Deepening democratic governance and popular participation in Ghana: The case for electing MMDCEs

A Disturbing new (and Old) reality

There is no doubt that, in recent times, the political landscape of Ghana has been shaken by a wave of disturbing, and, in actual fact, tumultuous events which have weakened, if not already eroded, public confidence in our democratic system of governance and body politic. These happenings — three of which I describe below — have left many Ghanaians bewildered as to whether the current system and process of governance that we have built over the years and so proudly believed to be working to serve our collective interest as a nation, often bringing us international acclaim, is worth maintaining.

The first — and certainly the most obvious of these events — is the on-going election petition, which has exposed many loopholes in our electionery machinery, casting doubt about the sanctity of our electoral process and damaging the high-level of public trust once reposed in the formerly-perceived impartial arbiter of our political contest: the Electoral Commission.

The second is the worsening state of ‘official’ corruption, that age-old cancerous disease in our body politic which continues to eat away huge portions of our already-dry national coffers by few, greedy, selfish politicians — whether in the form of payment of preventable judgment-debts, or the award of dubious contracts and shady deals by government officials, in blatant disregard to due processes and checks and balances, in the use of tax-payers monies. Unfortunately, though not new, the perceived unwillingness or inability of the government in power — particularly, the president, in whom lies the ultimate responsibility of leading the fight against corruption — has helped fuel public mistrust about the commitment of the ruling class to routing out this menace from our political system.

The third — and newest among the three — has been the recent spate of rejection of presidential nominees for the post of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) across the length and breadth of the country, with its attendant violence that has left many Ghanaians wondering whether there is rule of law in Ghana.

In sum, these emergent trends have caused Ghanaians to lose faith in politicians and in the institutions of governance created to advance and safeguard our collective interests and wellbeing. They have left us wondering if the mantras of ‘free and fair elections’, ‘kabi ma menka bi’ (i.e., democracy), ‘good governance’, ‘accountability’, ‘rule of law’, ‘power to the people’ and so on, which we have been singing for many years to legitimize, defend and excite ourselves about the working of the multiparty-democratic system of government and participatory decision-making ushered in by the fourth republic in 1992, are worth keeping or discarding. Above all, however, they have left us asking the most important question: is it not time to rethink our democratic politics and re-structure the existing system of governance, including reforming the institutions of state and the mechanisms of accountability, to give true meaning to the concept of participatory democracy which we have subscribed to and fought for?

In this contribution, I attempt to address this question in relation to the third issue — that is, the selection of metropolitan, municipal and district chief executives (MMDCEs) — leaving the other two issues untouched for obvious legal and strategic reasons (as the first issue is still in court and because I am not privy to the full contents of the report produced by the fact-finding committee commissioned to probe allegations of corruption at GYEEDA).

In doing so, I first trace the origins of the flawed system of appointing MMDCEs and other local-level officials in the context of Ghana’s decentralized local government system. I then argue for a shift to the election of MMDCEs, albeit on a competitive, non-partisan basis. And I explain why this is a better alternative to the current practice of appointing MMDCEs as well as a more effective solution to the myriad problems posed by the status quo.

The paradoxical problem of African democracy: Centralization through decentralization

‘We need African-made solutions to African problems’ is the modern-day translation of one of the most-often quoted lines in what has been described as one of the greatest political speeches of all times delivered in Africa by an African politician, in the person of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, on Ghana’s Independence Day: ‘..that after all the black man is capable of managing his own affairs’. In the contemporary global era, where the importance and role of the nation-state is constantly being threatened and diminished by the hegemonic forces of western capitalism, economic internationalization and the Euro-American neo-liberalistic vision of the ideal world, the need to preserve and showcase the unique identity of the state, and to fashion local solutions to local problems is even more compelling now than before.

Yet, the reality is that the call for ‘African-made solutions to African problems’ is often not borne out of the quest to find and address critical flaws in imported ideas and adapt them to the exigencies of the African context in order to deliver better outcomes for all Africans. But, as the case has often been, it is used as a pretext by Africa’s ruling elites to manipulate those ideas to achieve their myopic interests. The transition to democratic rule is a classic exemplar of this behaviorial pattern, as I demonstrate below.

When the so-called third wave of democratization, which began in the late 1970s, finally touched down on the continent of Africa south of the Sahara sometime in the 1980s (it must be noted that despots in the northern part of the continent, who thought they could forever insulate themselves from being hit by this wave, are now having to pay a hefty price for democracy), it seemed to have brought great emancipation as well expectations to many of the continent’s people who were reeling under the fetters of dictatorial rule — whether socialist autocrats in one-party, totalitarian states with suppressed opposition voices, or military juntas in ‘emergency’ rule with suspended constitution and zero tolerance for plurality. But unlike the widespread excitement that accompanied the political freedom from colonialism, the liberty that was brought about by democracy was not universally celebrated. This is because it was destined to produce winners and losers.

