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A dying civil society in the midst of national crisis

Recently, following the attack on a woman in a Midland Bank premises in Accra (August 2018), the journalist, the Journalist, Linus Atarah posed the question, “where the women’s organisations in Ghana are?” That set me thinking.

My mind went back to the 1990s when civil society, not for profit and non-governmental organisations were active in national life and led advocacy on various issues. These organisations were active in promoting rural development, advocacy on behalf of poor people, and were real voices for change. These included youth groups, women’s organisations, rural community-based organisations and citizens advocacy groups.

Some of these were undoubtedly, fronts for international non-governmental organisations like Oxfam, Action Aid, World Vision, Christian Aid and the like. However, in recent years, the influence and activities of these groups have waned.

They seem to be absent from national life, particularly, in the areas where they are needed most.  They are noticeable by their silence. To put it mildly, civil society in Ghana today is a pale shadow of its former self; failing to engage the powers that be to help shape the national agenda, and to speak truth to power.

In Kenya, when some irresponsible youth stripped a woman naked in public ostensibly because she was wearing a short skirt, women’s groups reacted with fury on the streets of Nairobi and other cities.

The same happened when a woman was not allowed to feed her child in the public area of a city hotel. Organisations like FIDA (Federation of Women in Law and Development) are proactive and defend women’s’ rights as they were set up to do. In Uganda, similar reactions from women’s organisations and their sympathisers can be expected. In Ghana today, these organisations are noticeably silent on issues affecting women.

Research conducted by Star-Ghana in 2013, provides a very revealing, but also disturbing analysis of civil society organisations in Ghana, how they are categorised and how donor funds are distributed to mostly Accra (capital of Ghana) based civil society organisations led by the middle-class elite and big recognisable names (“The Political Economy of Civil Society in Ghana”, Star-Ghana, 2013). However, a review of this report is not a focus for this discussion.

My own investigations reveal that there are over 400 civil society organisations, broadly defined to include NGOs, community-based organisations, rural development and faith groups. These cut across the

Country as a whole, but with the large advocacy groups located mainly in Accra.

So, the argument cannot be that there are no NGOs or civil society organisations. They exist but for an agenda which is neither national or pro-poor. It is sad, but has to be said, that most of the NGOs/civil society organisations are caught up in the current culture of grab and share. Others are also caught up in self-promotion of their leaders.

The National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) seems to have lost its dynamism on the altar of personalised greed and aggrandisement, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) hardly talks about workers’ rights these days. There is no left-wing movement to champion the cause of the masses with vim and honesty.

In the case of the recent incident involving a woman being beaten up in a Midland Bank by a policeman, many citizens expressed anger and angst. The usual Facebook commentaries took over and calls for action against the Policeman for assaulting a customer at a Bank were many.

Prior to the Midland Bank incident, seven (7) ‘Zongo’ youth had been gunned down ostensibly for being ‘armed robbers’. Human rights organisations, if they exist in Ghana, were silent on this issue. As usual, the nation was fed the same state-sponsored narrative that the youths were ‘armed robbers’ from the Zongo.

Do we have a ‘shoot to kill’ policy in Ghana?  Can citizens be gunned down because they are from the ‘Zongo’? Where is the human and citizens’ rights organisations to ask these basic questions and seek answers from the state?

Early this year (2018), a female child was subjected to horrendous rape by an adult. In our schools, boys and girls are raped and sodomised and often reported in the newspapers. Yet there is no concerted action by civil society, particularly, human rights and children’s rights organisations. These organisations cannot claim that they have not read or heard about these incidents.

In fact, Pubic Agenda (www.publicagendagh.com), a national advocacy newspaper, regularly reports these disturbing cases of abuse and provides analysis on the incidents and what the Government and civil society should do.

These apart, the increasing incidents of personal aggrandisement, institutional theft and corruption in state institutions should concern civil society. In countries such as Kenya, civil society supports the anti-corruption fight with mass public actions, demonstrations, and analysis of the nature of corruption. In Ghana today, action is lacking where it is needed.

It is not churlish to suggest that in the current atmosphere, the anti- corruption campaign is running aground. These campaigns are led by a small coterie of actors making ineffective demands with citizens acting as ‘spectators’ and observers. Yet the result of corruption is evident in the bad roads, poor sanitation, child labour, existing side by side with affluence of the most obscene type. Poverty of the nastiest kinds confronts every citizen with a conscience.

In the rural areas, children lack the most basic facilities in what we call schools and some resort to sitting on the floor; competing with snakes, scorpions and rodents for space. They are also at the mercy of the rain and anything from above their heads. Child abuse is rife. Where are the education rights campaign groups? A few shiny classrooms in urban areas to provide our leaders with photo opportunities do not constitute a progressive education policy.

Years gone by, these would have been issues for civil society to address with direct support in the form of school building or advocacy for the government to act. This is missing. Somehow, we have reached a saturation point where an expression of angst by a few citizens on Facebook is enough to tickle the conscience of present and past leaders.

The area of Governance is even more disturbing.

Our Governance campaigns should encourage citizen participation but even this has been hijacked by corporate interest Think-Tanks, political parties and urban based organisations with access to resources. A very clear contemporary example is the stalled campaign and debate about US military bases in Ghana.

This should have been a national and broad-based affair, but some elite, partisan driven factions took advantage of popular resentment against this policy, hijacked the debate, hoping to reap the benefits of emerging national anger.

When it became obvious that the political party leading the “Ghana First” campaign was complicit in the initial decision to allow the US to access to Ghana’s soil, or that they could lose vast amounts of patronage from the United States, they quickly withdrew from the campaign leaving in the cold, their most ardent supporters in the anti-military base campaign.

Our governance is weighed down by corruption and lack of citizen participation. Citizen participation is frowned upon if it is done outside the remit of identifiable partisan political groups. Independent voices and opinions are silenced, while all along the leaders of civil society are eyeing the next big position in Government under aegis of their political allies.

It might sound churlish, but it is worth repeating that civil society ought to be independent minded and managed by confident people with an interest in national development; fearless enough to take risky positions and speak truth to power.

Yet, what we see today are ‘vacuous careerists’ some of whom have become “smiling supplicants of their own destruction”, allowing personal and political interests to influence their actions.

Today, civil society today has become is a captive of the duopoly which has monopolised Ghanaian politics and the state. Currently, the state alternates between ‘a social democratic’ (NDC) party and a ‘centre right’ political party (NPP).  Leaders of civil society has to chose one or the other, and not rely on their own independent minds.

The lack of an independent fearless media guided by principles of accountability and able to champion alternative development options and provide citizens with a voice largely account for this malaise.

In countries such as Kenya, civil society has champions, who write and discuss issues of relevance in governance, education, society and speak truth to power.

Ghanaian civil society lacks such champions who can rise up to the occasion on issues of national importance. Time for civil society or what is remaining of it to rise up to the occasion else face imminent death and ridicule.


Zaya Yeebo

The writer is the editor for Public Agenda and the former PNDC Secretary for youth and sports



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