A stable political system supports growing foreign relations

Under the 1992 constitution, which created the fourth republic, Ghana has a unitary presidential system. The president, who is also the head of state, is elected every four years and the balance of power is ensured by a system of checks and balances. The current constitution of the Fourth Republic outlines the foundations of a republican version of democratic government, with an emphasis on a tripartite separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, inspired in part by both the British system of parliamentary rule as well as the US constitutional model.

Political System

Executive power is vested in the president, who serves as head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The president is responsible for appointing ministers of state and the vice-president, and is advised by the Council of State. The president can serve a maximum of two terms of four years each, and presidential elections must be won by more than 50% of the valid votes. The president appoints the vice-president and a cabinet of 20 to 25 members. The president has the power of qualified veto over all parliamentary bills, except those that fall under the category of urgent.

The legislative branch is composed of the Parliament and a single house consisting of 275 elected members, in addition to a non-elected speaker. Members are elected for four-year terms. The Parliament is not allowed to introduce legislation that may have financial implications without the president’s approval. Parliamentary elections require a simple majority to win.

The country’s judiciary has long been independent, and throughout the various coups of the 1970s and 1980s it was often unsullied by the worst excesses of politicisation or corruption. The court system follows the British judiciary model, with the Supreme Court of Ghana serving as the final arbiter on all matters of justice. The customary law, like common law in England, is recognised along with the formal written laws and constitution. There are two categories of courts: Superior Courts of Judicature, established under the 1992 constitution, and the Inferior Courts, which were later established by the Parliament.

The Superior Courts are comprised of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court; the Inferior Courts include Circuit Courts, District Courts, as well as some special courts.

There are no separate criminal courts; cases of both a civil and criminal nature come under the jurisdiction of the Superior and Inferior Courts. Georgina Wood was the first woman to become the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ghana in 2007.


Although Ghana has a multi-party political system, the voting pattern has evolved politics into a two-party system, with the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP) as the two prominent rival political parties, although both parties share a number of policy objectives.

Elections have been held regularly since 1992 and over the last two decades Ghana has become one of the most stable and open democracies in West Africa. The NPP’s Nana Akufo-Addo contested the 2012 presidential elections against the NDC candidate, John Dramani Mahama, who had previously served as vice-president prior to the unexpected death in office of President John Atta Mills. The NDC was declared the winning party; however, the NPP subsequently contested the outcome, submitting an appeal to the Supreme Court of Ghana. After months of deliberation and recounts, the court upheld the result.

Elections are overseen by the Electoral Commission, which was established as an independent government agency under the 1992 constitution. Made up of seven members and over 1000 permanent staff, the commission has administrative and regulatory powers over all national and district elections, including voter registration, electoral operations, follow-up monitoring, educational campaigns and redistricting.


This regulatory infrastructure, as well as the 2013 Supreme Court decision, has been widely praised as evidence of the country’s robust democratic system. However, the decision to contest the result in the first place was the culmination of increasingly heated election cycles within the country. The NPP had come very close to contesting the 2008 election results and, therefore, with the NDC claiming a slim majority of 50.7% of the vote in 2012 the opposition’s petition did not come as a big surprise. In 2011, for example, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US-based think tank, had already predicted a possible contested election result because the “two main parties are closely matched and are highly antagonistic toward each other”.

Nonetheless, that the NPP’s Akufo-Addo accepted the 2013 court decision without taking further recourse to the appeals process was a testament to the transparency and strength of the country’s institutional framework. Although drawn out, the process provided “affirmation of [Ghana’s] institutional strength”, according to a briefing by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It also seems that the NPP was well aware of the historical importance of the episode and its implications for the future of the democratic process in the country and the region. Following the Supreme Court announcement, Akufo-Addo told the press, “Our reaction to this judgment will be watched keenly in Africa and beyond, and will set a precedent for generations to follow. It is now up to all Ghanaians to put the disputes behind us and come together.

Electoral Reform

As with the dispute over the 2000 US elections, the fallout from the Ghanaian election impasse sparked a certain amount of reflection and stimulated additional movement on electoral reform. While it has taken time to gain traction, there are now tentative moves afoot to address the election process in the country. In August 2014, the Institute of Economic Affairs, based in Accra, hosted a national workshop on electoral reform that was attended by all the major political parties in the country. It was styled as a potential means of avoiding a re-run of 2012 and future allegations of voting irregularities. Discussions focused on election security and petitions, e-voting, biometric voter registration, the role of the electoral commission in conducting elections, and documentation at the polls. The main parties in attendance reached a consensus on certain issues, which included recommendations for the electoral commission to look at periodic redistricting in line with demographic changes, continuous voter registration and training for party election officials. Although these recommendations require concrete action from the electoral commission, the meeting provided a positive sign of bi-partisan cooperation.

The two parties have largely centrist policies, but nonetheless cross-party consensus such as that in favour of the proposals for electoral reform is something of a rarity in recent years, coming on the back of aggressive and drawn-out campaigns during the election periods of 2008 and 2012.

Balancing Act

One particular issue that both political parties will need to navigate in the coming years, and that will weigh heavily on political rhetoric, is the country’s fiscal deficit. Razia Khan, Africa head of research at Standard Chartered, told the press in August 2013, in the wake of the supreme court decision that, “Although an important element of uncertainty has been removed with the court verdict, it is unlikely that we will see a significant market impact. Investors will pay careful attention to any measures aimed at achieving fiscal consolidation.”

