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Ghana - The District Assemblies
The district assemblies
Although the National Commission for Democracy (NCD) had existed as an agency of the PNDC since 1982, it was not until September 1984 that Justice Daniel F. Annan, himself a member of the ruling council, was appointed chairman. The official inauguration of the NCD in January 1985 signaled PNDC determination to move the nation in a new political direction. According to its mandate, the NCD was to devise a viable democratic system, utilizing public discussions. Annan explained the necessity for the commission's work by arguing that the political party system of the past lost track of the country's socio-economic development processes. There was the need, therefore, to search for a new political order that would be functionally democratic. Constitutional rules of the past were not acceptable to the new revolutionary spirit, Annan continued, which saw the old political order as using the ballot box "merely to ensure that politicians got elected into power, after which communication between the electorate and their elected representative completely broke down."
After two years of deliberations and public hearings, the NCD recommended the formation of district assemblies as local governing institutions that would offer opportunities to the ordinary person to become involved in the political process. The PNDC scheduled elections of the proposed assemblies for the last quarter of 1988.
If, as Rawlings said, the PNDC revolution was a "holy war," then the proposed assemblies were part of a PNDC policy intended to annihilate enemy forces or, at least, to reduce them to impotence. The strategy was to deny the opposition a legitimate political forum within which it could articulate its objections to the government. It was for this reason, as much as it was for those stated by Annan, that a five-member District Assembly Committee was created in each of the nation's 110 administrative districts and was charged by the NCD with ensuring that all candidates followed electoral rules. The district committees were to disqualify automatically any candidate who had a record of criminal activity, insanity, or imprisonment involving fraud or electoral offenses in the past, especially after 1979. Also barred from elections were all professionals accused of fraud, dishonesty, and malpractice. The ban on political parties, instituted at the time of the Rawlings coup, was to continue.
By barring candidates associated with corruption and mismanagement of national resources from running for district assembly positions, the PNDC hoped to establish new values to govern political behavior in Ghana. To do so effectively, the government also made it illegal for candidates to mount campaign platforms other than the one defined by the NCD. Every person qualified to vote in the district could propose candidates or be nominated as a candidate. Candidates could not be nominated by organizations and associations but had to run for district office on the basis of personal qualifications and service to their communities.
Once in session, an assembly was to become the highest political authority in each district. Assembly members were to be responsible for deliberation, evaluation, coordination, and implementation of programs accepted as appropriate for the district's economic development; however, district assemblies were to be subject to the general guidance and direction of the central government. To ensure that district developments were in line with national policies, one-third of assembly members were to be traditional authorities (chiefs) or their representatives; these members were to be approved by the PNDC in consultation with the traditional authorities and other "productive economic groups in the district." In other words, a degree of autonomy may have been granted to the assemblies in the determination of programs most suited to the districts, but the PNDC left itself with the ultimate responsibility of making sure that such programs were in line with the national economic recovery program.
District assemblies as outlined in PNDC documents were widely discussed by friends and foes of the government. Some hailed the proposal as compatible with the goal of granting the people opportunities to manage their own affairs, but others (especially those of the political right) accused the government of masking its intention to remain in power. If the government's desire for democracy were genuine, a timetable for national elections should have been its priority rather than the preoccupation with local government, they argued. Some questioned the wisdom of incorporating traditional chiefs and the degree to which these traditional leaders would be committed to the district assembly idea, while others attacked the election guidelines as undemocratic and, therefore, as contributing to a culture of silence in Ghana. To such critics, the district assemblies were nothing but a move by the PNDC to consolidate its position.
Rawlings, however, responded to such criticism by restating the PNDC strategy and the rationale behind it:
Steps towards more formal political participation are being taken through the district-level elections that we will be holding throughout the country as part of our decentralisation policy. As I said in my nationwide broadcast on December 31, if we are to see a sturdy tree of democracy grow, we need to learn from the past and nurture very carefully and deliberately political institutions that will become the pillars upon which the people's power will be erected. A new sense of responsibility must be created in each workplace, each village, each district; we already see elements of this in the work of the CDRs, the 31st December Women's Movement, the June 4 Movement, Town and Village Development Committees, and other organizations through which the voice of the people is being heard.
As for the categorization of certain PNDC policies as "leftist" and "rightist," Rawlings dismissed such allegations as "remarkably simplistic . . . . What is certain is that we are moving forward!" For the PNDC, therefore, the district elections constituted an obvious first step in a political process that was to culminate at the national level.
Rawlings's explanation notwithstanding, various opposition groups continued to describe the PNDC-proposed district assemblies as a mere public relations ploy designed to give political legitimacy to a government that had come to power by unconstitutional means. Longtime observers of the Ghanaian political scene, however, identified two major issues at stake in the conflict between the government and its critics: the means by which political stability was to be achieved, and the problem of attaining sustained economic growth. Both had preoccupied the country since the era of Nkrumah. The economic recovery programs implemented by the PNDC in 1983 and the proposal for district assemblies in 1987 were major elements in the government's strategy to address these fundamental and persistent problems. Both were very much part of the national debate in Ghana in the late 1980s.
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