Is President Mills Imposing his Religious Beliefs on Ghana?

Mon, 14 Mar 2011 Source: Ata, Kofi

Ghana’s 54th independence anniversary celebrations on Sunday 6 March 2011 has raised a number of important matters that have been discussed and debated by politicians, social commentators and others across the country. Two issues that generated such discussions and debates were the NPP “no show” at Independence Square and the other, which to me is more important, was the absence of the pouring of libation at the official event. It is important because it has implications on the Constitution, Human Rights and Ghanaian culture. I have listened to and read the debates and comments over the past week, and though many complained, no one was bold enough to say that, His Excellency, President Evans Atta Mills is imposing his religious beliefs on the state but I am. This is not surprising to me because some Ghanaians, instead of calling a spade, a spade would rather describe what a spade is.

I must admit that my opinions on this subject are from the media (what I read, hear on the radio and view on television), so please forgive me if I am unable to provide concrete evidence to buttress my claims. As I am not in Ghana, I have not attended any of the official state functions since the President was sworn into office. In the past, the pouring of libation at official state functions and events was a common feature. I know this because as a young boy, I saw it on television and as a young man in the 1980s, I had the opportunity to attend some of the state functions and saw libation being poured. Though I was a child when Nkrumah was overthrown, I grew up to learn that, Ghana had what was known as an official state linguist or spokesman (Okyeami) or someone who poured libation at official state functions. The pouring of libation at official state functions or events attended by the Head of State since independence became an integral part of state functions and certain events and has therefore become a convention or custom.

According to some commentators and from some media reports, since President Atta Mills assumed office in January 2009, the pouring of libation at state functions and events has disappeared. The latest being the 54th independence anniversary celebrations. Why am I making such a serious accusation against the President? First and foremost, it is a Constitutional matter and second, Ghana is a secular state with no state religion and therefore no one person or group of persons, including the President should impose his/her or their religious beliefs on the state. Again, the pouring of libation is an important aspect of Ghanaian culture and strictly speaking not a religious practice. Almost every Ghanaian ethnic group, whether religious or not, pour libation at certain events and functions such as naming ceremonies, funerals, festivals, marriages, rites de passage and many others. Pouring libation is Ghanaian culture and to decimate this aspect of the nation’s culture by no other person than the President, to say the least, is most worrying. A people without a culture, is like a house without a foundation. Last but not the least, freedom of religion is also a human right issue that I believe is enshrined in Ghana’s Constitution.

It is no secret that the President is said to be a very religious person and a Christian, perhaps, one of those commonly referred to as “born again Christian”. It is even rumoured that, the President’s religious beliefs are so strong that he sometimes consults his spiritual leaders on certain issues. In other words, he could be superstitious As a result he considers some aspects of Ghanaian traditions and cultures such as the pouring of libation as unchristian and probably evil worship. It is also well known in Ghana that, the President is very close to some religious leaders or Prophets, including a popular Nigerian Prophet, who once attempted to falsely claim credit for the National Youth Football Team winning the under 20s World Cup in Egypt. Based on these, it is not strange that, the pouring of libation has ceased under his presidency. There is no doubt in my mind (and from the responses by people within the Presidency) that the President has ordered a stop to the pouring of libation at state functions and events.

It is important to briefly look at religion and the state and religion and culture within the context of religious freedom. There a number of well known analyses on religion and state. Two of my favourites are Pluto’s Republic and Thomas Jefferson’s Wall of Separation of Church and State. As this is not an academic paper, I do not intend to bore readers by looking at Pluto’s work. However, it would be helpful to briefly consider that of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, the third President of United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence is one individual who did so much to ensure the modern day separation between state and religion in the American Constitution. According to him, religion was a very personal matter, one which the government has no business getting involved. In his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, he states among others “believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation on behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties”.

I place emphasis on the underlined section above because that is the main trust of my article and I personally have a strong belief in that section. In fact, whilst providing equality training to staff of the criminal justice agencies in the UK (the police, courts services, probation and prisons), some of them were shocked when I told them that, there is nothing wrong with individuals and groups holding certain opinions or beliefs (both positive and negative) about other individuals and groups. What is wrong and unacceptable is to reflect such opinions and beliefs in actions that are discriminatory and detrimental to the group as a whole or individuals from the group. There is nothing wrong with the President or anyone within his government holding strong religious beliefs. However, it is wrong and totally unacceptable for them to impose their religious beliefs on the state through their actions and or omissions. In fact, it is against the spirit of both International Law and the Ghanaian Constitution and any such action and or omissions is illegal under both International and Ghanaian laws. Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion, Article 2 (1) of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion as well as the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Article 21 (1) (c) of the Ghanaian Constitution under Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms states “All persons shall have the right to freedom to practise any religion and to manifest such practice” and Article 35 (5) under the Directive Principles of State Policy also states, “The State shall actively promote the integration of the peoples of Ghana and prohibit discrimination and prejudice on the grounds of place of origin, circumstances of birth, ethnic origin, gender or religion, creed or other beliefs”. It is evidently clear from the two Articles that, the President has no authority to impose his Christian beliefs on the state and to stop the pouring of libation at state functions and events. As Jefferson said on the separation between Church and State, “In justice too, our excellent Constitution, it ought to be observed, that it has not placed our religious rights under the power of any public functionary”. My understanding is that the Ghanaian Constitution also does not subject citizens’ religious rights under the power of any public office holder, not even the President.

