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A west African country, bordered by the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Togo, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan territory to achieve independence from British rule. After a series of coups and a period of one party rule, Ghana has now completed two successive democratic transfers of power - though the most recently elected head of state died unexpectedly and the post is currently held by his former vice-President. While Ghana scores highly for press freedom and has seen significant advances in political liberties, there are still concerns about police brutality, treatment of LGBT people and violence against women and girls.


Ghana is a West African country located on the Gulf of Guinea. Located close to both the zero degrees longitude (the Prime Meridian) and zero degrees latitude (the Equator), Ghana is arguably the most geographically central country in the world. Approximately rectangular in shape, Ghana borders Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote D'ivoire. In terms of climate and terrain, the country has a great deals of variety. Along the Atlantic coast is predominantly low savannah. North of this lies a thick stretch of forest and uplands, known as the Ashanti. Central Ghana is dominated by a major basin, and the north tends to be drier uplands. Most of the population and economic activity is in the south.

Population and Language

Ghana is home to around 24 million people. The largest ethnic group is the Akans, who are also make up the majority of the population of neighbouring Cote D’ivoire. Other ethnicities include Mole-Dagbon, Ewe, Ga-Dangme, Gurma and other, smaller groups. In addition to these, Ghana is also home to some longstanding non-African communities, including a substantial Chinese presence, a Ghanaian-Indian population and Arab-Ghanaians. In addition to the citizenry, Ghana is home to a large number of visiting or permanently resident skilled workers.

The official language is English, used for government and most business related communication. Also commonly spoken are languages from the Kwa linguistic family, including Akan, Ga–Adangbe, Gonja and Nzema. These are mostly found in the south of the country, while other areas, such as the central Volta basin and the north, tend to have their own set of related languages. Mandarin Chinese has become increasingly widely understood and is now part of the school syllabus.[1]

Ghana is predominantly Christian, with a large Pentecostal community. The north of the country is also home to a large Muslim population, along with smaller groups following traditional belief systems.

History and Politics

Located on what was to become known as the Gold Coast, modern day Ghana represented, for hundreds of years, an important staging point for entry into the African interior. After European contact began in the 16th century, numerous coastal forts and castles were built to facilitate trade and expeditions inland. Successive colonial powers left their architectural mark along the coastline - initially Portugal, later Holland and finally Britain would all seek dominance. While this was happening on the coast, however, further inland the relations of the local states were undergoing dramatic changes. The Ashanti, one of the Akan peoples, successfully led a coalition of different clans to overthrow the dominant Denkyira, before establishing their own empire, based around the capital Kumasi. Fiercely independent, the Ashanti combined European firearms with strong governmental institutions to subdue and absorb many of the surrounding kingdoms. While Britain sought to expand its influence from the coast, inland the Ashanti were becoming a power to be reckoned with. Throughout the nineteenth century, the two sides would clash repeatedly. In seeking to rally other local powers against the Ashanti, Britain began the assembly of an informal protectorate along the Gold Coast, increasingly instructing local leaders on matters of law and government while pushing or buying out Dutch positions and cutting off Ashanti trade from the sea. A last ditch effort to prevent this happening lead to the Ashanti’s invading the coastal region in 1873. Initially successful, they were eventually driven back by British forces who razed Kumasi and forced a humiliating defeat on the Ashanti empire. Though there would be subsequent rebellions and uprisings against British rule and though Ashanti was able to secure some elements of independence, by 1901 they were largely subsumed into the British Gold Coast colony.

Colonial rule was largely indirect, often through traditional local leaders with British advisors rather than more overt forms. Though effective, this would lead to growing tensions as other regional and national institutions developed through the 20th century. Significant economic development occurred - primarily to service the British markets for cocoa, timber and gold but also leading to significant reinvestment in infrastructure and services, particularly education. The latter, combined with the tendency of British rule to rely upon local elites, led to the growth of an educated class of politically engaged administrators who would form the first waves of the independence movement in Ghana. Between the 1920s and the 1940s, these groups would put forward a series of constitutions for the Gold Coast colony offering gradually declining shares of power to British interests and greater self rule. With the end of the Second World War, Ghanaian servicemen returning from fighting for the British Empire would also become an increasingly pressing issue for the British. Frustrated by the slow pace of the change, the lack of opportunities and the British reluctance to honour agreements over pensions, these servicemen would become involved in increasingly violent public demonstrations. While the educated elites sought to negotiate national independence directly with the British, ex-servicemen and other disenfranchised groups in protests often put down bloodily by the police. One of the leading figures of the independence movement, Kwame Nkrumah, seized upon this growing mass dissatisfaction to form the Convention Peoples Party (CCP), who demanded an immediate end to British rule. Enjoying widespread popularity, Nkrumah was eventually able to secure the office of Prime Ministers in the colonies legislative assembly, which was being granted considerably increased powers over the Gold Coast. By 1956, having won a decisive majority of seats in the assembly, Nkrumah was able to demonstrate to the British that independence was the popular choice of the people and secure independence as a member of the commonwealth by 1957.

