Healthy, decentralised democracy supports social development in Ghana


With a constitutional presidential system that outlines a number of checks and balances, Ghana is widely considered to be a healthy democracy. Since its current constitution came into effect in 1992 the country has experienced three peaceful transfers of power. The most recent handover was the result of elections in December 2016, leading to the inauguration of a new president, Nana Akufo-Addo.

Although Ghana faces challenges which are common to emerging and frontier markets around the world – notably with regards to inclusive growth and corruption – the legislative, executive and judicial frameworks of the country help to underpin a large degree of social and political cohesion.


Drawing on aspects of both the UK parliamentary system and the US constitutional model, the Ghanaian constitution establishes a unitary republic, a multiparty democracy and an executive presidency. Approved in 1992 after a national referendum that received 92% support from voters, it has helped Ghana to set aside the authoritarian tendencies that followed independence, which saw four military takeovers between 1966 and 1993. The constitution has provided a stable foundation since its enactment, and was last amended in 1996.

In line with previous constitutions – from 1957, 1960, 1969 and 1979 – the current iteration aims to establish power-sharing principles that limit the risk of one-party or institutional dominance. To create checks and balances in the system, power is disseminated across four principal bodies: the presidential executive, the parliamentary legislature, the Council of State and the independent judiciary.


The president is the head of government, chief of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The president is assisted in these duties by a vice-president who is designated by the presidential candidate before the election, and who ascends to the presidency upon the death, resignation or removal of the president. Both offices are elected on the same ballot by an absolute majority vote. A run-off may occur if no ticket secures more than 50% of the vote in the first round. Presidential and parliamentary elections are held together every four years, usually in December. Presidents are limited to serving two four-year terms.

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. Members of the Cabinet of Ministers of State are appointed by the president to support the executive’s policy development work.

The Council of State, a group made up of prominent citizens, advises the president. The constitution dictates that more than half of the presidentially appointed members of this body – of which there are 11 – must be parliamentarians. It should also include a former chief justice, a former chief of the defence staff, a former inspector general of police and the president of the National House of Chiefs.


The unicameral Parliament is responsible for national legislation. Representatives are directly elected in single-seat constituencies by a simple majority vote. Ahead of elections in December 2012, the number of seats in the body was enlarged from 230 to the current 275.

The president is qualified to veto all bills except those to which a vote of urgency is attached. Current members of Parliament represent two political parties: the New Patriotic Party (NPP) holds 171 seats and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) 104.

Parliament is the sole body established by the constitution with the ability to make laws, with the passage of legislation its primary concern. However, it has a number of other important roles to play as well. For example, the legislature controls all public funds, including decisions about 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 funds.

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 the president’s nominees for ministers, deputy ministers, justices of the Supreme Court and members of the Council of State, among others. Finally, Parliament is the chief representative forum, with its members serving as a key communication link between their constituents and the government.


Ghana’s judiciary practises a mixed system of English common law and customary or traditional law. As the third branch of government, it is independent from the executive and the legislature.

The highest court is the Supreme Court, which is headed by a chief justice and no fewer than nine other justices. There are currently 12 justices seated on the bench. The Supreme Court is given power to interpret the constitution and has the final say on what the law is. This includes determining whether any acts of Parliament or the president violate the constitution. In recent years the court has, among other cases, ruled on the validity of election results. The constitution provides citizens the right to unimpeded access to the courts as a means to challenge any perceived violation of the constitution.

The chief justice is appointed by the president in consultation with the Council of State and requires parliamentary approval. The Council of State and the Judicial Council – an 18-member independent body – advise the president on the appointment of the other justices. Subordinate courts include the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Circuit Court and the District Court, as well as 10 regional tribunals.

Regional Government

Decentralisation has played a significant role in the politics of Ghana since Jerry Rawlings retook power in 1981. The 1992 constitution enshrines this principle with the objective: “Ghana shall have a system of local government and administration, which shall, as far as practicable, be decentralised”. 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 regions: Western, Central, Greater Accra, Eastern, Volta, Ashanti, Brong-Ahafo, Northern, Upper West and Upper East. These are subdivided into districts governed by district assemblies, which are the primary organs of local governance. These number more than 200 and are categorised into metropolitan districts (population over 250,000), 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 acting 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 oversees the executive and administrative functions of the assembly. The president appoints DCEs as well as 30% of assembly members, ensuring the central government maintains influence in these local bodies.

The remaining 70% of members are elected by the citizens within the district. While MMDAs carry out According to the constitution, all citizens have the right to unimpeded access to the courts as a means to challenge any perceived violation of the constitution. 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 wealth more evenly across the populace.

Below the MMDAs are the smaller town, area and zonal councils, which are made up of five representatives of the district assemblies, five members appointed by the national government and 10 representatives of local unit committees – the smallest administrative bodies at work in the country.

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 and public services at the most local level.