Seeing themselves, therefore, as the potential losers of the incoming democratic storm, which, in the context of Africa, came in the form of a bargaining chip used by donor institutions and governments as conditionalities for releasing critically-needed funds, Africa’s many power-drunk leaders were initially reluctant to imbibe such widespread reforms. But soon upon realizing that the new system could be designed as an ‘African-made solution to an African problems’, they embraced it with excitement. No wonder democracy’s journey through the continent of Africa was faster than anywhere else it traversed. But was it deep enough? I think not! Were the hopes of those who dreamed of a new society where the voices of the masses would be paramount in government and decision making? I would say no!

The reason I say so is because when the legal framework and structural design of the new system were configured, they actually consolidated the position, power and grip of one person, the head of state (and his political elites) at the centre over the purported new decentralized system of decision-making. Put differently, rather than give (or share) real power with the people and accord them greater role in the governance process, the new constitutions and decentralized system of government actually served to increase — or at the minimum maintain — the amount of responsibilities, powers and resources available to the central government.

Thus, even though new, semi-autonomous governing structures were created at the sub-national level, real power was vested in the centre — powers that included appointing the heads of sub-national government bodies, dictating what kinds of policies and projects they should undertake, reducing or eliminating the amount of discretionary powers available to them, requiring them to render accounts directly to the centre rather than the grassroots, and withholding the requisite financial resources needed to make them independent. All these tactics often ended up increasing the centre’s control over the governance process, effectively incapacitating the newly-created sub-national governments and quasi-state bodies.

Resultantly, the supposedly new system of ‘government of, for and by the, people’ in the end created new dictators out of the new political system, rather than eliminating the old dictators from the old system. But this time, however, their designations would not be ‘socialist or military dictators’, but rather ‘democratic dictators’. Why? Because compared to their counterparts even in the so-called democratic countries, the new democratically elected African leader enjoys unfettered powers and privileges.

The Ghanaian context

In the case of Ghana, the parallel processes of restructuring the local government system, which took effect from the late 1980s to the early 90s, and the inauguration of the 1992 constitution, which transitioned the country into multi-party democracy, saw the massive concentration of decision-making powers in one man at the centre: the president Specifically, both the constitution and local government Act enjoins the president to appoint all the heads of the 170 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs), subject to the approval of the local assembly.

He must, in addition, appoint 30% of all assembly members in the various MMDAs, who, as part of their responsibilities, endorse the president’s nominee. As well, 25% of the people forming the several thousands of councils functioning as the sub-structures of the MMDAs must be appointed by the president. These include 25% of the 1,300-plus Sub-metropolitan District/Town/Zonal, Urban/Area Councils as well as 25% of the over 16,000, 15-member Unit Committees littered across the length and breadth of the country. This situation is what has been described in various circles as the ‘winner takes all’ characteristic of Ghana’s political system.

So what is wrong with the above arrangement? And, given the fact that the significant rejection of the president’s nominees for MMDCEs is only a recent phenomenon, why call for an overhaul of the whole system, rather than just deal with the quality of the nominees? To answer these questions, let us consider what the strengths and weaknesses of the existing practice are.

Critique of the status quo: Advantages and problems with appointing MMDCEs

It is important to mention that both the challenges and rewards from the current organization of the local government system apply to all tiers of the MMDA structures; however, I will limit myself here only to the appointment of the MMDCEs, the most influential political figures at the local level.

Justifications or advantages of appointing MMDCEs

A number of reasons have been proffered for having and keeping the current system of appointing MMCEs in place. First, it has been argued that since MMDCEs are the heads of the MMDAs, which constitute the highest political authority at the local level, it is crucial to appoint people who can fully implement the development agenda of the central government. Secondly, the case is often made that since the president consults with relevant stakeholders on the ground before choosing suitable persons to occupy the office of MMDCEs, he will certainly appoint the right persons who are natives of the respective MMDAs and are already (or expected to be) familiar with the unique problems and opportunities prevailing in their districts.

Thirdly, the case is often made that since the MMDAs are only geographical units which are part of the country, it is only logical to ensure conformity and evenness in national development, and appointing MMDCEs is the only viable way to achieve these critical development goals. This leads us to the fourth and fifth justifications given for the current system in place, which are more political.

