Protest and resistance are innate components of the humankind’s being. Right next to the classic existential constants of death and taxes, protesting is firmly rooted. Apply a little pressure and people will push back – for better, worse or ugly consequences.
Protests have shaped politics, religion, art and defined generations. Think of the glorious highs that accompanied independence from occupiers after the middle of the 20th century or the harrowing dystopian vortex the Arab Spring seemed to open.
In Ghana, there is clearly a void in this regard. The lack of urgency is damning and the apathy has unknowingly suffocated many like myself. We await a beacon to show us the way and create a renewed hyper-conscious social current. The power of mobilization cannot be taken for granted. Enduring protests don’t start with the snap of a finger. Given the urgency of the situation, it’s only natural that the section of society that has done most of the hard work already step in to fill this resistance-shaped void. That’s where organised religion, the church in particular, comes in.
The church has already won hearts and minds. The idea of gathering twice a week for Sunday and mid-week services is mobilization at its basic level. One could argue religion inspires the most amount of discipline and devotion you will find from in the average Ghanaian. Only politics at its most partisan rivals this. Our society is crying out for some form of a balance to counter the drive of political parties that have left a trail of cynicism and disappointment in their wake. Whilst there may be some overlap, there are pastors and other religious leaders that have been moulding minds and charting paths for decades. I dare say some of their followers would die for them. It is not a stretch to think they would lock down regional capitals if properly nudged.
All this is not to say the church in Ghana has been socially dormant. A significant amount of Ghana’s healthcare needs are noted to be catered for by health establishments belonging to Christian organisations. The Christian Health Association of Ghana readily comes to mind. The church has also done its bit to support education outside the obvious legacy of mission schools. But desperate times call for desperate measures and make no mistake, in the words of Fela Kuti, “everything dey for reverse”.
It’s all about a paradigm shift and going back to the ancient path. A vibrant protest culture is not alien to Ghana. There was a noble sense of purpose, stakes and an acute sense of awareness in the moments that accompanied our resistance to the colonizers. A quick roll call gives us the likes of John Mensah Sarbah and his work with the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society to oppose the vampiric Lands Bill of 1897 which threatened land tenure and another layer of the indigenous sovereignty. In 1948, Nii Kwabena Bonne formed the Anti-Inflation Campaign Committee in Accra to square off with the inflated retail prices on imported goods (some things never change).
Sorrow, tears and blood were shed on February 28, 1948 when a peaceful attempt by protesting veterans to petition the Governor of the Gold Coast for the release of promised pensions and other benefits ended in a colonial police chief firing on the protesters leading to over 60 ex-servicemen sustaining wounds and martyrdom of Sergeant Adjetey, Corporal Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey. Burn. Burn. Burn. What followed was five days of rioting in Accra in which more deaths occurred and European-owned businesses were looted.
We’ve come a long way since then. Following independence and democracy, the reasons for protesting have varied along the years, even during the coups and military juntas that have punctuated Ghana’s 61-year existence. The stories father told me about commonwealth students who faced up with General Kutu Acheampong’s troops in violent protests circa 1978 come to mind. Universities in the country would later be closed down after some students took it upon themselves to burn an effigy of General Acheampong on January 13, when he was celebrating the anniversary of his 1972 coup. My dad recalls that Acheampong sent security forces to the University of Ghana (probably just Commonwealth Hall), going room to room and beating every student in sight.
It has been 25 years since the Fourth Republic and stable democracy in Ghana. In that period, protests have rarely escalated into utter mayhem. The more iconic protests that come to mind included the 1995 Kumi Preko demo in protest of the high cost of living and opposition to the Value Added Tax (VAT) initiative introduced under the Rawlings administration. It is said to have been one of the biggest protests ever organised in the country, with some news outlets reporting a 100,000 man turnout. It was notably led by, among others, current-President Nana Akufo-Addo.
20 years later, Nana Akufo-Addo was leading another demonstration against a National Democratic Congress government over the deteriorating power situation and the government’s perceived lethargy towards corruption.
It’s time for the church to elevate itself from a mere footnote to the big leagues. Like the media, I do not endorse the religious leaders getting in bed with politics, as murky as it is. But it should engage it and hold our leaders to account. Some churches are aware of this fact. I’ve heard sermons which challenge citizens to do better in the arena of integrity, hygiene, the environment and the like. But they mostly end there. There is a better place on the other side, but God still made us stewards of this fleeting existence. Put it this way; what would Jesus do? Sit within a faux bubble as the world decays or look the problems in the eye.
Some four years ago, Ashesi lecturer and “Funky Professor” Kobby Graham was in my church to talk about liberation theology. It was not the first time I had heard of liberation theology. But it was a novelty to have spent some time with that ideology in the church setting instead of an oral history on resistance in Latin America circa 1960. Liberation theology is not the crux of Christianity but it can be an effective branch if well-tended.
