In a democratic regime, power is delegated to representatives who put across what they consider to be the ideas, views and feelings of the electorate. This is the formal aspect of representative government. A government, which is perceived to have delivered the goods gets an extended term at the end of its tenure; where it is adjudged as not having performed, the electorate denies it the votes and boots it out, sent packing. But while waiting for the opportunity to determine their fate after four or five years, as the case may be, there are several ways in which the electorate outside Parliament can monitor and run a commentary on how the government is carrying out its stewardship for which it sought a mandate in the first place.
This monitoring and evaluation function is carried out primarily through the press and other mass media, through protest marches and marches in support of government’s actions perceived to be beneficial to the nationals, civil disobedience, withdrawal of labour, strikes and demonstrations. Demonstrations are recognised as regular, normal, peaceful means of drawing the attention of the ruling party to certain facts in the society.
This is recognised in all civilised, enlightened, open societies operating under the rule of law and Constitution. The political system confers on the people the right to call the government to account on various issues.
Because there are divergent views, approaches and perceptions as well as conflicts of interest in the society, rules have been formulated to regulate the holding of demonstrations. Because of the threat to law and order arising out of contradictory demonstrations by rival factions or groups,
The police become arbiters and they are empowered to issue licenses and permits for groups to enable them demonstrate, for which purpose police presence and protection is assured so that all can transpire without unfortunate incidents. But people don’t need permits or licences to demonstrate. It is their basic right and normally they don’t need anyone’s permit to do so. The police are only informed out of convenience, but not for permission to enjoy one’s right. Let this be firmly noted.
It seems the police officials of this country are not aware of the fact that citizens have an inalienable right to “peaceably assemble and petition the government for the redress of grievances.” Our own 1992 Constitution grants citizens the right to demonstrate. To be specific,
Article 2(1)(d) of Chapter Five dealing with Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms states categorically that, “All persons shall have the right to freedom of assembly including freedom to take part in processions and demonstrations.” For orderliness, institutions or bodies wishing to organise rallies, processions and demonstrations are required for convenience to obtain a police permit to ensure that all goes smoothly without violence or threat to peace. It is not permission that is sought but information that is given to the police. But the police in this country behave as if granting a permit to people to hold a rally or procession is a privilege they confer on groups out of the kindness of their hearts rather than a right to which people are entitled.
If anything, where a permit cannot be granted it should be incumbent on the police to show cause why the permit cannot be granted. As far as granting permits for rallies and processions is concerned, our police have grown too bloated and pompous for comfort. They use their discretion most indiscreetly, capriciously, whimsically and arbitrarily, not to say foolishly, and depending on the mood of the particular officer and his inclinations or mood at the time of the request, one may or may not get a permit. This is abuse and misuse of power by the police to which they are not entitled in a democratic, open, liberal society and the earlier their pomposity was deflated, the better for us all.
It has become almost customary or routine in the country to refuse permits for rallies and demonstrations against the government. The police have become bloated, pompous, spineless, castrated, prostrated, emasculated, enfeebled to such a point that the stock answer is no. It is time that this discretionary power was withdrawn from the pusillanimous police and vested in a representative body of government and opposition groups as well as independent pressure groups to determine and rule on applications.
But this may not even be necessary at all in the first place, since permits will not be needed, anyway. Given the way the police behave, people who see their applications almost routinely rejected will be driven by desperation to resort to other methods which may not always be peaceful and which can threaten and undermine the security, harmony and tranquillity of the state. The police have gotten too pompous and cheeky and it is high time someone pruned their wings and cut them to size.
When permits are granted, the brutal way in which the police intervene to put down what they pretend to be acts of lawlessness likely to provoke confrontation and a breach of peace, undermines stability and democracy. The police need to be educated and awakened to the fact that they have an onerous responsibility towards the whole community and not only to the government of the day. Usually they also turn out to be one of the first beneficiaries of the goodies that the demonstrations are often about. After all what was the struggle for independence all about? It was not just a question of changing the colour of the slavemaster, or horse-rider or oppressor from white to black and then a halftone.
It meant more that, and that is what all of us, including the police and Presidents and judges, should be educated on. Since we haven’t endeavoured to build any democratic institutions or establish traditions, the police have not been used to handling demonstrations. Protest marches and demonstrations were used as legitimate weapons for our political liberation from colonial oppression.
At this time of our second liberation, why can’t we use that same weapon which proved so effective against the colonial overlords? The police need to be drilled and educated on how to handle demonstrations. The brutal, violent, mindless, heartless and sadomasochistic manner in which they confront and put down demonstrations indicates that they don’t know that demonstrations are a legitimate weapon for putting one’s point of view across and that this is guaranteed by the Constitutions of most civilised societies, including our dear Ghana.
From the way things are going, it looks as if demonstrations will be resorted to quite frequently, with all the fraudulent posthumous and retroactive legislation and other types of mendacious nonsense, and the earlier the police was trained to handle demonstrations in a civilised and human way, the better it will be for all of us. If they continue with their present attitudes, antics and procedures, dissent will be pushed underground, the safety valve would have been closed and there will be subversion because through peaceful means. People will have been denied the opportunity of giving vent to their feelings.
