Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Towards Constitutional Government

Ghana: towards the political kingdom (2)

by Paa Kwesi Mensah

In this three-part series in the discussion of a lasting constitutional solution to Ghana's political problems, the author tackles the issue in an in-depth social and political analysis of Ghana's independence to the present day. This second instalment addresses the basic issues against the background of Ghana's colonial and cultural history.
To bring out the differences between the structural and behavioural notions, it might be helpful to identify some patterns of behaviour and their institutional expressions. In Western societies, example, debate, individual- ism and competition, are firmly established as desirable behaviour. Children are encouraged to question their parents and teachers. The parents and teachers in turn accept the desirability of this upbringing and deal with the children, not as subordinates but as equals with minds of their own and a right to be heard.

A closer examination of the Western democratic model shows that its effectiveness is highly dependent on the behavioural attitudes which are fostered in its inhabitants from childhood to adulthood. Multiparty democracy is based on debate and competition. It is also based on the acceptance by those in authority of the right of the governed to question and debate them.

One can, therefore, conclude that the Western democratic model, be it the Westminster or Capitol Hill variety or some other variant, is an institution not only in the structural sense but also in the behavioural sense because its mode of operation reflects Western society's ideas of acceptable behaviour.

In contrast to what obtains in Western societies, the socio-cultural environment of Ghana stresses obedience of and respect for those in authority, conformity, and consensus. Children, for example, are discouraged from questioning their parents and teachers. The requirements for obedience and respect is particularly important when dealing with the elderly. It is the rare Ghanaian man or woman (including the most Westernized) who disobeys or questions an elder or parent.

Thus, the basic habits of debate, compromise and tolerance of opposition which are prerequisites for the successful operation of pluralistic political systems do not form part of the upbringing of Ghanaians. Ghanaians who travel to study abroad usually find that they are too timid in class. Indeed, many are shocked to find out that they can be marked down for not being aggressive and fully participating members of their class - a stark illustration of differences in the standards of performance between Western and African societies.

In contrast to what obtains in Western Societies, the socio-cultural environment of Ghana stresses obedience of and respect for those in authority, conformity and consensus. Children, for example are discouraged from questioning their parents and teachers

In short, we need to face the issue of how a society which runs on obedience and respect for the elderly and "high- ups" can operate a system whose foundations represent its antithesis. Whereas the Western political model is an institution, both in the structural and behavioural sense, in Ghana, such models can be considered as institutions only in the structural sense because of the lack of consistency between the institution's modus operandi and the behavioural patterns in the society.

The link between legitimacy and the behavioural characterization of institutions which are likely to command legitimacy are the ones which are patterned on the behavioural norms of the society and therefore reflect the society's standards "right" and "wrong".

The fundamental problem of political institutionalization in Ghana is that it has been based on a false notion of institution building - that one can have an institution by simply creating one. History tells us that all durable social and political institutions are the ones that fit the behaviouralist conception. Societies in which institutional development has been driven by the fundamental socio cultural norms of the society have tended to have stable and resilient institutions.

In the West, political thought has reflected relatively stable behaviour traits such as a capitalist mode of production and individualism. The associated political institutions have followed and responded to the changes in the underlying patterns. By contrast, non-Western political institutions have tended to be driven by external forces.

The institutional structures which are associated with Marxism-Leninism have been based on ideologies which are articulated by revolutionary leaders. Thus, Marxist-Leninist structures have generally been implemented by an almost complete elimination of all traditional structures. Not surprisingly, such institutions can usually be maintained only by constant vigilance aimed at suppressing dissent.

The foregoing discussion suggests that the search for durable institutional forms of the type that do not require repression should start with identifiable patterns within the value system of the society. Admittedly, this is à difficult task for fragmented societies such as what we have in Ghana. However, very high dividends are likely to be produced if we can identify even a few of such stable patterns of behaviour as a basis for evolving our political structures.


Ghanaian society is currently fragmented. The admixture of the traditional and Western values bas created a potpourri of incoherent institutional structures. Thus whereas an educated person in Ghana prefers a Western lifestyle with the latest consumption goods, he is still closely tied to his extended family and may even occupy a chieftaincy stool.

In terms of future political development then, we should attempt to identify the aspects of our society which have passed the test of time and use them as building blocks for new structures which invariably will include several ideas borrowed from elsewhere. The features of our socio-cultural environment that would seem to be most relevant for political development are traditional legitimacy, consensus and moderation. 1. Traditional legitimacy:

Traditionally, political legitimacy in Ghanaian society has emanated from the institution of chieftaincy. There has been and continues to be unquestioned acceptance of the authority of the chief. He is seen as the embodiment of the spirit of the ancestors. While the legitimacy of the institution of chieftaincy has been partially eroded in the urban areas of Ghana because of inroads made by Western culture, it is a fact that in the rural towns and villages, the only word that counts is that of the chief.

