Political vigilantism, a threat to democratisation

The potential of vigilante groups and their patrons to lead Ghana on the path of chaos is beginning to dawn on Ghanaians – and, in fact, on non-Ghanaians who have an equal stake in the peace and stability of Ghana.

Rosenbaum and Sederberg (2017) define Vigilante politics as an organised effort outside legitimate channels to suppress or eradicate any threats to the status quo. Simply defined, it means deliberately taking the law into one’s own hands.

Another view is that political vigilantism is an instance where organised armed or unarmed groups are deployed as private forces to safeguard the electoral prosperity of political parties (Amankwah, 2017).

It should be noted that most of such groups are often informal in nature; as such, they might be known by few party executives (patrons). These individuals usually have biological and physical features that enable them to undertake such security functions (ibid). They are popularly called ‘macho men’.

On the basis of these definitions and assertions, the needless provocation and bloody outcome of the Ayawaso West Wuogon bye-election; and the killing on Monday 18th February 2019 of a vigilante from the opposition National Democratic Congress, in Kumasi,  signals an urgent need to end vigilante politics in Ghana.

Some of the questions which have begun dominating discussions after the recent clashes are: What accounts for the formation of vigilante groups?  What are they expected to do?  What do they do?  How do their activities promote the interests of political parties? How do their activities undermine Ghana’s drive toward democratic maturity and development?

In many developing democracies, including Ghana, vigilantism is commonly summarised  as “taking  the law  into one’s  own  hands”,  and a violent  display of brute-force to protect  the interest of a group that one belongs to (Rosenbaum and Sederberg, 1974, 2017).

Many political analysts have accepted the notion that vigilantism is now the best alternative for responding to the state’s professed inability or unwillingness to enforce the security laws of a country. In other words, individuals as well as groups who feel there is a lack of protection, justice, and safety from the proficient authorities of the state resort to such vigilante groups for the best of security.

Antecedents

Political Vigilantism has its historical antecedence from youth activism in politics during the British colonial era, when the Convention People’s Party youth wing, known as Nkrumah’s ‘Veranda Boys’, set the pace for party youth activism in Ghana (Gyampo et al, 2017). Kwame Nkrumah steered his ‘Veranda Boys’ (who were mostly youth) to successful political sovereignty from the British (Paalo, 2017, in Gyampo et al). Later historical events suggested that the CPP government used vigilantes like the ‘Tokyo Joe’ boys to unleash violence on its political opponents and anyone with divergent views (sic).

The researchers noted that several political parties since independence have engaged the services of youth groups. For instance, in the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) era, some vigilante groups such as the ‘Mobisquad’, Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), Workers Defence Committees (WDCs), People’s Defence Committees (PDCs) and others were trained and armed to defend the revolution. They harassed and beat-up anyone perceived to be standing in the way of the revolution.

Later, many wings such as the Women’s and Youth Wings of Political Parties, particularly the two largest ones (NPP and NDC) were formed – which were made up of die-hard or core foot-soldiers (Gyampo, 2010, in Gyampo et al). The CDRs, PDCs and lately some vigilante groups resorted to illegal acts; including  confiscation  of both private and  state property, forcible eviction and the ejection of state officials from  their apartments,  physical  assault  of  former  government appointees, and other  human rights  abuses. Their illegal acts have  filled  Ghana’s  body  politic  with  tension,  rancour  and  acrimony within  the  first few  months of  regime change.

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Gyampo et al (2017) further explained that political  vigilante  groups  are  part  of  the  broader  concept  of  party apparatchiks,  who  are  agents  of  a  government  or  party (apparatus);  they comprise among others party foot-soldiers who work intensely to ensure the  election  of their  respective parties  into  power, and  can  be relied  upon to defend the party without compromising.

Clientelism

Clientelism is a political exchange wherein a politician (i.e., a ‘patron’) gives patronage in  return for the vote or support  of  a  ‘client’. Clientelism also refers  to  a multifaceted  chain  of personal bonds  between political  patrons or bosses  and their  individual clients  or  followers (Gyampo et al., 2017) .

They argue that the activities of political vigilante groups are based on the notion of reciprocity and the provision of personalised goods. Those who are easily recruited into these groups variously believe that public office holders (patrons) are wealthy and control massive resources. Consequently, they expect the political elite to share the state resources with them once they are in government. In expectation, they work beyond the call of duty to win and retain power for their political elite.  Thus, political vigilantism and clientelism are linked.

Clientelism fuels the activities of political vigilante groups in the sense that once the  patron wins  power,  clients  who  in this  situation are  the  vigilante  groups feels entitled to  jobs and all the resources  conferred by power. They therefore resort  to  all  means  to  forcibly  capture  state  resources,  property  and opportunities,  especially  when  there  is  a feeling  of  delay on  the  part  of  the patrons in meeting the needs of clients within the framework of patron-client relations  (Bratton and van de Walle, 1994; Robinson and Verdier, 2013; Kusche, 2014, in Gyampo et al, 2017).

