Opinions of Sat, 9 Feb 20191

Ayawaso West by-election: The spectre of winner-takes-all politics in Ghana

We have always known that our multi-party electoral democracy, as arranged by the 1992 constitution, promotes winner-takes-all, making the stakes very high in every election, and “a must win” for contesting parties and individuals.

In the Ayawaso West by-election held on January 31, 2019, the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) was upbeat in their motivations and objectives. They wanted to win the election by any means possible - fair or foul. The rationale was strong. It was their first election after they won victory in the 2016 general elections.

Losing a by-election right in the middle of their four-year term could be a negative adumbration of what would happen in the 2020 general elections. The bid to win by all means took hold and the by-election turned violent on voting day, leaving at least 18 people injured.

Commission of Inquiry:

It is only when we interrogate the motivations behind the violence that we can fully appreciate what happened and prescribe the appropriate solutions to the problem of political violence that we so often blame on vigilante groups within political parties.

Besides the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to look into the disturbances, many other related developments have come to almost obscure the realities that confront us as a nation. The root causes of the open abuse of power, threats of violence and real acts of violence must not be lost on us.

Incumbency abuse:

As soon as the by-election was announced by the Electoral Commission (EC), the roads and streetlights that had been left in disrepair for over a decade in the constituency started receiving face-lifts and retrofitting even by night.

Stakeholders who observed and drew links between the sudden maintenance works and the by-election, were attacked for pointing out the obvious. The election is now over. The key objective has been attained, albeit tainted. The contractors are slowly moving plant and equipment out of the constituency. The old trick worked at “enlightened” Ayawaso West too!

The “cash and goodies” that was spread to influence the votes to retain the seat was mind-blowing. And the moving of the entire state machinery to pitch camp in the constituency to guarantee the win was incredible. As unacceptable as the incumbency abuses were, we could live with them. After all, such abuses have been with us for ages, except that in the case of Ayawaso West, they were pushed notches higher.

Violence:

What we can certainly not live with, is armed men operating under the command of a Minister of State at the National Security Council (NSC), unleashing violent attacks on innocent citizens as part of the grand scheme to intimidate opposition voters in order that they (NPP) might win the election by all means, in a cosmopolitan constituency like Ayawaso West.

Every objective observer or participant in the election would come to the conclusion that the number of security personnel deployed were over and above the usual one or two unarmed Police, Immigration, Fire Service or Prison officers. In all the elections that I have observed at Ayawaso West for the last two decades, only one or two Police, Prisons, Fire or Immigration officers have been stationed at each polling station to ensure orderly conduct of the process.

In this by-election, however, the number of regular security personnel were tripled. Besides that, there was the strange gun-wielding, mask-wearing NSC operatives who had been brought in to intimidate, cause fear and panic to attain the desired outcome. Should we not hold their known sponsors vicariously responsible, as it is always the case that the perpetrators would be given political cover?

Accountability:

For those who genuinely wish that we find a lasting solution to election-related violence in Ghana, which we are quick to blame on vigilante groups within political parties, our advocacy must now be aimed at having leaders of sponsoring political parties held vicariously liable for any violence their hirelings unleash on fellow citizens.

I am absolutely convinced that, it is the desire to win elections by hook or crook that leads to the forming and or hiring of the services of vigilante groups to perpetuate the election-related violence, we continue to see in Ghana.

We must not allow political leaders who win elections through violence, to get away unpunished. We should have the outcomes of such elections annulled and the beneficiaries disqualified from contesting future elections to serve as a deterrent.

If we stoop so low as to applaud such winners, what message would we be sending to others? That they can repeat the violence in the next election and apologise after they have won? Or have the party in power, which is the chief beneficiary in all such cases, set up a Commission of Inquiry to save the perpetrators from criminal prosecutions if adverse findings are made against them?

Reforms:

Arguments have been advanced within and without police circles that the appointment of the Inspector General of Police (IGP) by the President, would always lead to control of the police by the incumbent and mistrust of the entire service by non-government stakeholders in every election.

To that end, it has been recommended that the President, instead of appointing the IGP, nominates him or her for two-thirds majority approval by Parliament. It has also been recommended that the overall excessive powers of the executive to appoint virtually all public officers in Ghana be toned down.

Separation of the executive from the legislature, for instance, would lead to a strengthened legislature that would check the excesses of the executive. The NSC as a coordinating agency is not imbued with any legal authority to organise a security force of their own, let alone organise a parallel force of “boys and men”, to unleash violence on innocent citizens, in the name of providing election security, which has always been a Police and allied services responsibility.

Focus:

In the next few weeks, we can expect many more related developments on the Ayawaso West situation. Statements and counter statements will continue to fly about. Demonstrations, vigils and protests would be held. In all these, however, we must never get carried away and lose sight of the winner-takes-all motivations.

I would have preferred that the Commission of Inquiry looked into the phenomenon of winner-takes-all in our governance system and how it promotes political vigilantism and violence.

The Police should focus on the criminal investigations into the violence and bring the culprits to book through the criminal justice system, independent of the work of the Commission of Inquiry, whose report and recommendations, government may as usual keep on the shelf to gather the proverbial dust.

The EC, as the election management body, should work to come off the perception held by some stakeholders that it is working in the interest of the party in power. The EC and the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO) would do the nation a lot of good if they reconciled their differences in the accounts of what happened in the Ayawaso West by-election.

Columnist: William Dowokpor

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