Traditional authorities are also recognised by the constitution and play a role in local governance, occupying 9% of assembly seats, helping representative bodies interpret customary laws, and facilitating between communities and governing units.

Recent Elections

Akufo-Addo of the NPP was inaugurated into the office of president on January 7, 2017 after securing 53.8% of the vote in the December 2016 elections. The then-incumbent John Dramani Mahama of the NDC came second in the race, with 44.4% of the vote.

Ghana’s pluralist democracy has been dominated by the social democratic NDC and the liberal conservative NPP since the foundation of the fourth republic in 1992. In the December 2016 elections, for example, those two parties received a total of 98.2% of the vote, leaving the other 22 parties officially registered on the Electoral Commission with just 1.8% between them and no seats in Parliament.

Both the NDC and the NPP are relatively centralist. Founded by Rawlings, the former military dictator who helped to reinstate democracy in 1992, the NDC has held power twice: from 1992-2001 and from 2009-17. When a dip in global oil prices caused Ghana’s economy to slow in 2013 the NDC, then in government, failed to restore the high pre-crisis GDP growth rate or stabilise Ghana’s weakening currency. This environment helped to pave the way for the NPP victory in 2016.


The economy aside, the other major issue that dominated pre-election debates was corruption. In the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, Ghana was ranked 70th out of 168 countries (with 168 being perceived as the most corrupt), the seventh-highest-ranked country in Africa. This is down slightly on the previous year, in which Ghana came 58th in the world, and fourth in Africa.

The country has taken an aggressive stance on countering corruption and capital flight in recent years, constructing a robust anti-corruption legal framework. In the 1990s it established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, the Serious Fraud Office and the Public Procurement Authority. The Serious Fraud Office has since been superseded by the Economic and Organised Crime Office, which has been granted additional powers to investigate and prosecute corruption cases.

These bodies have helped Ghana to achieve a higher level of success than many of its neighbours, but both low- and high-level corruption continue to have a negative impact on the domestic economy. The auditor-general’s report for 2014 revealed that the country lost some GHS2.6bn ($622.4m) due to corruption and mismanagement.

Ghana fares well on other measures of transparency and governance. According to the World Bank, the country consistently ranks among the top three on the continent in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and strong print and broadcast sectors have helped to improve transparency.

Foreign Relations

The first of the sub-Saharan states to achieve independence, Ghana enjoys a privileged position as a diplomatic heavyweight. The country’s foreign policy has traditionally been heavily influenced by the ideals and principles of Kwame Nkrumah, the nation’s first president, whose pan-Africanism called for the liberation of African people from colonialism and the political and economic unity of the African continent.

In line with this, in 1975 Ghana helped establish the 15-member ECOWAS regional group. Originally conceived as an economic bloc to further the development of free trade and the movement of people in the region, ECOWAS has since expanded its remit to include deeper cooperation on peace and security issues among its members (see analysis).

On a continent-wide basis, Ghana was a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 and its successor the African Union (AU), launched in 2001. As such, Ghana adheres to the AU charter. On the wider international stage, Ghana is also an active member of the UN and has routinely served on UN peacekeeping missions.

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. Europe is also a significant partner, having signed an economic partnership agreement (EPA) with ECOWAS in 2014. The deal represents the culmination of a decade of trade negotiations between the two blocs. The EPA covers three-quarters 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 (see analysis).

The government has also focused on further developing its political and economic relationship with 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 was the most substantial importer of Ghanaian goods by value in the same year, at a total of $3.21bn.

Social Development

Ghana’s social development indicators compare well to those elsewhere in the region, although there remains further room for improvement. Life expectancy, school enrolment and GDP growth are all above sub-Saharan averages, according to the World Bank. Moreover, poverty levels have consistently fallen over the past decade. In 2005 nearly one-third (31.9%) of the population was considered to be living under the poverty line, as formulated by the World Bank, but by 2012, the latest available figures, this had been reduced to less than a quarter (24.2%) of the populace.

Ghana’s attempts to boost its social development indicators in the coming years may, however, be circumscribed by the nation’s fiscal position, which has been negatively affected by the fall in the price of oil as well as a decline in cocoa revenues. In a September 2017 briefing, the Ghana Statistical Service revised real GDP growth for 2016 to 3.7%, the lowest in 15 years. However, presenting the 2018 budget to the Parliament in mid-November, the minister of finance reported a turnaround in outcomes over 2017, with GDP growth hitting 7.8% in the first half of the year, compared to 2.7% in the same period of 2016. The state is now set to end 2017 with a fiscal deficit of 6.3%, below the targeted 6.5%.

The 2018 budget foresees continued growth, with GDP expanding at an average annual rate of 6.2% in 2018-20. With the budget theme of “putting Ghana back to work”, and the introduction of development programmes such as the One District, One Factory plan and Planting for Food and Jobs, the country seems intent on structuring the economy to work for the people by channelling the people towards work.

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The Report: Ghana 2018

The Report

This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Ghana 2018. Explore other chapters from this report.

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