Consolidation of Ghana's democratic priniciples

Widely considered one of the best-governed countries in Africa, Ghana is attractive to investors seeking stability in a region that has long been burdened with a reputation for risk.

Despite the difficulties of the first few decades following independence in 1957, the country has made great strides in consolidating its democracy over the past two decades. Since coming into effect in 1993, the constitution of the Fourth Republic has provided a strong and effective governing framework, helping to build trust between the Ghanaian people and their leaders. The judiciary is widely considered independent, the legislature is believed to be the appropriate forum through which to advance policy agendas, and presidential power is generally seen as limited, most notably among those who hold the office.

Constitutional Framework

The consolidation of multiparty democracy has taken place under the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which was negotiated in 1992 and went into effect in 1993. It was amended in 1996.

The document creates a presidential republic that adapts aspects from both the UK parliamentary system and the US constitutional model. Powers are divided between three branches of government, and their interactions are set up as a system of checks and balances.


Executive power resides in the president, who is head of both state and government, as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The president’s primary function is the implementation and enforcement of all laws written by Parliament, as well as the determination of the general policy of the government. He or she is assisted in these duties by a vice-president of his choosing, who is designated before the election, as well as the Cabinet of Ministers of State, who are also appointed by him. The president may also request the counsel of the Council of State, a small body made up of prominent citizens, on specific legislation. According to the constitution, the council must include, among others, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, a former chief of the defence staff of the armed forces, a former inspector-general of the police and the president of the National House of Chiefs.

The president has a qualified veto over all bills, except those to which a vote of urgency is attached. Presidents are elected to a maximum of two terms of four years each. John Dramani Mahama, who held the office until early 2017, assumed the position after the death of John Atta Mills in July 2012 and was elected in December of the same year with 50.7% of the vote. Mahama stood for re-election in December 2016, but was defeated by the leader of the opposition party, Nana Akufo-Addo, with 53.85% of the vote.


Legislative power is vested in the Parliament, which is unicameral in structure and consists of 275 elected members and a non-elected speaker. Until 2012 there were 230 members of parliament. As with the president, parliamentary terms are four years in length.

Parliament is primarily concerned with the making of laws and is the sole body established by the constitution with the ability to do so. It has a number of other important roles to play as well. It controls all public funds, taxation, the granting and receiving of loans, and the monitoring of foreign exchange receipts. As such, while the executive is free to propose expenditure levels and the means by which revenue might be raised, Parliament retains the final word with respect to the disbursement of the necessary monies.

Parliament also performs an important check on the power of the executive by scrutinising policy measures and questioning government officials in its committees. It also has the right of approval over presidential nominees for ministers, deputy ministers, justices of the Supreme Court and members of the Council of State, among others. Parliament is the nation’s chief representative forum; MPs serve as a key communication link between constituents and the national government.


The Ghanaian legal system is based on British common law, customary or traditional law, and the 1992 constitution, and is generally seen as both independent and impartial by outsiders, which is atypical of the region as a whole. It has jurisdiction in all civil and criminal matters, including issues that are related to the constitution, and is broken into two main parts.

The Superior Courts of the Judicature are established by the constitution and comprise, from highest rank to lowest, the Supreme Court of Ghana, the Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice and the 10 regional tribunals. The Inferior Courts were created by parliamentary statute and include circuit courts, magistrate courts and special courts such as juvenile courts. Ghana’s traditional courts, also created by Parliament, deal with matters related to the chieftaincy and maintain a right of final appeal to the Supreme Court.

Regional Government

Decentralisation has been a substantial theme in the politics of Ghana since Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings retook power in 1981. The principle is enshrined in the 1992 constitution, which reads: “Ghana shall have a system of local government and administration, which shall, as far as practicable, be decentralised”. In practice, this has resulted in a gradual devolution of specific powers to regional and local decision-making bodies in an effort to further promote democracy and ensure greater efficiency.

Ghana is divided into 10 administrative regions: Western, Central, Greater Accra, Eastern, Volta, Ashanti, Brong-Ahafo, Northern, Upper West and Upper East. These regions are subdivided into districts, governed by district assemblies, which are the primary organs of local governance. These number more than 200 and are categorised by population into metropolitan districts (more than 250,000 people), municipal districts (95, 000-250,000) and plain districts (75,000-95,000).

Generally referred to as metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies (MMDAs), all have the same structure and serve the same functions: administrative, legislative, executive, planning and to act as a rating authority. Each is headed by a district chief executive (DCE), who serves as the representative of the national government in the district, and also oversees the executive and administrative functions of the assembly. The president appoints DCEs and 30% of assembly members, ensuring the central government maintains influence within the bodies.

The remaining 70% of members are elected by the citizens within the district. While MMDAs carry out a number of tasks, one of the most important is to oversee the disbursement of grants made by the central government, including the District Assemblies’ Common Fund, which is the largest, accounting for not less than 7.5% of national GDP, and is meant to spread the nation’s wealth more evenly across the populace.

Below the MMDAs are the even smaller town, area and zonal councils, which are made up of five representatives of the district assemblies, five members appointed by the government and 10 representatives of unit committees in the area, the smallest administrative bodies in Ghana. While these councils have far more limited powers than district assemblies, they play an important role in the execution of tasks assigned to them by the assemblies and ensure the smooth running of government at the most local level.