And so if Ghanaians feel that the last budget of the PNDC was wicked, cruel, callous, insensitive, diabolical, infernal, barbaric, savage, mischievous and still worse unresponsive and irresponsible, why shouldn‘t they so declare and demonstrate their opposition to it? And what is more, why should they need anybody’s permission to demonstrate their opposition to, and rejection of, the budget?
And the situation gets more annoying when one considers that the outgoing secretary or incoming Minister who foisted this senseless, heartless, cruel, “killer” budget on the hapless and poor citizens of this country, and his colleagues in government don ‘t buy petrol. They just get their official cars filled at the Castle petrol dump, so they don’t really feel the pinch which they so savagely, brutally and inhumanely inflict on the suffering masses that we have all been reduced to while the new class lords it over us, and yet some people think we even don’t have the right to complain. What arrant nonsense! And the impudence of a dead cockroach, to boot!
On 16th February, the day scheduled for an anti-budget demonstration in Accra, the police were deployed to disrupt the march for which no permit had been granted. This is typical of the Ghana police. Usually demonstrations start in an orderly, peaceful manner and go on smoothly until the police set in, behaving like zombies, robots or marionettes. They manifest so much sadism that one really wonders whether they are human indeed or inebriated with drink and drugs. If you want evidence of people taking cruel glee in others suffering needlessly and man’s inhumanity to man, consider the Ghana police in times of demonstration or crisis.
They all appear to be intoxicated with diabolical power and sadism. The peaceful demonstration was senselessly and brutally suppressed after half an hour of its inception. On the same day, the leadership of the National Convention Party (NCP), a very minor and token part of the ruling coalition which has also given the country a colourless, marginalised, footnoted and appendixed Vice President, issued a statement castigating the leadership of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) for having filed a writ at the Supreme Court praying the Court to rule on the citizens’ right to demonstrate without let or hindrance. The gravamen of the NCP case was that the NPP leadership had previously declared that it had no confidence in the Supreme Court and therefore would not send any complaints about the elections to that august body.
The NCP considers that this reversal of decision is evidence of hypocrisy and duplicity on the part of the NPP. Obviously the NCP cannot rationally argue that the earlier position of the NPP was tantamount to a perpetual forfeiture of the party’s right to use the courts at any time and under any circumstances. After all, even if one is not satisfied with the composition or performance of certain institutions in the country, one is condemned to living with them and the earlier one gets used to them the better. As I had occasion to write a few weeks ago, “if you don’t like what you get, try to like what you get, but keep on fighting.”
Quite frankly, the courts have not done much to merit our respect, confidence or admiration in recent times, but nevertheless we haven’t given up yet, hoping that a salvaging operation is still possible and on the cards. So let us put them to the test and see how they respond. The NCP statement is so shorn of wisdom and discretion that one wonders what the compelling urge was to issue it, or did they feel compelled to issue a statement just to show they are still around and have not been swallowed up, absorbed, eclipsed, neutralised or liquidated?
Let the NCP leadership take note that as law-abiding citizens, members of the collective opposition will continue to use the existing procedures and institutions including the Supreme Court. It is when these methods have been exhausted that other physical measures will be resorted to. This is what democracy is all about. It is the right and mark of a normal person to change his mind when the circumstance calls for it. It is true that our judiciary of late has not given us much opportunity for being sanguine about what to expect from them.
On the showing of their recent performance in matters affecting the government, they have displayed such pusillanimity, cowardice, abject subservience and lack of conviction, courage and commitment to justice that we have every right not to have confidence in them. There is no justification that they might do better, but as the Fantes say, Se epe tow n ‘ahoto a na ema no semina ma odze guar meaning, if you want to put a person who has a hydrocele or rupture to the test, you give him soap for his bath. We are supposed to be operating in an open, civilised, political atmosphere, so let us hope that the judges have cast away some of the fear and summoned courage. Let us put them to the test. Refusing to go to court on constitutional issues is to say the least puerile, foolish, pointless and defeatist.
However, on this particular issue of resorting to the courts to settle constitutional issues, I think it is pointless and damaging to take an intransigent position of no cooperation with the Supreme Court in the matter of constitutional issues. We live in a world of half measures and compromises, so without unduly flouting our principles, let us be accommodating and show some sympathy for people who operate under such conditions that they may deserve our pity and sympathy rather than our contempt and opprobrium and condemnation.
By all means, to the extent possible, let us at least for the sake of formality give the judges a chance to prove that they have a reputation to protect before their compatriots, contemporaries and posterity. Later generations should not be denied an opportunity to commend or condemn them for what they will be doing or not doing now.
It is our fervent hope that the Chief Justice and other judges are very conscious of the judicial oath that they solemnly swear. The judges undertake before God and man to “truly and faithfully perform the functions of (their) office without fear or favour, affection or ill will”.
They also undertake at all times to “uphold, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Ghana.” We hope they don’t treat the oath as just a collection of words, but as a solemn pledge over which they shall not be found guilty of perjury. If it should happen that any judge perjures himself or herself, especially over constitutional matters, we shall not wait for the good Lord above to administer.