Today, Ghana is one of the more developed countries in Africa. Ghana is a constitutional democracy with a strong presidency. Since the introduction of the Constitution of Ghana in 1992, fundamental and basic rights, – namely human rights- of every human being have been recognized. It is the responsibility of the government of Ghana to enforce and uphold these human rights. However, to reach this point the Republic of Ghana underwent a series of changes in the area of human rights.
The history of Ghana goes a long way back. Archaeologists have found traces of human life and cultural artifacts in the coastal regions that are dated to the Bronze Age (ca. 4000 BC). More evidence has shown that central Ghana has also been inhabited for about 3000 to 4000 years. Large states were formed in western Sudan, and one of the most prominent was the Kingdom of Ancient Ghana, also known as Wakadugu. Most sources are oral, which is why it can be difficult to find out about life and culture during this period. However, some Arab writers deliver reliable evidence. One of them, Al Yaqubi, described the kingdom as one of the most organized states in the region, especially in regard to law and economy.
In the 13th century the Kindgom of Ghana and both large and small kingdo around began to dissolve or were succeeded by new ones. Many people migrated southwards which is the area of modern Ghana. Prisoners created by war and conquer were often kept or sold to North Africa. However, slavery in pre-colonial times did not occur in such high level as it did under European oppression.
In the 15th century the first Europeans came to Ghana, calling it the “Gold Coast” due to various gold sources. Portuguese settlers were soon joined by the Dutch, English, Danes and Swedes, which started trading and exploited the country. Their primary interest was gold, which they took from various gold mines. Slavery was common and these colonialists exported slaves to Latin-America and Europe. Due to the geometrical form of these connections, it was and is referred to as ‘triangular trade’ system (or transatlantic trade). For 150 years Ghana was the centre of British slave trade and signs of it are still visible today. For example, there are dozens of forts and castles built by Europeans between 1482 and 1786.In 1874 Britain abolished slavery in the Gold Coast.
During the 19th century the British were the dominant power in Gold Coast and gained sole possession over it. They proclaimed it a protectorate and a British Crown Colony in 1874, the same year in which slave trade was ended. The steady influence of Europeans, and the subjection of the Gold Coast to external law created impediments to the development of modern democratic ideas (rather than the reverse) because it was difficult for people to embrace a society based on equality and recognition of rights when their oppressors would not deliver those rights equally, or give them any room to exercise their own rights. The colonialists set the worst example of inequality when they divided the African continent in the Berlin Conference (1884-1885), without any consideration of people, cultures and languages.
The colonialists feared that they would lose control and power if they granted too many rights to the “natives.” As a result, they were reluctant to promote equality or human rights, and in fact, exhibited quite the opposite. Despite this, human rights culture did begin to emerge. Under colonial rule Ghana experienced development in economy and education and the people seized more and more influence. As a result of these changes, and political developments, Ghanaians (similarly to other African nations) began to demand that “all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” (ICCPR and ICESCR, Articles 1). Enforced by such strong national sentiment, a power shift from British officials to Ghanaians began to occur.
A major change occurred in 1952, when Kwame Nkrumah was appointed prime minister. Nkrumah was born in the Gold Coast, and lived and studied in London and the US. He showed his political colours when he served as General Secretary in the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), a political party which wanted independence for Ghana. Nkrumah and other leaders were arrested in 1948 when they were suspected to be behind riots, but were released after one month. Empowered by his imprisonment, Nkrumah mobilized the youth and built a strong base of people who were keen for independence and self-determination. Ultimately, he forced the Convention People’s Party (CPP).
Nkrumah again went to prison in 1950 – but this time for three years. Nkrumah and members of his party had encouraged the people of the Gold Coast to boycott the system and disobey directives, and were subsequently imprisoned. Fortunately for Nkrumah, the British had to leave the country in 1951 due to international protests – and despite his ongoing imprisonment, he and the party still won the subsequent elections. He was released shortly afterwards in February 1951.
Nkrumah was appointed prime minister in 1952 and lead the country to independence in 1957. In the process, he changed the name of the Gold Coast’s name into Ghana. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to be free from colonist influence. An exception is to make for such countries in Africa like Liberia that are considered to never have been colonized, even though Liberia was under external influence for 17 years. However, they did declare “true independence” in 1847, and are considered by some to be the first country in Africa to do so. Counter arguments claim that the “colonization” was not “true colonization” and was not as oppressive as in the Gold Coast.