It has been suggested, fourthly, that politically, it is not only wise but also strategic to have MMDCEs appointed by the president or the executive from within their party as it will be politically suicidal to have their opponents elected as MMDCCEs. This is because they can thwart the efforts of the government in power, which will end up creating tensions and frictions not just between political parties at (and between) the local and national levels, but also tensions and divisions between certain communities or regions and the state, it is argued. Undoubtedly, this must be principal the reason behind the late president’s refusal to endorse the recent Constitutional Review Commission’s finding and recommendation regarding the competitive election of MMDCEs.

As a matter of fact, some have gone as far as predicting that allowing MMDCEs to be elected, rather than appointed, will serve as a recipe for Ghana’s breakdown or fracture into pockets of communities and towns along ethnic lines, as evil-mined politicians will open up and exploit deep-seated wounds and sentiments among Ghana’s 30-plus ethnic groups, which dates back to pre-colonial days. The situation in Somalia is often cited as the likely end result of treading on such a path. The fifth, and rather theoretical, reason offered for appointing MMDCEs is that it is simply uncharacteristic of unitary states to elect MMDCEs. Such as a system, they say, is fit for federations, such as the United States and Switzerland, not unitary states like Ghana.

Problems or weaknesses associated with the status quo

The first — and major — problem associated with the current system of appointing MMDCEs is the huge accountability problem we have at the local level. MMDCEs, knowing they have been appointed from the top, naturally feel un-(or less)-accountable to the people they serve, but rather and sorely to their political master, the president. And rather than satisfy the needs of the people under them, the onus becomes to please their appointers. Consequently, many MMDCEs in Ghana take decisions arbitrary and often abuse their office, feeling they are untouchable by people at the grassroots.

The number two problem with appointing MMDCEs is the proliferation or perpetuation of patronage politics — also known as neopatrimonialism — at the local level. In other words, the office of the MMDCEs have become avenues for recruiting and rewarding political allegiance. This inevitably gives birth to neopatrimonialism’s twin sister: corruption. This situation often manifests in the award of contracts to party faithfuls and regime friends, who in turn pay kickbacks and give other forms of support in return.

It may also result in the selection of projects that boost the ruling party’s image at the local level — sometimes in locations that can buy them enough political capital or support necessary to secure their re-election — rather than long-term projects that benefit all electorates and for their long-term good. In effect, the MMDCEs become manipulable tools in the hands of the ruling elites or their party to achieve their selfish political interests, instead of the collective welfare of Ghanaians. The recent denunciation of the president’s MMCE nominees by so-called party foot-soldiers on the basis of them failing to ‘achieve results for the party’ is the clearest indication of the misread role of MMDCEs as servants of all Ghanaians in living in the respective MMDAs, not members of the party.

The third weakness associated with appointing MMDCEs is the issue of competency of nominees, which is linked to the point above. In a society where political coloration has gained currency over ability to deliver, and ‘who you know’ more critical than ‘what you know’ in the selection of people for public office, there is certainly bound to be instances of having ‘square pegs in round holes’. Increasingly, this is becoming a source of worry to many Ghanaians.

Lastly, the appointment of MMDCEs is a mockery of the ‘ka bi mane ka bi’ system of government we claim to have created, in the sense that Ghanaians have no say in the choice of who becomes their MMDCEs.

So how will the election of MMDCEs solve these problems? My answer: let us examine the advantages of electing MMDCEs.

The case for electing MMDCEs in Ghana

First, allowing MMDCEs to be elected will make them directly accountable to their electorates, even in the absence of any legislation requiring them to do so. Why? Because of the fear of ‘kokomoti’ power — that is, the voting power of the electorates. In other words, if MMDCEs know that the power to elect or remove them from office rests with the people and not the president or their party hierarchy, they will be careful to conduct their affairs in a clean, fair and transparent manner.

Secondly, if MMDCEs are elected, they will focus on serving their electorates from whom they derived their mandate, rather than pleasing their political masters. And rather than spend time to lobby the president or their party hierarchy to get re-appointed, they would rather work hard to serve their electorates, in order to win their trust and justify their re-election.

Third, the autonomy or independence that comes with electing MMDCEs in decision making will enable them to formulate policies and projects that are relevant and also designed in ways that satisfy or factor in the unique and differentiated needs of their respective constituents, rather than implement top-down and politically-driven policies and projects.

