Most of Africa’s 54 countries are unitary – the power to rule them lies primarily in a centralized government.
Only Ethiopia and Nigeria are fully federal while others such as South Africa, Comoros, Sudan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia exhibit some characteristics of federalism.
Federalism implied the division of power between a central government and regional governments. Each level has specified political power over different areas and regional governments have the power to determine local policies and collect their own revenues.
Ghana is not known as one of the federations in Africa. However, it was the life of an independent state in 1957 that began as a loosely formed federation with fairly high levels of regional autonomy included in the constitution.
The rules set to change this arrangement were very strict because the proponents of federalism wanted guarantees against unilateral changes on the part of the government.
Yet more than six decades later, representatives of regional governments have no direct power to determine their own policies. Regional ministers are appointed by the president, regional policy is controlled by a central government ministry, and regions are financed directly from funds administered by the central government.
How did it happen? In Africa, the conventional expectation is that drastic changes like this only happen when a government is overthrown – and the country’s constitution abandoned – by coups.
But my to research shows that gradual changes have contributed to this result in Ghana.
I have traced Ghana’s course over the past 60 years (1957 – 2018) as it moved from a federal arrangement to a well-established unitary arrangement. I have noticed that during this period there has been a constant erosion of regional autonomy.
This happened through several constitutional changes, most notably those made in 1960 when Ghana became a republic and in 1969 after the overthrow of the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.
I conclude from my findings that constitutional guarantees should not be taken for granted. They are subject to change, but how they change depends on the decisions stakeholders make.
These findings – and the realities of politics – suggest that other federations in Africa may well run the same risk.
Ghana’s federal beginnings
The territory known as Ghana was formed in 1957 by a union of four regions: the British colony of the Gold Coast, Ashanti, Trans-Volta Togoland and the British protectorate of the Northern Territories. This composition implied that federalism was the most practical way forward.
But the federal idea was a bone of contention in the perspective of independence from British colonial rule.
On the one hand, the Popular Party of the Convention led by Kwame Nkrumah, who wanted total Unitarianism. On the other hand, the opposition alliance led by the Asantes and their political wing, the National liberation movement with the United party directed by KA Busia, who wanted total federalism.
This competition was settled by a compromise in the Constitution of 1957, giving the regions autonomy. Led by indigenous chiefs, the regions had their own regional assemblies. These were responsible for directing financial spending, regulations and other government services in their regions. Referendums were needed to change the boundaries of a region. Any modification of this constitutional arrangement had to be approved by two-thirds of the regional assemblies themselves.
However, in the constitution of 1960, these regional assemblies and the referendum requirements were abolished and replaced by the approval of the national parliament.
In addition, the chiefs have been demoted as heads of regions and replaced by regional commissioners appointed at the central level. The referendum requirement reappeared in less strict forms in the years 1969 and 1979 constitutions, but neither the regional assemblies nor the chiefs as chiefs were reinstated.
The stream constitution of 1992 maintains the referendum thresholds contained in the 1979 constitution but still does not restore regional assemblies or regional heads. Regional administrations do not have the executive, legislative and financial autonomy that they had at independence.
Faced with this loss of regional autonomy, a constitutional review commission in 2011 advised that the regional government “should be designated as part of the central government” (page 504).
The why and the how
Based on my research, I conclude that Ghana has lost its federalism as a result of a wrong political choice and a missed opportunity by supporters of federalism.
First, politicians who supported federalism failed to take action to stop the introduction of a unitary state.
It began shortly after independence in 1958 when the main opposition boycotted national elections to elect members of regional and national assemblies. As a result, the ruling party won a huge majority in the assemblies.
This meant that the ruling party had a sufficient number of votes to abolish regional assemblies when a bill was introduced to that effect in the National Assembly in 1959.
The constitution adopted in 1960 declared, for the first time, that Ghana was a unitary state. Other changes included the removal of chiefs at the head of regions and their replacement by regional commissioners appointed by the president.
A critical opportunity presented itself to reverse this trajectory between 1966 and 1969.
Some of those behind the coup that toppled Nkrumah in 1966 were supporters of the pre-independence notion of autonomous regions. Thus, a new constitution-drafting process was carried out by those who called for federalism. Yet instead of reversing the trajectory, the new leaders maintained the status quo.
The new constitution proposed and adopted in 1969 still maintained that “Ghana is a unitary republic” and did not specifically name the regions. He did not restore the original mandate of regional assemblies or chiefs as regional chiefs.
All subsequent constitutions consolidated Ghana’s unitary status.
There are lessons for other countries that have federal structures, or any form of power-sharing arrangement.
The discussions around federalism in Nigeria or Ethiopia are enough to show that when (federal) rules are made, they do not stay the same. Stakeholders are always looking for opportunities to modify, maintain or improve them.
If the changes reflect the interests of opposing political actors, as in the case of Ghana, then the process of change is more fluid with less violent results. For example, in Ghana today, the two political parties from the opposing political traditions “Nkrumaist” (mainly the Democratic National Congress) and “Busiaist” (mainly the New Patriotic Party) at independence united around the unitarianism. Without these shared political interests, the campaign for change becomes a violent and protracted struggle, as shown in reform conflicts in Ethiopia.
Another benchmark case is Burundi where in 2014, news It appeared that the power-sharing agreements were in danger of being dismantled by well-calculated measures by the government in power.
So, can such power-sharing agreements stand the test of time?
My central point is that changes are inevitable. However, the lesson from Ghana is that, perhaps, when the proposed changes reflect the common political interests of the main stakeholder groups in the area of governance, the results are less problematic.