemocratic regimes (or elements within them) have been deployed to frustrate democratic change (e.g., Zaire, Togo, Burundi, and Nigeria). In still other countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, and Ghana, the process has been [End Page 75] flawed and its outcome somewhat tainted, as incumbent strongmen have managed to stay on after disputed multiparty elections.

Doubts over the sustainability of African democratization can only be cleared up in the fullness of time, after systematic study. Nonetheless, in the belief that insights and lessons of a general nature may be drawn from the experience of one country, I shall review Ghana's transition to constitutional rule in the 1990s and assess the various reasons for hope and despair in that country's ongoing quest for democratization.

Let us begin with a brief look back at Ghana's checkered history of attempts to install and implement liberal democratic constitutions. Formed out of the consolidation of two British-ruled territories, Ghana became the first decolonized country in West Africa in 1957. It had a liberal democratic constitution with all the trappings: an independent judiciary, opposition parties, guarantees of civil liberties, and so on. By the time the First Republic fell in the military coup of 1966, however, the Constitution of 1957 had long been scrapped, civil liberties curtailed, the ruling Convention Peoples' Party (CPP) declared the sole legal party, and lifelong tenure conferred on its leader, President Kwame Nkrumah.

Subsequent attempts to set up liberal democracy fared no better. The liberal democratic Constitution of 1969 and the Second Republic (under Prime Minister Kofi Busia and the Progress Party government) were overthrown in another military coup on 13 January 1972. The coup plotters cited violations of the democratic spirit by the duly elected government as one of the reasons for their action.

From 1972 to 1979, Ghana was ruled by a succession of senior military officers. In June 1979, a new military regime was imposed by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, headed by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings. The Rawlings government allowed the process of constitutional restoration already underway to continue, permitting multiparty elections and handing over the reins of government to Hilla Limann and his People's National Party on 24 September 1979.

With the inauguration of the Third Republic, Ghana began yet another attempt to make a liberal democratic constitution work. Like the abrogated Constitutions of 1957 and 1969, the 1979 Constitution provided liberal guarantees against governmental arbitrariness, conferred considerable powers on the judicial branch to review actions taken by the executive, and guaranteed civil liberties. In just a little over two years, the Third Republic, the 1979 Constitution, and the Limann government were all overthrown in yet another coup d'état, this one also led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, on 3l...


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