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A banner-waving alliance of professionals and trades unionists is highlighting the growing economic hardships and shaking up the political scene
A clever campaign against worsening economic conditions – known as Red Friday – is gaining momentum after several thousand activists marched through Accra on 24 July. The date had an added significance as it marks the second anniversary of the death in office of President John Evans Atta Mills. His Vice-President, John Dramani Mahama, took over amid a wave of sympathy, then went on to win the 2012 elections narrowly but his National Democratic Congress (NDC) government has been dragged down this year by a series of economic and political missteps.
Campaigners are throwing two statistics at the government that they think sum up the problem: inflation was running at 15% in June and the cedi has lost 30% of its value against the US dollar. The marchers in Accra on 24 July turned those numbers into sarcastic slogans such as 'Somalia's shilling is doing better than Ghana's cedi', and 'Fatal error: Mahama's government must reboot now!' Initially, the Red Friday campaign, organised by the Concerned Ghanaians for Responsible Governance, was a rather polite, middle-class affair; but it has rapidly gained street credibility since it joined forces with the militant Trades Union Congress (TUC), representing 18 national unions in transport, education, health services and mining. The Red Friday organisers simply ask all those who agree with its economic demands to wear an item of red cloth each Friday.
That chimes with the TUC, whose banner colours are a bright red. Now it is commonplace in Accra to see people wearing red T-shirts, dresses, wristbands and head ties. Hard-pressed parents are giving their children red wristbands to make the point for them. Some local traders' associations, which held their own protests in May against policies that were damaging their business, have also joined in.
The protest is widening, spurred on by the increasingly tough economic conditions. Already, polytechnic teachers and nurses are on strike over unpaid salaries and allowances – and more stoppages are threatened. So for the short-term, at least, the Red Friday movement's big cause will be the cost of living. The main question it faces is how to build on the momentum and keep the broad-based coalition together.
The campaign, which began on social media, has escalated within a month. Its first demonstration on Republic day, 1 July, was a march to the seat of government at Flagstaff House in central Accra. That ended with three of the Red Friday leaders presenting a petition to Valerie Sawyerr, Deputy Chief of Staff to the President. The demands included more reliable, less costly water and power supplies, lower fuel prices, more job creation schemes, a stronger cedi and a crackdown on corruption. The demonstrators were far from insurrectionary and few bandied around their party political allegiances.
Just the beginning
The government was not amused. The number of demonstrators, estimated at about 500, was derided by Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration Minister Hanna Tetteh and Deputy Information and Media Relations Minister Felix Kwakye-Ofosu. But the organisers saw the march as just the start. They plan weekly protests and want to use social networks, such as Facebook and Whatsapp, to lobby the Supreme Court and the main anti-corruption agencies, the Economic and Organised Crime Office and the Commission on Human rights and Administrative Justice. They also plan to extend their protest actions to all ten regional capitals.
At first, the middle classes and professionals were in the front line of the protests: for instance, Ken Ofori-Atta and Yoofi Grant of the Databank brokerage; Ace Kojo Ankomah, a lawyer; Kofi Bentil, Vice-President of the IMANI-Ghana think-tank, who was briefly arrested; Dr Esi Ansah, a lecturer at the private Ashesi University; publisher Comfort Ocran of Legacy and Legacy; George Andah, the former marketing officer at the mobile phone group MTN; and Kofi Kapito, Chief Executive Officer of the Consumer Protection Agency.
How that group will work with the trades unions, historically strong NDC supporters, could determine its future. For now, it is steering clear of party political links but the obvious electoral beneficiary of the campaign would be the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP). At least some supporters of the protests were at the outset expressing bitterness at the humiliation of the national football team, the Black Stars, at the World Cup in Brazil. For some Ghanaians, the breakdown of discipline, crass materialism and incompetence there was a metaphor for the troubles at home.
With no early respite on the economic front, Finance Minister Seth Terkper is set to apply to the International Monetary Fund for a new financial assistance programme before December. The government also wants to float a US$1.5 billion Eurobond to plug the hole in its finances. Some NDC colleagues have advised Mahama to sack Terkper but he has broad cross-party support for an IMF bailout. Kwame Pianim, a founder member of the NPP, believes the IMF could restore Ghana's policy credibility. The government's over-optimistic growth and revenue forecasts for the past two years have been heavily criticised by ratings agencies.
Introducing his supplementary budget of some 3.1 bn. cedis ($935 million) in Parliament last week, Terkper said the budget deficit will rise to 8.8% of gross domestic product, compared to an earlier target of 8.5%, and economic growth would fall to 7.1% from forecasts of 8%, while inflation would be 13% (with a 2% margin of error) by December compared to the forecast 9.5%. 'Nobody believes our policies any more,' Pianim lamented. 'Ghana, without any support from the IMF, is exposed to the global market place, which is merciless and brutal.' Terkper argues that the 2013 and 2014 budgets were 'misaligned' due to heavy falls in gold and cocoa prices, a year-long disruption to gas supplies from Nigeria and high expenditure on petroleum and utility subsidies. These hit output, revenue and reserves, he says.
The government, which still has a comfortable majority in Parliament and control of most regional authorities, sees its troubles as more economic than political but the two are closely related. A row is now brewing over the handling of the coming constitutional review referendum. Groups such as the Civic Forum Initiative, which includes Emmanuel Akwetey's Institute for Democratic Governance, charge that the final white paper, costing almost $7 mn., ignored key recommendations from the 83,000 Ghanaians who submitted their views.
When he came to power, Mahama was welcomed as a consensual, non-partisan figure who would appoint ministers and advisors from different political traditions. He has done little of that but now stands accused by all sides of being too conciliatory and indecisive.
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