Social Injustice in Ghana: Where are the Freedom and Justice?
Ghana celebrated its golden jubilee of independence on 6th March 2007. The country will be 60 years old on 6th March 2017, less than two years away, at the time of typing these words (October 2015). The Ghana coat of arms is inscribed with the motto of this independent country: “Freedom and Justice”. There are many symbolic things on the coat of arms that encapsulate the values, vision, mood, and spirit of the country at this defining moment of its history when it set out to decide its future and manage its own affairs.
However, my comments revolve on the motto; and for the purpose of STAND Ghana, this motto is reformulated with additional two adjectival words: “Substantive Freedom and Social Justice”. This reformulation is sync with the development vision of the country, underlined by Dr Kwame Nkrumah on the eve of independence: “My first object is to abolish from Ghana poverty, ignorance, and disease. We shall measure our progress by the improvement in health of our people; by the number of children in school and by the quality of their education; by the availability of water and electricity in our towns and villages; and by the happiness which our people take in being able to manage their own affairs. The welfare of our people is our chief pride, and it is by this that my government will ask to be judged”.
Almost sixty years into its independence, Ghana is still a country of “unfreedoms” and social injustice. Precisely because of this, it is the time to sensitise Ghanaians, especially the lowest of the lower classes (here referred to as the subalterns, for example, women in the lower classes and their children) to these unfreedoms and injustices; and springing from that, to advocate and struggle for, at least, a modicum of the human dignity that Nkrumah envisioned sixty years ago. This is particularly important at this specific historical conjuncture, between the 1990s and now (2015), that the conventional wisdom is that Ghana is a model of democratic governance, a country that everyone, irrespective of class, gender, and capabilities, is enjoying democracy and its ideals of freedom, human rights, and rule of law. As will be illustrated below, this is not only a misleading proposition, but a dubious one.
Redefining Freedom and Justice: Procedural vs Substantive
Freedom and justice here – and I believe, in the sense in which they were meant to convey on the coat of arms – are not just procedural, formal, and ceremonial such as spelling them out in the 1992 Constitution of the Republic, as Chapter Five does, or merely casting a ballot every four years to elect a president and parliamentarians. Those who hold this limited notion of freedom and justice see Ghana as a model of a country that citizens enjoy them: the rights and liberties of Ghanaians are guaranteed by the 1992 Constitution, they get the opportunity periodically to hold the government accountable by exercising their franchise, they have freedom of speech (measured by the number of private tabloids, FM radio, and TV stations that operate freely), and they interact freely in the open market to satisfy their wants. All these are supposed to lead to a blissful situation where all democratic citizens of Ghana can produce and reproduce themselves socially and materially; or at least, have equal chances of doing so. Anyone who does not, or cannot do this, it is the person’s fault: his/her failure to take advantage of the “freedom and justice” made available everybody by the constitutions and free market.
How can one have a problem with this view of “freedom and justice”? Who wants an absolutist, authoritarian, dictatorial state as the one we had under the NLC, SMC, AFRC, PNDC military regimes of Ghana? Who doesn’t want freedom of speech? Who would rather prefer the “rule of man” to the rule of law? Who doesn’t want to go to the market to sell freely whatever you have, or buy whatever you want? The answers must be no to all, But.
The conception of “freedom and justice” here – and I insist that this is the meaning it was originally meant to convey on the coat of arms of Ghana – is substantive and broad. It centres on the life chances of real people struggling to live like real humans and not supernumeraries of the human race, as Colin Leys will put it. Karl Marx is popularly associated with the sustentative and expansive rendition of “freedom and justice” that I advocate here: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. He saw the ideal society as “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. For Karl Marx, “freedom and justice” are intricately linked to the “capabilities” of a person, what he or she needs to be able to enjoy those freedoms guaranteed by the constitution: that is the ability of each Ghanaian to live in freedom and justice. In that sense, the development of a person’s capabilities is the key to “freedom and justice”, and not just the mere recognition of these in the constitution.
Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom is germane here. Sen argues that for substantive freedoms, animated by the development of the capabilities and wellbeing of people. He argues that attention must be “paid particularly to the expansion of the capabilities of persons to lead the kind of lives they value – and have reason to value”.
Sen begins his book by asserting the importance of substantive freedoms and consistently argues against procedural freedoms. For him, development is the expansion of “the real freedoms that people enjoy”. This view of development contrasts with the narrow view measured by GNP, per capita income and industrialization. These are definitely important as the means by which freedoms can be expanded.
However, Sen is at pains emphasizing that: Freedoms depend also on other determinants, such as social and economic arrangements (for example, facilities for education and health care) as well as political and civil rights (for example, the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny)…Viewing development in terms of expanding substantive freedoms direct attention to the ends that make development important, rather than merely to some of the means that, inter alia , play a prominent part in the process.
In praising Sen’s book, Kofi Annan, the then UN General Secretary remarked: “The world’s poor and dispossessed could have no more articulate or insightful a champion among economists than Amartya Sen”
The foregoing expositions on the substantive and ethical version of “freedom and justice” join company with the human security framework of security and development. Despite its supposed elusiveness as an analytical concept, human security points to the protection of human beings against the threat of hunger, disease, crime, environmental disasters, homelessness; and anything that jeopardizes their safety, happiness, dignity and decency as the paramount goal of security and development.
In the rendition of the UNDP, human security has to do with the “safety from chronic threats such as hunger, disease and repression”, along with “protection from sudden and hurtful disruption in the patterns of daily life”. According to another influential human development economist, Sabina Alkire, the central goal of human security is to safeguard the vital core of all human lives from critical pervasive threats, in a way that is consistent with long-term human fulfillment.
Alkire goes on to underline a very important point, namely, that “human security takes its shape from the human being: the vital core that is to be protected”. Advocates of human security take as their starting point the inadequacy of the narrow state-centric definition of security where the protection of the state against both external and internal threats is of paramount security concern to the government of each country. From a human security perspective, the security of the state becomes a people-centred matter rather than merely state-centred, even as this is also very important. In this connection Alkire argues correctly that “the human being becomes the ‘end’ of development, not only as a ‘means’ to increased economic productivity or legal coherence, [but] these various activities in turn become “people-centred”.
In articulating a parallel view, Garry King and Christopher Marray defined of human security as “the number of years of future life spent outside a state of ‘generalized poverty’. Generalized poverty occurs when an individual falls below the threshold of any key domain of human wellbeing”.
All these conceptualizations of freedom, justice, and security come together to constitute the reformulation of the motto on the Ghana coat arms; namely, substantive freedom and social justice. It is by these indicators of substantive freedoms and social justice that the progress Ghana has made (or not) in realising its independence development dream — as outlined by Nkrumah — will be assessed.
Viewed in this light, the periodic elections in Ghana, free speech and press, the absence of an external attack on or outbreak of a civil war in Ghana, and the capacity of a democratically elected government to bring the military under civilian control (thereby forestalling a military coup d’etat) are not enough to illustrate that Ghana is a democratic, secured and peaceful nation. One can legitimately talk about insecurity, “unfreedoms, and social injustice, in an otherwise (and widely accepted and known) peaceful, secured, and democratic-Ghana. The reason? Because, some (if not most) Ghanaians cannot feed or clothe themselves, are exposed to diseases because of unsanitary conditions or environmental degradation; are not able to get medical attention and die of preventable and treatable diseases; live precariously on unreliable sources of income or food, and many more life-threatening and dehumanizing conditions.
This situation is captured in a research report by Gyimah-Boadi and Awuah Mensah: “Many Ghanaians cannot afford basic necessities of life such as food, water and medical care. Forty percent of respondents say they have gone without food, and 43 percent have gone without water, at some time during the past year. More than half (54 percent) of Ghanaians report having gone without medical attention at some time during the same period and 39 percent did so regularly”. Even though these findings were made in 2003, from my personal observation and own research, this dismal situation has not changed after twelve years.