Budget Deficit

The country’s fiscal deficit reached 12% of GDP in 2012 due to a variety of reasons, including lower revenues from exports and higher spending on energy following disruptions to supply from the West African Gas Pipeline (see Economy chapter). However, it has remained relatively high, coming in at 10.8% of GDP in 2013. Fitch Ratings estimates that it will drop slightly to 10% of GDP for 2014; nonetheless, the chronic conditions of a large public sector wage bill and inadequate revenue generation persist.

As a result, the government has taken a number of measures to tackle the budget deficit, including removing fuel subsidies. These were first removed in 2013 before being reintroduced in April 2014. In July, however, the National Petroleum Authority announced that the subsidies would be removed once again.

IMF Support

The issue illustrates the challenging balancing act facing both parties, as they look to streamline the fiscus without unduly impacting the large number of vulnerable households. To help close the gap, the government, in addition to unveiling a number of domestic reforms – ranging from emergency power barges, to lower subsidies and tax reforms –also opened discussions with the IMF in August 2014 over a possible Fund-supported programme in the country. The IMF is pushing for greater fiscal consolidation so that the government can reallocate resources away from current expenditure to capital spending, but with the government also looking to bring down unemployment and poverty rates, managing both will be a challenge (see Economy chapter).

Stirring Unrest

The pressure on the government to maintain a strong spending profile – to sustain inclusive growth and reduce inequality – has been highlighted by occasional displays of public unrest, as in 2013 when industrial action affected the education and health care sectors. This was followed in July 2014 by a nationwide strike by the Trade Unions Congress (TUC), a body representing 18 national unions across a number of sectors from health care workers to miners. “People are angry and complaining because petroleum products and utilities prices have increased significantly without a corresponding increase in wages and salaries,” the secretary-general of the TUC, Kofi Asamoah, told the press. “The government has a responsibility to ensure that there are mitigating measures to help cushion the poor and vulnerable.”

The issue of public sector retrenchment and the reduction of the government wage bill as a means of fiscal tightening is, therefore, a thorny one. In 2012 public sector compensation absorbed more than 70% of tax revenue; however, the expectations of wage increases for workers in state enterprises and government offices remain high.

One long-term prospect for improving this is through the ongoing rollout of the Single Spine Salary Structure (SSSS), a rationalisation of pay grades across all government bodies. The SSSS, which has been in the works for a number of years now, looks to improve transparency – providing “equal pay for work of equal value”, according to government statements – as well as resolving the rising cost of the public wage bill and reducing the disparate and fragmented nature of labour negotiations. The four-year process, which was completed in 2014, consolidated 100 different salary structures across all the government entities onto one 25-grade, government-wide pay scale. President Mahama conceded that the SSSS has had “high fiscal costs”, but that it has allowed the government to gain a full grasp of the true size of the public sector workforce and wage bill.

Local Government

Under the constitution of 1972, army officers held the position of regional commissioner for the local regional administration. Local, district and regional councils replaced the former structure, however this democratic change proved to be short-lived when the 1982 military coup disrupted the democratic process.

The military government ended the local council government and appointed its own district and regional secretaries. The 1992 constitution revived the local elected government by constituting District Assemblies. Administratively, Ghana is divided into 10 regions: Western, Central, Eastern, Greater Accra, Volta, Ashanti, Brong-Ahafo, Northern, Upper West and Upper East.

These regions are further divided into six metropolitan assemblies, 55 municipal assemblies and 216 districts. Although the members of District Assemblies along with a District Chief officer are appointed rather than elected by the people, they are not supposed to be associated with any political parties. Districts are further divided into different kinds of councils, including town, area and zonal councils.

Foreign Relations

By dint of its history, Ghana has long had strong social, political and economic ties to both the US and UK, and to a lesser extent other Western European countries. Both the US and UK have long been among Ghana’s chief trading partners, accounting for sizeable amounts of both exports and imports in prior decades, and both also consistently rank among the top investors in the country. Indeed, for a 15-year period starting in 1994 Great Britain was responsible for more than a third of total foreign direct investment into the country, as evidenced by the wide range of British firms with operations in Ghana.

Ghana is also an active member within the UN and has routinely served on UN peacekeeping missions. Furthermore, its bilateral ties to the UK remain strong, and the country has cultivated solid links with the US over the past half century as well. Since the turn of the millennium, the government has also begun to further develop its political and economic ties with fellow emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil. China, for example, which is currently Ghana’s second-most important trading partner, has headquartered the West African branch of its China-Africa Development Fund in Accra. A number of goodwill and aid projects, including the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT and the Flagstaff House, are permanent reminders of the long history enjoyed by Ghana and India, but more important is the fact that India now accounts for the second-largest number of projects in Ghana after China.

Many of the recent developments on the foreign policy front have been forged by a desire to increase economic collaboration through the establishment of free trade agreements. Ghana has signed numerous trade agreements over the past 20 years, including agreements with the US (a trade and investment framework was inked in 1999), the EU (through the Africa, Caribbean, Pacific-EU Partnership Agreement), Turkey and the Republic of Korea.

Neighbourly Relations

Closer to home Ghana is beginning to strengthen ties with its larger neighbour, Nigeria. The two countries share a number of historical similarities, but that has not always led to a harmonious relationship, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s the countries regularly expelled the é migré populations of the other in a tit-for-tat fashion. Yet, in recent years increased investment flows have helped stabilise links. Nigerian firms such as Glo, for example, now have sizeable operations in Ghana, and Nigeria ranks as one of the country’s top 10 investors.


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