“Warning shots”: The Steady Rise of Political Violence in Ghana

By Michael Lieber Cobb & Erik Planitz

On 20 July 2020, residents of Kasoa, on the outskirts of the capital Accra, were registering to vote in the upcoming elections when gunshots forced them to take cover. The frightened citizens assumed a criminal gang or vigilantes had fired the shots, but it soon emerged that the person responsible was Hawa Komsoon, the parliament’s local member. The politician later claimed that she’d fired the “warning shots” to “protect herself.”

Hawa Komsoon

This particular incident may have been unusual, but political violence, in general, has become far less unique in Ghana recently. An official of the National Peace Council recently stated that 86 constituencies experienced violence around the 2016 elections than just 47 in 2012. ACLED data suggests the frequency of politically-motivated violence spiked in 2016 and has remained high ever since. And popular attitudes in Ghana have grown warier, with 43.3% of respondents in a 2018 Afrobarometer survey saying they feared becoming victims of political violence, up from 35.5% in 2014.

Politically-motivated violence in Ghana (2012-2020) was committed by political militias, party supporters, and unidentified shooters against civilians. Credit: ACLED.

With general elections scheduled for 7 December 2020, election-related violence has been rising again. During the 31-day voter registration process, this summer’s climax was when supporters of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and opposition National Democratic Convention (NDC) clashed in several constituencies, leading to multiple fatalities.

How violence becomes an answer

Several factors have contributed to this trend. In Ghana, as in many countries, the rule of law is often applied selectively. In particular, elites are more likely to get away with crimes, even those committed in full view. This includes the MP who fired a gun in public this July or another politician who called a judge “stupid” and threatened him this September.

Moreover, when the police do intervene, they often fail to bring criminals to justice. Investigations are frequently left incomplete, leading to speculation that the suspects bribed the police or were let off the hook because an influential figure influenced the process. The lack of repercussions for such public offenses erodes trust in the rule of law and contributes to an environment in which citizens feel encouraged to take the law into their own hands too.

In the lead up to the 2020 elections, this broader environment has combined with specific disputes. In particular, there have been growing tensions around the freeness and fairness of the upcoming poll. John Mahama, the former president, and opposition NDC candidate, accused the Electoral Commission of bias and threatened to reject the results. He has claimed that the ruling NPP and President Nana Akufo-Addo have installed an ally in Jean Mensa as the commission’s chair. For its part, electoral officials have done relatively little to bring all parties on board and assuage concerns.

These rising tensions came to a head around the voter registration process, a previous flashpoint for disagreements in Ghanaian elections. On this occasion, the NDC accused the Electoral Commission and NPP of attempting to disenfranchise its supporters by accepting only passports or National ID cards as proof of citizenship. These disputes filtered down to the street level, where opposing party supporters clashed during the registration process. Many voters, particularly those sympathetic to the NDC, have little confidence in the electoral process, feeding notions that the people themselves – including through party-affiliated militias – must mobilize to ensure the vote’s legitimacy.

Underpinning this political violence, however, there are even deeper dynamics. Despite economic growth, poverty remains high, and inequality is becoming more stark and visible in Ghana. For instance, this government includes 123 ministers. The taxpayer-funded affluent lifestyles enjoyed by these senior politicians contrasts heavily with those of their constituents, many of whom struggle to access potable water, decent roads, and jobs. These widening inequalities have increased tensions, mistrust, and political frustrations. On several occasions, MPs’ visits to certain areas have been met with protests over poor infrastructure and unmet promises. Recently, a separatist movement in Ghana’s Volta region ransacked a police station, burnt tires, and blocked major roads. It appears their activities were borne out of perceptions of the government’s neglect of the area.

Tackling the roots of violence

The administration of President Akufo-Addo has taken some action in response to rising political violence. In September 2019, it passed the Vigilantism and Related Offences Act, which criminalizes vigilantism, disbands vigilante groups, and promises up to 15 years in prison for anyone “who directly or indirectly instigates or solicits the activity of a vigilante.”

This may help authorities clamp down on specific groups and individual acts. Still, until the deeper roots of people’s frustrations are addressed, it will be difficult to reduce political violence meaningfully. In Ghana, political violence is being committed by a broad range of actors and in a variety of ways, from riots to more targeted attacks against civilians.

Whoever wins Ghana’s 7 December general elections will be a key challenge over the coming term. Unfortunately, the poll itself could be made even more complicated, given the relatively low levels of trust in the process and the likelihood the result will be disputed.

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