The agreed upon constitution had initially included a great many protections for local power infrastructures and guarantees of relative autonomy from the central government for chiefs. Nkrumah and the CPP rapidly stipped those out, however, expanding central power. Taking a Pan-African Marxist influenced approach to government, Nkrumah also brought in increasingly authoritarian measures against his opponents, including the power of arbitrary detention to impose exile on his rivals. After Ghana became a republic in 1960, he won the presidency and subsequently declared himself president for life. Increasingly concerned with establishing a “United States of Africa”, Nkrumah spent a significant proportion of Ghana’s wealth supporting foreign independence movements while appropriating increasingly large amounts of income from the more successful sections of Ghanaian industry, such as the Cocoa farmers. After Ghana became an official single party state in 1964, dissatisfaction against Nkrumah continued to grow and in 1966, while he was visiting South East Asia, his government was overthrown in a military coup. Though democracy was restored after a brief period of interim government, the new republic proved to be short lived. Left with overwhelming debts by Nkrumah and unable to resolve the economic problems of his reign through austerity, the new government was also overthrown in 1972 in a bloodless military coup. Ghana would be run directly by the military for the following years, though they attempted to incorporate an elected, civilian but non-partisan element into their rule in the late 1970s. Still unable to resolve Ghana’s economic woes, however, the military council was on the verge of holding party political national elections again in 1979 when it was in turn overthrown by a group of young officers led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings. After a short lived period of civilian rule, this new military council, the PNDC, would dominate Ghanaian politics from 1979 to 1992. After purging most of the senior officers who had ruled before it, the PNDC began an authoritarian, but ultimately successful programme to stabilise the national economy. At the same time, rather than immediately restoring democracy at a national level, the PNDC concentrated on creating more local and regional political institutions. Though its alliance of leftist and rightist political elements led to frequent internal conflict, the PNDC was able to endure for nearly a decade and to oversee the formation of a fourth republic in 1992 with democratic elections. Rawlings and the PNDC (now reformed as the NDC) would go on to win not only these but also the substantially more free and fair elections that followed in 1996. Ghanian elections since have been generally free and fair - the NDC was defeated by the opposing New Patriotic Party in 2000 and 2004, but returned to power under John Atta Mills in 2008. Mills died in office, unexpectedly in 2012 and was replaced by his vice-president John Dramani Mahama, who would go on to win an election in his own right later that year. Due to the heightened tensions around that years vote and concerns about a return to instability, all parties agreed to a code of conduct and to avoid overly confrontational campaigning. As it happened, the election passed off relatively peacefully.

Ghana now operates as a democratic republic with a president as both head of state and head of government. Theoretically multiparty, in fact the set up of the voting system favours a two party model - since 1992, power has cycled between the NDC and the NPP. Elections for the president and the 230 seat parliament are held at the same time, at four year intervals. The presidency has substantial powers, including a veto over non-urgent bills. The constitution includes numerous checks and balances, however, including a requirement of a two thirds majority before the government can make any constitutional amendments - these are largely intended to avoid a return to the political instability of the post-independence era.

The judiciary is independent and largely structured after the British system. Rule of law is generally observed, although member of the PNDC have immunity to any indemnity for actions carried out during the period it was in power.


After the economic turmoil of the post-independence era, Ghana’s economy has stabilised somewhat in recent years. Current GDP per capita is around $3,300 and has been growing, helped in no small part by the high prices for cocoa, oil and gold. The economy is still heavily focussed around agriculture, accounting for more than twenty five per cent of GDP and half of employment. Oil production has increased significantly in recent years.[2] The discovery of significant oil reserves off Ghana’s coasts in the 2000s led to a massive increase in foreign direct investments - particularly from China, whose importance as an economic partner for Ghana has been growing steadily.[3]

Ghana still faces some serious economic challenges, however. While the legacy of debt from previous governments has been somewhat reduced, partially through debt relief programmes, public finances would still be vulnerable to mismanagement or major price shocks for their key exports. At the same time, while Ghana’s poverty reduction programme has been very successful, in line with the countries Millenium Development Goals, the alleviations of extreme deprivation has not been evenly distributed across the country, with far slower progress in the northern regions.[4]

Media and Civil Society

Ghana has a generally good level of civil society freedom. The press is largely free, ranking thirtieth worldwide on Reporters Without Borders global index.[5]. Despite this, however, a law restricting publishing “false” stories with “intent to cause fear or harm to the public or to disturb the public peace” remains in effect and has been used on occasion to stifle critical journalism. During the 2012 election, most media organisations voluntarily censored or reigned in their coverage as part of a national effort to de-escalate tensions in the run up to the vote. Journalists investigating high level corruption have also been at times attacked or intimidated.[6]

Ghana does not have any major restrictions on NGO activities and, as a result, these organisations are widespread. Historically, much of the focus has been on development, poverty reduction and service provision, but Ghana’s turbulent history has also led to the formation of some significant human rights organisations as well.

Human Rights and Children's Rights

Ghana has signed all of the core UN treaties, though it has yet to ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, the first and second optional protocol to the CRC or the CESCR complaints mechanism and has neither signed nor ratified the third CRC optional protocol or the second optional protocol to the ICCPR abolishing the death penalty. Human rights have protection in the constitution and standards generally good, although some serious concerns do remain. Gender discrimination, including violence against women's and girls and harmful traditional practices are still a key issue and frequently raised at the international reviews.[7] One practice that continues to be of particular concern is that of "Trokosi" or ritual servitude where young girls are forced into marriage and bonded labour at traditional shrines. While it has been made illegal, it still persists in some regions.[8] Child trafficking and labour are serious problems as well, with Ghana as both a source and a destination for trafficked people.[9] Concerns have also been raised over treatment of people with disabilities, particularly mental disabilities, with inadequate care facilities and harsh treatments being common.[10]

LGBT rights in Ghana are also a concern. While not consistently prosecuted, same sex relationships remain illegal with potential punishments including up to ten years in prison.[11] Societal hostility to gay rights remains strong, with vocal homophobia from religious leaders, the press and politicians being fairly common. Most notably, in 2011 President Mills angrily refuted the suggestion that Ghana might reform its laws due to pressure from foreign aid donors, claiming that such reforms “will destroy the moral fibre of society”.[12]



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