Now let me consider religion and culture in the context of Ghanaian culture. Though I am a Christian as well as a Sociologist, I am not an authority on religion or Ghanaian culture. I am therefore leaving that to one of the best Ghanaians with authority on such matters. I am referring to no mean person than the Most Rev Dr Peter Akwasi Sarpong, now Emeritus Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kumasi who has written and spoken extensively on the subject. The last time I heard him on religion and culture was in 2002, as a Guest Speaker at the UK Catholic Conference on Racial Equality in London where I was a delegate from East Anglia Diocese. Incidentally, he is one of those who have commented on the absence of the pouring of libation at state functions. In his book, “Ghana in Retrospect, Some Aspects of Ghanaian Culture”, which originally appeared as articles in the Catholic Voice as a guide to foreign (western) missionaries, Most Rev Dr Sarpong explained the Ghanaian concept of God through culture and religion and stressed that the worship of God through lesser gods are not incompatible with the Christian worship of God. Though cultural and religious practices in Ghana could easily be misconstrued to be evil worship, in fact, they are not in conflict but rather leave religiosity and Godliness intact.

This is further illustrated by a section on “Theistic outlook on Religion” as follows. “There is therefore no doubt that Ghanaian religious thought is essentially theocentric and theistic. God is at the centre of it all. This is not to say that it is either monotheistic or polytheistic. So much depends upon the angle from which things are viewed. If one considers the fact that there is only one acknowledged Creator who holds sway over all other beings, then one is right in concluding that the religion is monotheistic. If, on the other hand, there are other deities and spirits besides God, to whom public cult is directed, are taken into account, then one can conclude with some measure of justification that it is polytheistic. On other levels, Ghanaian religion may be regarded as totemistic or even fetishistic. These conceptions of theism or pneumatic religion are not incompatible”.

The debate on the compatibility of African traditional religion and foreign religion, especially, Christianity has been around since the advent of foreign religion on the continent. For example, I remember one common “GCE Advanced Level General Paper question on this topic (Is it African that should be Christianised or Christianity that should be Africanised. Discuss?). The debates amongst religious leaders, church members, academics, students and others concluded that whilst the African was spiritually fulfilled, they were emotionally hungry within the main christian denominations. That led to the introduction of drumming and dancing in their churches to stop the dwindling members who were leaving to join charismatic churches where they could enjoy the African aspects of worship (drumming and dancing, hand clapping, etc) and be both spiritually and emotionally fulfilled. This was after the recognition by the main Christian denominations that African religion and African culture are intrinsically linked and not evil worship. The President as an academician should be aware of such debates, so how come if the christian churches incorporated some aspects of African religion and culture that were misunderstood to be evil worship into their services, the President has stopped the pouring of libation?

Libation pouring is in fact, part of Ghanaian culture and strictly speaking not a religion as I pointed out earlier. The practice is common but not exclusive within the chieftaincy institution in Ghana. At this stage, it will be appropriate to look at the definition of culture. In 1871, Sir Edward Taylor defined culture as when “taken in its wide ethnographic sense, being that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man (man here means humanity so it includes women and as well as children) as a member of society”. Sir Raymond Firth also described culture as “if society is taken to be an organized set of individuals with a given way of life, culture is that way of life. If society is taken to be an aggregate of social relations, then culture is the content of those relations”. To me, culture is simply the way of life (the way we talk, the dress we wear, the food we eat, the language we speak, the traditions, customs, etc). Pouring Libation is therefore culture, though some consider part of it, especially, calling on the Almighty God, the ancestors, the earth goddess and others for protection, good omen, long life and prosperity, etc as religion. Though these aspects may appear to be religious, the act itself is not a religion. In fact, it is very similar to the laying of wreath by the western societies. When they lay wreath, they are calling on the dead or ancestors and if there is nothing wrong with wreath laying and Christianity, why should libation pouring and Christianity be wrong? If laying wreath is not considered evil worship why should libation pouring?

There is one conspiracy theory that, the Presidency has stopped pouring libation at state functions to avoid a situation of the act being performed by the Ga Fetish Priest since the NDC government does not recognise the Ga Mantse. I do not want to believe this because I suspect libations were not poured at the official inauguration of the first oil, the sod cutting ceremony by the President for the construction of universities in Volta and Brong Ahafo regions. I also suspect the same happened when Obama arrived on Ghanaian soil. If my assumptions are correct, then Ghana lost once a life time opportunity to sell a very important aspect of Ghanaian culture to potential global visitors and tourists. How can the Ministry of Culture under his watch attract foreign visitors and tourists if the state by default, considers libation pouring as evil worship that cannot be part of national celebrations? Mr President, state and church (religion) do not mix well because it can result in conflict and also retard progress. Just look at George Bush’s presidency as well as Tony Blair’s premiership (though UK has a state religion). They both claimed that the invasion of Iraq was a calling from their God. Gorge Bush went further and introduced his religious beliefs into state affairs by stopping state funding of stem cell research, etc. Imposing of your religious beliefs on the state is against the Constitution you have sworn to defend and protect. Ghanaians did not elect you because you were very religious and considered libation pouring as evil worship. You have no authority to ban the pouring of libation at state functions. Libation is part of Ghanaian culture and Ghanaians are proud of their culture, even if you consider it to be unchristian. Though the majority of Ghanaians are Christians, there is no state religion and Ghana secular state with vibrant multicultural practices and diverse religious beliefs. Let it remain so and keep your religious beliefs between you and your God and not you and the state.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

Columnist: Ata, Kofi