Fourthly, neo-patrimolistic politics will be on the decline, if MMDCEs are elected. This is because, given the fact that they derive their mandate from the entire electorate and not a section of it, their priority will be to serve the interests of all their constituents and not the interests of a select few, be they those of their political masters above or party cadres below. This will also translate in a more open, competitive process of awarding contracts, which will in turn reduce local level corruption.

Fifthly, competent people — those having a track record of service, leadership and accomplishments — are more likely to be elected, than appointed, as MMDCEs, if elected competitively. And, if they fail to live up to their expectations, or if there are differences in opinion between those at the top (i.e., the president and his circle of leaders) who appointed the MMDCEs and believe that they have performed well to deserve a second term, and those on the ground (i.e., party foot soldiers) who judge most of these term-one MMDCEs as failures and are calling for change, the ‘kokomoti’ power is the best judge in such circumstances.

Last but not least, Ghanaians are bound to feel more empowered if they elect their own MMDCEs, rather than have them imposed on them.

Addressing the difficult question: Should MMDCEs be elected on partisan or non-partisan basis?

Deciding to have MMDCEs elected presents a number of questions, the obvious being whether or not make the office of MMDCEs partisan or non-partisan. This is, to me, the most important question and choice we face in the push for electing MMDCEs, because a number of the gains to be made from having to elect MMDCEs, which I have discussed above, will depend on the approach or format we choose to elect them. Off course, I have stated my preference at the outset. But in order to state my case in an objective, rational manner, I will examine the pros and cons of electing MMDCEs on a partisan or non-partisan basis, in a comparative sense.

Partisan election of MMDCEs and its drawbacks

It is true that political parties have the capacity to whip up public interest in all forms of elections. They, after all, have the capacity to mobilize voters and the resources to sponsor and campaign for candidates, which in turn will intensify competition. This competition, by implication, this will lead to the fielding of quality candidates for the position of MMDCEs, it is argued. And, since interested candidates have to come through party lines, the burden of having to screen them to determine their eligibility (and the issues which having to deal with this task raises, such as who should vet prospective candidates and by what criteria) is shifted to the political parties. Therefore, organizing elections to select MMDCEs along party lines is less complicated, cheap and popular. In fact, many governance experts have suggested that the current low voter turnout at district assembly elections in Ghana is due to the non-partisan disposition of these polls and have therefore called for the politicization of same.

But apart from the relative ease in organizing the election of MMDCEs and the accompanying greater public excitement that will be brought to bear on the process, there is no indication that this approach, if chosen, will deliver the promised benefits of selecting MMDCEs through universal suffrage. As a matter of fact, it has the tendency of perpetuating, if not worsening, all the ills in our current political and governance system, which we are seeking to address. How? Let me explain why.

First, if MMDCEs are elected on political party platforms, they will always have a divided allegiance — one to their electorates and the other to their party — which will not augur well for the citizenry. Secondly, because they are perceived as politicians in party uniform, they are likely to remain inaccessible to perceived opponents (that is, members of the opposition party) and overly accessible to supporters. The latter will serve as the platform for neo-patrimonialism or patronage politics as political considerations would cloud decision-making and the award of contracts.

When this happens, we will be seeing the manifestation of (or return to) the ‘winner takes all’ politics at the local level, the very problem we are seeking to eliminate from the current system of having all the MMDCEs appointed by the party in power. Third, the notion that intense competition among parties will lead to better candidates being elected as MMDCEs can only be true in so far as competency takes precedence over such factors as popularity, duration of party membership and financial contribution in the selection of prospective candidates for MMDCEs at the party level. Yet, the reality is that many of the achievers in Ghana today are partyless. So going for partisan election of MMDCEs will obviously axe many of the nation’s fine leaders from offering themselves for the above position. And finally, the fear that elected opposition figures can sabotage the national government in power is possible under such a system.

The promise of non-partisan-based election of MMDCEs
Allowing people to run for the office of MMDCEs independently in Ghana will reduce and eliminate many of the problems we are having with the current practice of appointing the heads of MMDAs, as well as many of the potential pitfalls in allowing MMDCEs to be elected on party lines. This is because, first of all, whoever succeeds in winning the ballot will know that they won the race on merit rather than through the benefit of political, financial or other capital. Off course, this is not say that possessing or securing these resources is not necessarily; however, they become less important or do not significantly disadvantage those who do not possess large quantities of these, if an equal platform is created for all competing candidates. Moreover, because the process of electing MMDCEs is politically blind, this means that whoever feels qualified to run for the office can do so without constraints from party affiliation or otherwise, financial power and other obstacles — in effect, this will present voters with a richer pool of talents to select from.

