By Jeffrey Haynes
The National Peace Council (NPC) issued a press release on 15 November calling for “an end to the ‘politics of religion’”. The NPC, along with the Christian Council of Ghana, the Office of the National Chief Imam and the Catholic Bishops Conference, were expressing “concern about some recent insinuations and publications on electronic and social media seeking to inflame religious passions as the nation prepares towards the 2024 general election.” https://www.graphic.com.gh/news/politics/ghana-news-npc-other-stakeholders-call-for-end-to-politics-of-religion.html
A few days later, the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference published a communique following its Annual Plenary Assembly in Sunyani, 6-18 November. The Bishops urged all Ghanaians not to engage in “a ‘politics of religion.’ In this light, we advise all Ghanaians to put Ghana first in their political campaigns so as to preserve the peace and unity of our motherland.”
Prior to this, Chief Imam’s Office had announced on 12 October ground rules for the Maulud (the Holy Prophet Mohammed’s birthday). The Office was concerned “about plans by a political party to turn the event into a partisan affair by embarrassing their opponents who would turn up at the event”.
This was especially sensitive as the focus of the Maulud in 2023 was on “interfaith harmony, a subject dear to the National Chief Imam, the cordial relationship he has developed with the leadership of the Christian community attesting to that fact.” (https://dailyguidenetwork.com/chief-imams-office-announces-ground-rules-for-maulud/)
Concerns expressed by the NPC, the Catholic Bishops and the Chief Imam’s Office highlight mounting concern that attempts to highlight religious differences for political purposes will feature in the run up to next year’s elections. This would be the first time that such a concern was prominent during an election year.
Ghana is a constitutionally secular country where all religious faiths have equivalence and religious freedom is guaranteed. Article 21(1) (c) of the 1992 constitution recognises and protects the right of all freely to practise a religion of their choice, and to manifest such practice.
In addition, Article 21(3) provides for and protects the rights of all Ghanaians to freely form or join political parties and to participate in political activities subject to the qualifications and laws as are necessary in a free and democratic society.
Traditionally, religion and politics in Ghana are deemed to be separate areas of endeavour. This is not to say that religious figures never comment on political and social issues; of course, they do. And it does not imply that political figures never remark on religious matters. What is new is that, in the run up to the 2024 elections, there is rising disquiet about partisan efforts to exploit religious concerns for political goals.
This can have potentially serious, malign effects on society, undermining Ghana’s well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance and inter-faith harmony.
Ghana does not of course exist in a vacuum. Around the world, including in Africa, religion and politics can be inharmonious bedfellows. Ghana’s position is contextualised by its location in the Western African sub-region.
Despite a regional history of peaceful religious co-existence, religious conflict is becoming more common. For example, Islamist extremism is prominent in several of Ghana’s neighbours, including Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Maliand Nigeria. Extremist interpretations of Islam fuel ideologies which are less focused on religious devotion and more compatible with the tenets of violent extremism and/or terrorism.
Thankfully, Ghana has not hitherto been subject to such forces of disharmony and conflict. The recent NPC press release – endorsed by religious heavyweights (the Christian Council of Ghana, the Office of the National Chief Imam and the Catholic Bishops Conference) – highlights what might happen in the run up to the elections: political exploitation in the contest for votes focusing on religious difference not unity, with aspirants from both main parties seeking to exploit circumstances for their own political ends.
The concerns of the NPC and the other signatories of the 15 November press release focus on “a creeping new phenomenon of politics on religious lines emanating from the different religious persuasions of the flag bearers of the New Patriotic Party and the National Democratic Congress.” Moreover, the NPC press release adds: “Some politicians have started using the religious differences between the two personalities to campaign, which the Council and other stakeholders believe if not nipped in the bud, might affect national cohesion.” https://www.graphic.com.gh/news/politics/ghana-news-npc-other-stakeholders-call-for-end-to-politics-of-religion.html
What can be done to prevent or diminish attempts to poison inter-faith relations and more generally the political climate in the run up to the elections? Electronic and social media are main sources of concern.
It seems very easy to spread religious and ethnic discord via social media in Ghana. Just take a look at GhanaWeb. GhanaWeb regularly publishes news items about religious and/or ethnic issues. After news items, GhanaWeb invites readers to comment. Some comments on such news items include religious or ethnic insults.
In addition, we read inflammatory statements from high profile politicians casting religious aspersions, followed by angry responses from followers of the ‘insulted’ religion, demanding that the politician should apologise for his or her comments. This raises the temperature of discord and invites increasing inter-faith friction and, potentially, conflict.
No one wants to see Ghana fall into a cycle of inter-religious conflict; when this happens, it is always bad news, politically, socially, culturally, and developmentally.
What can be done to prevent Ghana going down the road of some of its more fractious neighbours? It is important that august bodies like the NPC, Catholic Bishops and the Chief Imam’s Office continue to highlight their concerns and not only encourage Ghanaians to be aware of such concerns but also to act to reduce them.
In addition, people have a national duty to act responsibly, be civil to each other, and refuse to use the cloak of anonymity, especially on social and electronic media, to insult others. Finally, leaders of political parties have a clear responsibility to try to control what their followers and fellow politicians say and do. Ghana is a proudly tolerant country, and if all work together the scourge of inter-religious disharmony can be held at bay. It is the responsibility of all to make this happen.