Nkrumah had Marxist ideals and wanted to establish a system oriented on these principles. Proclaiming Ghana a republic in 1960 and establishing a single-party (CPP) system represented the first steps to achieving that goal. Some historical perspectives argue that the CPP’s administration manipulated the constitutional and electoral processes of democracy to justify Nkrumah’s agenda. Even though the rise to independence was motivated by ideas such as the right to self-determination, national sovereignty, freedom, justice, equality and progress, Ghana’s early history was marked by the opposite.
For example, during Nkrumah’s reign his government was able to pass the Deportation Act (1957) in the same year that ethnic, religious, and regional parties were banned. It empowered the government and generals to expel people who were considered not to be in the best interest of the public good. This was an arbitrary formulation, and was dangerous to peoples freedoms. Even though the act was only supposed to apply to non-Ghanaians, many citizens of the Republic had been deported by officials as well. The Deportation Act was used to centralize the authority of government by systematically expelling persons opposed to Nkrumah’s leadership.
The administration also passed the Preventive Detention Act (1958) that was amended several times (1959 and 1962). It gave officials the right to detain persons up to five years without trial. It restricted individual freedoms and was considered one of the first major official acts of human rights infringement. Many cases of other abuses were also reported. People feared that Nkrumah’s rule had turned Ghana into a dictatorship which took away their rights. These fears became especially real when Nkrumah gave a speech on the 10th rally anniversary of the CPP on 12th June 1959. He accused students of the University of Legon of being disloyal for having ideas contradictory or deviating from the governments’ point of view. He stated “if reforms do not come from within, we intend to impose them from outside, and no resort to the cry of academic freedom (for academic freedom does not mean irresponsibility) is going to restrain us…”.
Nkrumah wanted industrial development for Ghana at any cost and placed the country in debt to do so. To fill this financial hole, he raised taxes, which especially affected cocoa farmers. This raised resentment among a great part of the population and a subsequent coup forced Nkrumah to end his rule in 1966. He was succeeded by Kofi Busia after elections in 1969. However, due to poor economic conditions in Ghana, Busia was removed in 1972 and replaced by a military regiment of two officials, Ignatius Acheampong and Frederick Akuffo.
Under their reign the violations of human rights increased sharply. They formed the National Redemption Council (NRC) as a governmental institution. The NRC militarized Ghanaian society. For instance, senior military officers were appointed to positions in all major departments, regional bodies, state corporations, and public boards. Acheampong also aimed at changing the constitution to end party politics and to create a union government mainly composed of executive powers.
In 1979 a group of younger officials led by Jerry Rawlings had enough of the situation and a coup followed. However, under Rawlings rule rights abuses persisted. Amnesty International raised serious concern about unlawful detention, arbitrary imprisonment, killings and unfair trials. After some years, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) that formed the government changed the political system, enabled multi-party-landscape and paved the way to democracy.
In 1992, the administration brought in the Constitution and submitted to fair elections. The Constitution was and still is the supreme law of the (Fourth) Republic of Ghana. It established a structure for the government and defines the fundamental political principles. Most importantly it guaranteed fundamental rights to every individual in Ghana for the first time. Chapter 5 is entitled Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms and provides for rights such as right to life, economic rights and women’s right. In Chapter 6 one can find economic, social and cultural rights. Stating these rights in the Constitution was an important step forward for Ghana, as it meant that there could no longer be excuses for the violation of human rights – neither by the government or customary or traditional reasons. However, in practice, this is not always the case. The Constitutions suffers from both implementation problems, and a number of rights which are not enshrined by it, such as the Right to Health.
Since1992 power has been transferred between leaders of opposing parties several times, and peaceful changes of government occurred. Both factors indicate a stable democracy. Even though none of Ghana’s former leaders can boast of clean human right record in Ghana during their leadership, the country and the government is generally regarded in international circles to be moving in the right direction.
After president John Atta Mills unexpected death on 24th July 2012, Ghana’s political system will be under international focus. Vice-president John Mahama was been sworn in shortly after Mills’ death and will rule the country until the upcoming elections in December 2012.
The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Ghana) has recently declared the election as crucial for the consolidation of Ghana’s fledgling democracy and urged the nation to ensure that the democratic gains that have been made so far are not sacrificed.
Human Rights Handbook for Ghanaian Journalists, published by Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), 2003