Indeed in some communities, the authority of the central government is largely unfelt. The institution is also very pervasive. Rare is the Ghanaian who is not remotely connected to a chieftaincy stool. The fact that the vast majority of Ghanaians are still wedded to the chieftaincy institution indicates that the institution has tremendous durability and resilience. This contrasts sharply with the contempt and derision which characterize attitudes towards modern institutions of government. 2. Consensus:

As previously discussed, Ghanaians grow up in an environment that demands unquestioned obedience to those in authority. The society stresses consensus and conformity. National political institutions should therefore reflect this authority pattern. Institutional forms which require competition, confrontation of those in authority and individualism will be inconsistent with the prevalent authority pattern.

The importance of consensus decision-making is supported by the fact that the longest surviving civilian regimes in Africa have been one-party states such as Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, the Ivory Coast and Kenya. It would appear that in these societies, the political systems have been designed to operate in a non competitive mode.

3. Moderation;

Ghanaians have overwhelmingly demonstrated their antipathy to violence and extremism. When confronted with violence, they have acquiesced rather than fight. In 1979, they asked for the blood of the generals; yet, when the axe fell, the country was saddened, not because the generals were thought to be innocent but because the shedding of blood was, until then, alien to public life in Ghana. The December 1981 Revolution has had to face the fact that the typical Ghanaian is a moderate.

When three judges and a retired army officer were murdered by over zealous revolutionaries in 1982, the government was pressured into holding a public inquiry which led to the indentification and trial of culprits. This has been followed by a discernible purge of the known extremists in the PNDC. The history of Ghana shows that any attempt to take the country on an extremist course would be resisted either actively or passively by the people and would make it impossible to run the country.


The proposals below are intended to address the legitimacy problem. Since the ultimate source of legitimacy is the structure of beliefs, customs and practices of a society, the approach is to search for areas of the modern political system where the symbols of traditional legitimacy could be given prominent roles.

Additionally, the behavioural requirements of the political process should be congruent with behavioural patterns in the wider society previously identified, namely, a consensual as opposed to a competitive approach in decision making and a strongly held tradition of moderation as opposed to radicalism.

The point of departure is present day Ghana which means that there is no attempt to reconstruct society by sweeping away the current political structure involving the PNDC and the network of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR's), formerly called Workers Defence Committees and Peoples Defence Committees. Rather, the objective is to introduce modifications which would enhance the legitimacy of the current structures and, therefore, make them durable and acceptable to the majority of Ghanaians. As a final caveat, the proposals which follow should be seen not as a blueprint but as illustrations of the principles of institution building outlined in this paper. Undoubtedly, these principles could be given institutional expressions which are quite different from the proposals which follow. What is more important is the conceptualization of the problem and the underlying principles.

Recommendation 1

The ceremonial Head of State should be elected by the National House of Chiefs from among its members for a fixed term of office. The title of the Head of State should be Ghanaian. Thus, instead of calling the Head of State a "President", he or she could be called the "Omanhene o Ghana". The responsibilities of the head of state shall include among others,

Conflict between traditional values and western education begins in the classroom.

(a) swearing in of the executive head of government

(b) receiving newly accredited ambassadors

(c) taking the stand at ceremonies of national importance such as independence day

(d) the formal proclamation of laws of the country

The above recommendation is intended to bring to the forefront of national politics, the only symbol of authority which still commands almost unquestioned loyalty, pride and respect among Ghanaians. The use of this symbol would cause the natural legitimacy of the traditional rulers to flow downward to national political institutions. The cultural importance of the chieftaincy institution would help Ghanaians regain pride in their culture and traditions.

One can picture, for example, the Omanhene of Ghana receiving a newly accredited diplomat or a visiting head of state in full traditional pomp. Such a cultural renewal on a national basis. would provide reinforcing a mechanism for the legitimization of the political process.

The Legislative Function

No modern state can be run democratically without representation of the people. However, this can take several forms ranging from the single slate elections typical of single-party governments to the multiparty elections typical of the West.

It has been argued implicitly that the Western system with its built-in contest and debate has been a particularly difficult system for Ghanaians to operate because the habits that go with it are variance with the Ghanaian way of life. Therefore, an appropriate system of representation would eschew the multiparty approach while making it possible for the people to have real representation. Real representation of the people also requires the people to have a meaningful say in the choice of a representative. If we rule out the multiparty system on the grounds that it is overly divisive and unGhanaian, we are left with a choice between a single-party and a no-party electoral system.

While both the single-party and no- party systems minimize the competitive aspect of elections, the single-party system requires ideological cohesion through a cohesive party structure while a no-party system would tend to be ideologically neutral, responding largely to the mood of national leadership of the day.

To be continued

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