Socio-economic inequality, be it between genders, races, regions, ethnicities, or classes, is a supreme symbol of a socially unjust society. On this, Ghana is a classic case of a social unjust country, never mind the celebratory rhetoric of it being a democratic country. Class inequality is so visible in Ghana it takes a casual observation of life in the streets to notice it quickly. Simon Wheelan, a foreign journalist, felicitously described the situation as “a cruel juxtaposition of wealth and poverty” side by side. Based on his observation, Wheelan concludes; “Like elites the world over, the Ghanaian bourgeoisie is not averse to conspicuous displays of wealth… in a country where most people lack access to even the most basic necessities. Mercedes and Lexus abound – chauffeur driven to boot – with designer label clad passengers who show a marked disdain for their fellow Ghanaians. Their very presence as islands of wealth in a sea of despair and poverty is distasteful to the onlooker…. Whilst the elite can purchase imported food from the supermarkets, there is increasing poverty and malnutrition amongst the population at large, due to a near-total absence of reasonably priced basic foodstuffs”.
Wheelan’s observation was in the late 1990s, but his description of inequality in Ghana is as accurate today as it was then. The display of wealth by the political class and their cronies, as well as the new and emerging middle classes — doing so shamelessly in the midst of grinding poverty and deprivation — welcomes any visitor to any of Ghana’s cities and towns across the country.
Unfreedoms and Social Injustices in the Subaltern’s own voices
At this juncture, one must pause this narrative for those who unfreedoms and social injustices to speak in their own voices about their miserable situation. This is how one male-peasant in Guabulga, a village in the Mamprusi-East district in Northern Region, described their precarious livelihoods condition: “We used not to travel to the southern part of Ghana to seek a living because our land was fertile and we could feed ourselves from it. But it is no longer fertile so we are not able to get food to feed our families. So, a man would be staying with his wife and children, but cannot feed them. His wife or daughter will then leave to go to the southern part of the country to look for jobs, leading to the migration of both married and unmarried women from this area to the southern part of Ghana But this used not to be the case when our lands were fertile”
This interviewee is alluding to the head-porters who live and operate in the business district of Accra (the capital of Ghana), eking out a living carrying the goods and shopping of retailers and shoppers respectively. They are popularly referred to in Ghanaian parlance as kayayei women. Most of the kayayei have migrated from parts of Northern region. For me the kayayei are the lowest of the lower classes in Ghana: they are homeless and sleep in the streets of Accra with their children. What they say about their living conditions is illuminating of not just their destitution, but broadly, the fate that most subalterns in Ghana are condemned to in their so-called democratic country. Hear one of them talk about the insensitivity of the Ghanaian state to their predicament: “Even if we tell the government our problems, our suffering, it will not listen.
The government has been aware of our situation for many years now but has done virtually nothing to help us. If there were good schools in our area some of us would not have been in this condition. Our parents have not been to school. They are all suffering. We have to come here to enable us get money to supplement our families’ income. We sleep on the streets, work and send money home to support our parents. We wish our children can attend school and would not have to go through our experience”.
Some of these kayayei are young women who have dropped out of SSS/high school because their parents could not afford the high fees of SSS education in Ghana. Hear one of them speak about this problem: “They [government] told us there is free education but we pay school fees. I finished my Senior Secondary school, Wulugu Secondary School, but I could not collect my results and certificates, and they refused to give me my certificates. So education is not free”.
This author probed for more information from this young lady, whether it was because she could not pay the fees she owed that turned her to a kayayoo (singular). She was emphatic that it was the only reason why, and that she would have wished to continue her education if she had money to do so. These are not just rare exceptions of the true life stories of the subalterns in Ghana. Throughout the whole Ghana, one is likely to hear strikingly similar stories if the subalterns are interviewed in any city, town or village.
The preceding discussion partly constitutes the political, economic, and social backdrop against which STAND Ghana is formed. It seeks to intervene in various situations of human rights violations and social injustice through advocacy, capacity-building, and evidence-based research, dissemination and civic activism.
By Jasper Ayelazuno (Executive Secretary – Stand Ghana Inc.)