At the ongoing Emile-Short Commission hearing, it has emerged that political vigilante groups are formed and funded by patrons of political parties. The patrons are connected to a larger grid of contacts that serve as middle-men, who arrange exchanges between the local level  and the national level (Gyampo et al, 2017).  They insist that political patrons  disregard  the  long-term  national  interest  and  focus  on supporting their clients; hence, anyone who is not a client receives nothing from  government.  As a result, the poor and marginalised  members of  society  are  drawn  into  these networks  as  the only solution to their daily survival struggle (ibid).

Both NDC and NPP have been cited for their continuous association with youth arms:  such as the Bamba Boys, Gbewaa Youth, Kandahar Boys, Aluta Boys, Nima Boys, Salifu Eleven, Zongo Caucus, Veranda Boys, Supreme, Mahama Boys, Basuka Boys, Badariba, Bindiriba, Azorka Boys and Invincible Forces.

The rest are Bolga Bulldogs, Tohazie, Sese groups, Rasta Boys, Bukurisung, Pentagon, Gbewaa youth, 66 Bench, Al Quaeda, Al Jazeera, NATO and Delta force to mention a few. The emergence of such Vigilante groups can be traced to diverse sources. These political vigilante groups are recruited from and made up of the mass unemployed youth, who are directly and/or affiliated to the two major political parties in Ghana – the NPP and the NDC.

It is worth noting that the disturbance at Ayawaso bye-election is not an isolated case. As President Akufo-Addo noted in his State of the Nation Address, past bye-elections in Akwatia, Atiwa, Chereponi, Talensi and Amenfi West had been marked with violence, and some people still have their physical and emotional scars to show for it.

That is why he called for an end to the phenomenon of politically-related violence. “The events of last Monday in Kumasi, where a meeting of the national and regional executives of the opposition National Democratic Congress was broken up by acts of violence, leading to the tragic death of a citizen, have reinforced the urgent need for us to find that path,” said the president.

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Many people agree with the president’s view of initiating legislation on political vigilantism, if voluntary disbandment by both parties fail. The president has all the constitutional powers to stamp his authority on the security situation. As I stated in last week’s column, the country cannot afford to allow political vigilante groups to undermine the power and authority of the state. Vigilante groups are like a nagging boil that must be lanced, or else it festers and becomes untreatable.

On this score, the electorate should stop political parties riding on political vigilantism to come to power, instead of viable ideas and debates.  “Vigorous debate and the exchange of ideas should be the true basis of political dialogue and competition in our country, not the activities of party vigilante groups,” the president pointed out.

Democratisation

Our democratisation processs and the gains of the 4th Republic are too expensive to be toyed with. Despite its limitations, democracy is still considered the standard model of a modernised society – and is used in describing civil and economic progress. Potter (2000) describes democratisation as a political change moving from less accountable to more accountable governance, from less competitive elections to fuller and freer elections, from severely restricted to better-protected civil and political rights, from weak autonomous associations to more numerous associations. Thus, President Akufo-Addo’s postulation that political power is won based on civil debate and competition of ideas is rooted in democratic theory, as captured in Potter’s definition.

However, the notion of moving from weak associations to more numerous associations is not an accommodation of criminal vigilante groups. As noted earlier, though political vigilante groups do provide some valuable services to their parties, their current disruptive activities are counterproductive to democratic advancement.

As I stated in the earlier article titled ‘Sustaining security, peace and development is the business of the state’, though a strong state (dictatorial state) in some cases provides an uncongenial environment for democracy, a very weak state is also a problem for democracy. This is because a state must have some power and autonomy in relation to dominating classes; so that it can act against dominant or private interests (disguised in political vigilantism).

Case-studies across the world, suggest that functioning democratisation has the impetus for stimulating development. From the perspective of the west, we have seen that a combination of democracy and good governance is mutually reinforcing and provides core elements of a comprehensive strategy for development (Potter, 2000). It has been argued that this combination is equally valid for all types of societies, including Ghana.

That said, though democratisation has some inherent weaknesses – as Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore articulated in 1992, generally, it is a better option than military dictatorships and political vigilantism, at least in the case of Ghana.

References

Amankwah, O. G. (2017) “Political vigilantism: The road map from Gold Coast to Ghana”. Available (myjoyonline ). Accessed 21/02/19

Gyampo, R. E., Graham, E.  & Asare, B. E.  (2017) “Political Vigilantism and Democratic Governance in Ghana’s Fourth Republic”. University of Dar es Salam Journal (Accessed 21/02/19)

Jon Rosenbaum. H.  and Sederberg P. C. (Eds.) Vigilante Politics (2016) University of Pennsylvania Press.

Potter, D. (2000) “Explaining Democratisation,” in Allen, T and Thomas, A.  (eds.) Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, Oxford/Open

(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s). (Email: safoamos@gmail.com.

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