Elected MMDCEs will also have a singular focus in serving none but their electorates only, not some but all of them, since they did not come into office on any political party ticket. They will also become (or make themselves) more accessible to the wider spectrum of their constituents. As well, they will work to ensure prudent, transparent and even distribution of resources at the local level to ensure even, balanced development. What is more, they will lack any incentives to undermine the work of the ruling government at the local level, since they have no official political allegiance. And they will be less susceptible to corruption. Most importantly, they will be more accountable to their constituents, seeing that their performance and re-election will be judged by their electorates.

Off course it will be naïve for me to say that adopting a non-partisan approach to electing MMDCEs will not be fraught with challenges or questions as I have pointed out already. These issues include how many people can contest for elections, what should be the eligibility requirements, who should screen candidates, how should they be screened, and how do we ensure that issues of vote buying and inequalities among potential candidates are addressed. Compared to the shortcomings of the existing system, however, I would say these are lighter, more procedural matters that can be addressed in setting the rules of the game in consultation with Ghanaians. For example, to become eligible for the candidature of MMDCE, interested applicants could be asked to secure the endorsement of a minimum threshold of support (in the form of personally-elicited signatures) from a certain percentage of the local voting public, spread across the different geographic units within the respective MMDAs. They could also be required to have maintained active residence in the MMDA in question for a certain minimum number of years. These measures, and many more, can help level the playing field for all qualified contestants. The other advantage is that the Ghanaian voting public has become more sophisticated and mature to be deceived nowadays with political gimmicks. So the tactic of vote buying and other tricks politicians play on Ghanaians are and will become less popular with time.

Arguably, there could be other challenges, not least two among the existing ones, which will be more difficult to completely eliminate under such a system. One is the issue of political patronage and the other is corruption, which can still occur even under non-partisan system. However, whilst I do agree with these assertions, I would say that these anomalies are likely to be of smaller scale in comparison with the scale at which they will occur under the two systems described above.

The way forward: Referendum

Even though I have made the case for the election of MMDCEs in Ghana on a competitive, non-partisan basis, I acknowledge that not all Ghanaians may favour this approach. Perhaps, as I suspect, there are those who still prefer the existing system for reasons that may include the justifications given for the design of the current system in place. Therefore, the best way I recommend to reaching a decision on this matter is through a national referendum, with a binding clause. And the format can be stated as simple as this:


• Option 1: Maintain the current system of appointing MMDCEs

• Option 2: Replace the current system of appointing MMDCEs
with the election of MMDCEs standing on the ticket
of political parties

• Option 3: Replace the current system of appointing MMDCEs
with the election of MMDCEs on a competitive
non-partisan basis

Concluding Thoughts

The current spate of rejection of the president’s nominees for the office of Metropolitan, Municipal and District Chief Executives (MMDCEs) across the length and breadth of Ghana, leading to incidents of violence, is one of three recent major worrying developments in Ghana’s political scene, which is eating away public confidence in the country’s governance machinery. Various schools of thought have been offered to explain and tackle this problem, the most simplistic of them — unfortunately coming from sitting government ministers — are the lack of consultation with party supporters at the grassroots (as the cause of the problem) and changing of the local government law to make rejected MMDCEs by assembly members keep their posts as acting MMDCEs. Perhaps, the most evenhanded answer offered to this problem, emanating from a cross spectrum of the Ghanaian populace, is the election of MMDCEs. But while this solution remains promising, the difficult question Ghanaians have probably given less thought to is whether to elect MMDCEs on a partisan or non-partisan basis and the implications of choosing which path.

In contributing to this discourse, I have not only traced the root cause of the current practice of appointing MMDCEs and its shortcomings, but supported the calls for a replacement of the current practice with the election of MMDCEs with strong arguments. Yet, I have also justified why a non-partisan approach to electing MMDCEs will be more effective (or less damaging) compared to the traditional partisan method. Non-partisan election of MMDCEs, I must however caution, is by no means a silver bullet for killing all the problems inherent in our present system of governance. But there is one thing it can accomplish at least: it can offer us a strong antidote to the current ‘winner takes all’ ailment in our political system, which neither partisan voting of MMDCEs nor the less competitive alternative suggestion of having the president nominate prospective candidates for the various MMDCEs and asking Ghanaians to elect the most suitable candidate from them.

I have voted above for the replacement of the current system with the competitive bidding of votes by qualified Ghanaians for the position of MMDCEs, which I propose should be subject to a referendum, believing this is a more ‘African-made solution to African problems’. Feel free to cast your vote and offer any comments below as to why you agree or disagree with my position on this issue.

Your comments and contributions are well appreciated