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GHANA: Constitution Under the Knife

Osabutey Anny

ACCRA, Feb 11 2010 (IPS) - After 18 years of successful multi-party democracy, Ghanaians are bracing themselves to review the Fourth Republican Constitution.

Following cabinet’s approval of a memorandum on the consultative review, government has established an independent body to spearhead the process.

The newly formed Constitutional Review Commission is expected to conduct public hearings across the 10 regions of Ghana. The review process will not lead to the rewriting of the constitution but will ensure that recommendations for amendments to the constitution will be made to government. A draft Bill will also be provided for possible amendments.

The commission has already been inundated with petitions from the public.

“Every single petition before the commission will be carefully examined. The issues raised are very valid,” said Dr. Raymond Atuguba, a legal practitioner, and executive secretary of the commission. The petitions received to date vary and include calls for a review of the powers of the executive.

He said the number of petitions received by the commission shows the extent to which the public was looking forward to the review.

Calls to review the constitution became pronounced during the 2008 general elections, with almost all the contesting political parties promising to allow Ghanaians make input to the process.

In his state of the nation address to parliament last year, President John Mills said that government will fulfil its promise to put the constitution before Ghanaians for a national debate on proposed amendments. He said this will be done in a broad manner, so that every petition received will be examined on merit and incorporated in the final amendments.

“We believe also that a National Constitutional Review Conference is the surest way to ensure that our manifesto promises, as well as those of some of the other political parties, which require constitutional amendments see fruition in a consensual manner,” Mills told the MPs.

The Fourth Republican Constitution came into being after the military regime gave way and set up a National Commission on Democracy to supervise the collation of views on the type of governance Ghanaians wished for.

At the end of the process, the views were subjected to a referendum in April 1992 and, despite some limitations within the final document, the constitution came into effect in January 1993. It was the country’s fourth attempt at a democratic government since it gained independence in 1957.

The country has made much progress since then. Ghana was ranked the seventh-best country on the continent for good governance according to the 2009 Ibrahim Index of African Governance. The index measured, among other things, the delivery of public goods and services by government.

Governance and constitutional experts, human rights advocates, media practitioners and ordinary Ghanaians have consistently been drumming for changes to be effected in the 1992 constitution.

Some of the areas proponents of the review hope to see amended include the decoupling of the position of Attorney General from the Ministry of Justice. Currently both postings are held by one person and this, critics argue, gives the executive the opportunity to interfere with the independence of the judiciary.

Another area expected to be reviewed is the provision in Article 78 of the constitution, which requires the president to appoint the majority of his ministers from parliament.

The current practice has affected attendance during proceedings in parliament. Rather than being in the House to deliberate on bills, most MPs, who are also sitting ministers, absent themselves. This has made it difficult for the house to pass some important bills.

Nana Oye Lithur, a human rights lawyer, said there is no better time than now to review the constitution.

“The constitutional review should strength the constitution. The first thing we’ll need to look at is our aspirations as a people and, what we want the constitution, as a mirror of our life, to reflect,” she said.

Lithur said she’ll be pushing for the scrapping of the death penalty which is part of the country’s laws even though it has not been used for almost three decades.

But there are dissenting voices against the review process. Chairman of the National Commission for Civic Education, Larry Bimi, believes the constitution is not ready for the intended review. While he supports constitutional reviews, he believes the constitution should be made to serve for, at least, five generations.

Atuguba disputed this. He said there was no ‘timeline’ hanging around the neck of any constitution that prescribed when amendments should be effected.

Angel Kabonu, the national vice president of the National Association of Graduate Teachers, said the government has not told Ghanaians what the review seeks to do.

“What will that review do for us? How is it going to improve our democracy and our worthwhile?” he asked. “I don’t think it will end up changing the worthwhile of Ghanaians to any significant measure. It’s not as necessary as we are making it look.”

The country’s third attempt at a constitution barely lasted twenty-four months when a military coup in 1981 sent the country back to military dictatorship. The fourth constitution has lasted almost two decades of practice without any interference and is seen by most people as a landmark in Ghana’s democratic practice.

The government, through the support of donor funding, has allocated an amount of 2.7 million dollars to undertake the exercise. Atuguba said the money was already voted for before the commission was inaugurated but believed the figure could change in any direction.

“Seeing how all presidencies tend to treat ministries, amalgamating, splintering, mixing, and generally treating them like small-town social clubs, who wouldn’t love a constitutional review that, for instance, entrenched each government ministry in statute so that any review of their functions and scope would be subject to the scrutiny of the legislative process?” a statement from the Accra based education think-tank IMANI-Ghana asked.

The commission is expected to operate as a quasi-judicial body for a period of not more than eighteen months.

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