Traditional authorities are also recognised by the constitution and play an active role in local governance, helping representative bodies interpret customary laws, and acting as facilitators between communities and their governing units.

Political Parties

There are a total of 24 registered political parties on the list of the Electoral Commission (EC) of Ghana. Historically, however, the field has been dominated by two major players, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP). Both parties, the social democratic NDC and the liberal conservative NPP, are relatively centrist.

Following the election in 2012, the two parties held 148 and 123 seats, respectively, with independents winning three seats and the People’s National Convention taking one. Mahama, the NDC’s candidate, also won the presidential contest. Polls also showed the NDC as the favourites to win in the most recent national elections, which took place on December 7, 2016.

However, in a surprise turnaround, the NPP emerged as the clear winner on election day. The party secured a total of 170 seats in the provisional results that were declared by 273 out of the 275 constituencies in Ghana, according to local press reports, with the leader of the party, Akufo-Addo, securing the presidency.


Ghana has one of the longest traditions of robust democracy on the continent. The president is elected by universal adult suffrage and is required to achieve at least 50% of votes. Failure to do so triggers a run-off election between the two candidates with the most votes. Members of parliament are elected using a first-past-the-post mechanism and serve four-year terms. They too are elected by universal adult suffrage.

Local elections are held concurrently every four years, although they cannot be held within a six-month window of national elections, with district assembly members elected by secret ballot and a first-past-the-post system. All elected assembly members represent a single-member ward and are barred from attaching themselves to a particular political party. Individual assembly members can be recalled through a process that is triggered when 25% of the district electorate signs a special petition. DCEs are appointed by the president but must be approved by at least two-thirds of the assembly. Elections are overseen by the country’s EC, which was established under the 1992 constitution. It has administrative and regulatory powers over all national and local elections, and as of November 2016 maintained 28,992 polling stations and counted over 15.7m registered voters.


While it is generally considered independent and unbiased, there were some complaints of irregularities with electronic voter identification machines following the 2012 election, with the NPP filing a claim in court challenging the results. Though the Supreme Court eventually ruled against the claim in 2013, the challenge did spark a nationwide call for electoral reform, and a Special Reform Committee of key stakeholders was set up by the EC to look into possible changes.

In April 2016 the committee finally made its recommendations to the EC, which agreed to implement all but two of them. The 27 reforms covered a number of topics, from deferring the adoption of electronic voting to clarifying the rules surrounding the use of biometric verification, a major issue in the previous election.

The reforms also attempted to update the current voter registration list so as to delete people that did not belong on voter rolls. While a few have claimed that the reforms have not gone far enough, most believe that they will lead to an improvement in the transparency, inclusiveness and credibility of future elections.


As is the case in all emerging and frontier markets, Ghana still grapples with corruption, both large scale and low level. According to a 2014 survey carried out by Transparency International (TI) and Afrobarometer across the states of sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana was among the three worst performers in terms of countries having the highest percentages of citizens saying that corruption had increased in the previous 12 months (along with South Africa and Nigeria).

Additionally, approximately 71% of respondents believed the government was performing poorly in combatting corruption, and some 36% of respondents that had used public services over the last year had paid a bribe, primarily to the police. While perceptions do not necessarily equate to reality, the fact that so many citizens believe corruption has increased is significant.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that Ghana is considered considerably less corrupt than many of its continental peers. In TI’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, Ghana was ranked 56th out of 168 counties (with 168 being perceived as the most corrupt), the fourth-highest-ranked country in continental Africa, a relatively strong showing.

Foreign Relations

Ghana has a well-established presence in the regional and global arena. As one of the first sub-Saharan states established in the 20th century, the country has historically been a leading voice for pan-African unity and has played an active role in the region.

In 1975 Ghana helped establish the 16-member ECOWAS regional group. Originally conceived as an economic bloc to further the development of free trade and the movement of people, ECOWAS has since expanded its remit to include deeper cooperation on peace and security issues. Ghana is also an active member within the UN and has routinely served on UN peacekeeping missions.

Generally speaking, Ghana has good relations with its neighbours, working to strengthen inter-regional political and economic cooperation, especially within the framework of ECOWAS. Further afield, the country maintains long-standing bilateral relations with the UK, and over the past half century has cultivated solid links with the US, its sixth-largest trade partner.

The government has also focused on further developing its political and economic relationship with fellow emerging markets, such as China, India and Brazil. In 2014, for example, China became Ghana’s biggest partner in terms of overall trade, which reached over $6bn in 2015, according to figures published by the IMF. India, meanwhile, was the most substantial importer of Ghanaian goods by value in 2015, at $2.6bn.

Trade Ties

Ghana has signed numerous trade agreements over the past 20 years, including an economic partnership agreement (EPA) between ECOWAS and the EU in 2014, the culmination of a decade of trade negotiations between the two blocs. The EPA covers 75% of exports from the region over a 20-year period, with the EU committing €6.5bn in aid to help ECOWAS member states integrate with the global economy. The EU is Ghana’s second-largest trade partner. In 2015 trade between the two blocs was worth $5.5bn.

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