I am not equipped to dissect liberation theology but I am sure of this; at its core is a concern for the people on the fringes; the marginalised. It was a response to the oppression and inequality around them. The Catholic church has been at the forefront of this movement and it has not relented for the best part of the last century. We only need look to our brothers in DR Congo.
Parts of DR Congo’s story are familiar. President Joseph Kabila refused to relinquish power in 2016 after his mandate expired. He has been in power since 2001, when his father, Laurent Kabila was assassinated. But it isn’t a collation of opposition parties rose in protest of Kabila’s stranglehold on power. DR Congo’s Catholic Church emerged to ensure it was on the right side of political history by leading the fight against Kabila.
DR Congo’s Catholic Church hit the street giving its blood and lives in the name of democracy. Some of their protests have ended violently and the state has allegedly been party to harrowing acts of aggression towards protestors. Fortunately, the idea of sacrifice is something the church truly understands.
Amid DR Congo’s political crisis, there is so much grace in the fact the sections of the church in the country have not played ostrich. Almost two years on and it is clear church’s leaders have been among Kabila’s most outspoken critics as the idea of new elections continues to exist in a purgatory.
At a point, in February 2018, security forces had to surround some of Kinshasa’s main churches, using tear gas and gunfire to try and prevent widespread planned protests scheduled after church services that day. The marriage of the cross and placard, hymns and protest songs, the desire for cleansing blood and the willingness shed same is such a powerful thing.
Whilst there is some more nuance to the DR Congo situation, bearing in mind the fact of friction between state and church dates back to Mobutu Sese Seko and his culling of anything Western, we have in the Central African country an ideal Ghanaian society can aspire to, bloodshed aside.
Ghana hasn’t been so far off this path. At the December 1977 Pan African Conference of Third World Theologians held in Accra, participating theological scholars declared in their final communiqué: “We believe that African theology must be understood in the context of African life and culture and the creative attempt of African peoples to shape a new future that is different from the colonial past and the neo-colonial present.”
The meeting stressed the need for Africans to adopt a new theological methodology, different from something one would describe as having western roots.
“African theology must reject, therefore, the prefabricated ideas of North Atlantic theology by defining itself according to the struggles of the people in their resistance against the structures of domination. Our task as theologians is to create a theology that arises from and is accountable to the African people,” the communique also noted.
Going back to DR Congo, Mobutu’s opposition to the church was founded in some substance. He viewed it as puppet and virus subtly spreading western ideals and propaganda. Think of the Salems Basel missionaries to the Gold Coast established and you could see how the church painted a target on its back.
Indeed the church is still painting a target on its back with well-intentioned but ultimately bizarre choices, in the grand scheme of things. It’s why some critics view the African church as a staging ground for western influences to reinforce conservative stands on incendiary issues like abortion and homosexuality. People see through this. They may not have an army like Mobutu to act, but they see through it.
If the church is making an extra push on policy and societal issues, whilst mindful of the fact our existence is not binary, the struggle of the people has to be at the top of the list.
It’s not about riling up a million people to lock down Accra. It should start with the little things in our communities; the under-resourced CHPS compound, broken streetlights, the dilapidated school or the absence of functional refuse disposal. Stuff like this should be ticking off the congregations nationwide.
Over 71 percent of Ghanaians profess to be Christian. That’s about 19.9 million people out of our 28 million population. Just 10 percent of Christians in Ghana could make a seismic dent, with the direction and proactive vision of their leadership.
Anyone who’s been to the average Ghanaian church knows it’s a hub of energy, emotion, and conviction waiting to be channeled. I struggle to think of many proactive ways a protest movement could inconvenience the government outside of just hitting the streets. Do we boycott GTV or decide to stop buying the Daily Graphic or maybe we seize the proximity the yuletide and Easter periods provide and really turn photo ops into moments of shame for politicians.
At the risk of being painted with a partisan brush, a boycott of a critical government policy like Planting for Food and Jobs would send a strong signal if the needed mobilization made such a feat possible.
Like most things politics in Ghana, it all bores down to elections. The only time it feels like the people’s power to make some changes with protests is when they put their red bands down and head for the queue at the polling station and the secrecy of a ballot box. Just ask John Mahama and the National Democratic Congress.
The only problem is that it still exists in a cycle in which the everlasting frustrations with corruption, rotten health care and poverty reign supreme, punctuated by spurts of resistance here and there. The government should fear us even 100 days after an election victory. Not a month to the polls. Maybe the false promise of a change in government leaves us unknowingly docile – an idea worth exploring later on. This is probably why in South Africa, the knowledge the ANC could be in power for a century kept alive that feisty spirit of resistance and youth power remained strong two decades after the liberation movement.
If the church can aspire to much more that thaumaturgy and prosperity or decide to build on their divine mandate by championing social change we could see a turn for the better. At the very least, our conscience would be a spot cleaner knowing we did try to chase away the hyenas.