Ghana Electoral Commission

Is Ghana heading towards election-related unrest?

Ahead of the December 2024 elections, heightened mistrust in state institutions and unresolved tensions threaten to disrupt the polls.

On 7 December, Ghanaians will vote for a new president and 275 Members of Parliament. This will be the country’s ninth consecutive election since returning to constitutional rule in 1992.

Ghana is renowned in West Africa for democracy and political stability partly because disputes over the results of two of these elections (2012 and 2020) were resolved through the law courts. Also, power has peacefully alternated between the country’s two main political parties, the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), three times – in 2001, 2009 and 2017.

However the NDC says the NPP plans to rig the elections, and the two parties disagree on the neutrality of the Electoral Commission (EC) and the courts and security services. This could lead to violence and instability. Already, pre-election rhetoric is heating up, with both parties making divisive statements on campaign platforms.

This has always characterised Ghanaian elections, but the 2024 polls are being organised amid heightened suspicion stemming particularly from developments regarding the EC and the fallout from the 2020 ballots, whose results the NDC rejected.

Ghana’s law courts could arbitrate disputed results, but the NDC doubts their independence

The contest for the presidency is mainly between Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia of the NPP and former president John Dramani Mahama of the NDC. The stakes for both are high as the NPP seeks to win a third term, and Mahama and the NDC want to avoid a third consecutive defeat.

Outgoing President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo says he only wants to hand over power to an NPP president. Food and Agriculture Minister Bryan Acheampong also previously said the ruling party wouldn’t hand over power to the NDC.

The NDC’s Mahama called the elections a ‘do or die’ affair – one the party had to win. The party’s youth echoed this and accused state institutions of bias.

The NDC believes the NPP could execute its alleged rigging plans through the EC. Mistrust is based on Akufo-Addo’s dismissal of the Mahama-appointed former EC chair Charlotte Osei and her two deputies in 2018 and the appointment of a new chair and several other commissioners perceived to have NPP leanings. This was reiterated by several civil society representatives and independent experts interviewed by the Institute for Security Studies.

Rising mistrust is fuelled by the alleged theft of registration kits from the Electoral Commission’s custody

The NPP says these appointments were subject to consultations with the Council of State, a bipartisan body of eminent Ghanaians who advise the president on national issues and received parliamentary approval. But those of the deputy chair and another commissioner, both of whom the NDC stated were patrons of the NPP’s student wing, have proven controversial.

Adding to the mistrust is last month’s alleged theft of biometric voter registration kits from the EC’s custody. While the EC says only seven laptops, and not whole kits (including cameras and printers), went missing, several interviewees expressed concern over its lack of communication on the incident. Not to mention the potential for such kits to be used for illegal voter registration.

This comes against a backdrop of errors and changes in the EC’s tabulation of the 2020 election results. Although the EC interdicted staff suspected of being involved (they were also arrested and are standing trial), this raises suspicion over the integrity of the electoral roll and could set the stage for a clash over the results.

Also causing mistrust is the EC’s decision to limit first-time voters’ registration from 7–29 May to fewer than 2 000 registration centres countrywide, largely based on logistical and resource constraints. Although these include 785 additional ones in remote areas, it raises concerns about accessibility and potential disenfranchisement. Mistakes in the publication of some registration figures, which the EC later corrected, have deepened these concerns.

Another issue is the EC’s handling of the Inter-Party Advisory Committee (IPAC), a group of political parties, civil society representatives, and development partners serving as a consultation platform. Some interviewees said IPAC meetings hadn’t been consultative as the EC treated IPAC meetings as a means of sharing information and not for consultation and consensus building. This resulted in the NDC boycotting IPAC meetings for nearly three years until National Peace Council mediation efforts led to its return last December.

NPP and NDC should ensure their campaign statements promote peace and inclusive dialogue

The law courts could arbitrate if the results are disputed, as in 2012 and 2020. But the NDC and NPP have clashed over their independence too. In 2021, Mahama criticised the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that upheld Akufo-Addo’s second-term victory. He says he won’t go to the Court to settle another disputed outcome – claiming Akufo-Addo’s appointment of judges means the NDC wouldn’t get justice. This notwithstanding the 2013 ruling that upheld Mahama’s election, which Akufo-Addo and the NPP challenged.

The NDC often accuses the judiciary of being biased. One interviewee reiterated this view, criticising several high-profile rulings, even by appellate and other lower courts, as political and favouring the NPP.

Mistrust of the EC and judiciary are compounded by a perception by the opposition and some of civil society that Ghana’s law enforcement and security institutions may not be neutral in the elections. This is a recurrent problem as both the NDC and NPP, while in opposition, have questioned the neutrality of these institutions, forming vigilante groups to provide security.

Following a public outcry over violence during a 2019 parliamentary by-election, the Vigilantism and Related Offences Act (Act 999) was passed to ban these groups. Even so, independent experts say they’ve merely gone underground and could easily be activated by the parties.

As Ghana prepares for its elections, domestic stakeholders and the country’s partners should work to reduce suspicion and mistrust. The EC should adopt a more consultative approach and ensure greater transparency and better communication with the parties to build trust and confidence. This is critical in a context where several interviewees have identified disinformation as a potential source of violence.

The NPP and NDC should be careful about what they say, ensuring campaign statements promote peace and inclusive dialogue. The National Peace Council should strengthen its mediation and dialogue efforts while working to better sensitise parties and other stakeholders on their mandate.

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Development partners
This article was published with support from the ECOWAS Peace and Security Architecture and Operations (EPSAO) Project, co-financed by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ), implemented by GIZ. The ideas expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU, BMZ and GIZ. The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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