By Ransford Gyampo
Ghanaians are regarded as notoriously “churchical.” Outside of services, they organize and attend church activities almost every day of the week. The church has a huge presence in their lives, addressing their spiritual, physical, and socioeconomic needs. However, the church has also played a role in the country’s civil society since Ghana established itself as a constitutional democracy in 1992. It advocated for the return to a multi-party democracy and served on the constituent assembly that drafted the country’s constitution. It has since supported the consolidation and maturation of Ghana’s democracy through voter education, public statements, and election monitoring. Given the church’s relationship with the Ghanaian people, the Christian Council of Ghana must utilize its position to ensure the country’s democracy moving forward.
In recent times, elections have been closely contested, with a party often winning by only a small margin. In 2012, the outcome of the election was disputed by the opposition. Although the result was upheld by the Supreme Court, its legacy has contributed to the politically charged environment of this year’s election. The media also fuels the country’s tension with intemperate language, insults, and personality attacks on politicians.
The 2016 general election is crucial as it is the first election since the 2012 controversy. This November, however, Ghana will go to the polls severely polarized and uninformed if no action is taken now.
In Ghana today there is a lack of accountability in the public sector, an uninformed electorate, and a political culture of insult. After flaws in the electoral process were exposed, there was a massive call for reform, but since then the public has seen little progress. The problem of limited voter registration remains unresolved. The Supreme Court’s order to the Electoral Commission, which permits citizens to re-register with an alternative form of identification, has yet to be implemented. The citizenry lacks the civic education necessary to stay informed about national issues, which weakens its ability to demand political accountability.
The Christian Council of Ghana should work not only to ensure salvation of the soul, but also to douse the imminent flames of political violence and ensure credible and peaceful elections. It must play a more active role in shaping the democratic fortunes of Ghana.
There are many ways for the Christian Council to do so. It should urge the Electoral Commission to implement proposals for reform and discuss challenges of voter registration with political parties. It should monitor the electioneering campaign according to the Political Parties Code of Conduct and issue statements commending parties that uphold the code. The church could further exert its influence by supporting the Institute of Economic Affairs’s quest to promote issues-based campaigning and presidential debates. To help election day run smoothly, the CCG should encourage security agencies to be fair and impartial before, during, and after the elections. It could also work with the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers to set up teams to monitor and report on the elections.
At the local level, church leaders must be mindful of the fact that the pulpit is a very powerful mechanism for conveying messages to congregations. The Christian Council should remain politically neutral and urge all ministers of the gospel to do so as well, as to not abuse their positions of power. In order to ensure ministers are not lured into partisan politics, the council should develop a code of conduct that regulates ministers’ activities before and during elections. Under the code, ministers would be prohibited from publically declaring their support for one candidate over another, assuring politicians votes, campaigning, attending rallies, preparing sermons that praise a particular candidate, engaging in debates, or wearing partisan paraphernalia. While remaining neutral, church leaders would encourage members to participate in the electoral process and to cast their ballots.
Politicians visit local churches to campaign and will often give money to the church as they leave. While politicians are not prevented from doing this, ministers must comport themselves during these visits in such a way as to avoid the appearance of partisan bias. They should allocate the same amount of time to each candidate who wishes to make their case before the congregation and should neither comment nor ask questions. There should not be any hooting, chanting of party slogans, or singing of party songs—only clapping at the end of the presentation.
Church leaders should also elevate public knowledge regarding the various socioeconomic and governance issues that confront the population by allotting time for political education in the church’s weekly activities. Issues could include unemployment, health delivery, sanitation, education, security and public safety, utility provision and tariffs, energy, rule of law, corruption, infrastructure, and other social provisions. They must be knowledgeable of the policy positions of the political parties and convey them to their congregations. They may invite officials from the National Commission for Civic Education and the Electoral Commission to educate the people about the importance of voting in the upcoming elections, contesting the elections if doing so is appropriate, and avoiding violence. They may also educate the people about voting procedure in an effort to reduce the high rate of rejected ballots. Political education is crucial—it will help build an enlightened citizenry capable of demanding political accountability.
The Christian Council of Ghana has grown in strength and visibility over the years. It has demonstrated substantial commitment and fortitude in its effort to shape the country’s democracy despite its financial challenges. However, many Christians in Ghana believe that politics is ungodly and that the church has no role in the realm of state affairs. So, before the church is able to play a larger role in democratic development, it will have to persuade the congregation to eschew the belief that politics is not relevant in the church setting.
This year’s election is crucial. The church must intensify its role to ensure Ghana’s political stability. The country’s rise in political tension has been delayed largely because of internal wrangling and limited funding in the main opposition party, but we must brace ourselves for the hostility to come later on this year. The church cannot afford to be aloof.
With the church’s involvement, Ghana’s prospects for a better democracy would be high. Ghana would have credible elections, its democracy would become “the only game in town,” and history would be on the church’s side as it helped to attain this goal.
Ransford Gyampo is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Ghana and a research fellow at the Governance Unit of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
[Photo courtesy of GhanaDecides]