David Kwaku Sakyi writes: Citizen engagement key to ensuring peace during elections

Citizens are very powerful but typically, we underestimate their level of power and influence in terms of governance. It is important for us to get citizens to understand how strong and powerful they actually are.

It is ironic and unacceptably counterintuitive when politicians exercise a posture of ‘we the people’ needing them and not the other way round. Citizens must without any doubt, know the power that they wield, execute it responsibly and must understand that power comes with the utmost care, sense of duty and responsibility. Thus, it is crucial for citizens to feel that they actually determine and control who sits in government.

“The sovereignty of Ghana resides in the people of Ghana in whose name and for whose welfare the powers of government are to be exercised…” says our Constitution.

Citizens decide who gets into government. 30 million people in Ghana, choose 275 parliamentarians and a president. The president drawing from the power given him by the people through the constitution, in turn, chooses the larger government of about 4,000 people who are running the country and making decisions on behalf of the 30 million people.

As long as the citizenry feel they don’t have a real stake, in terms of deciding which direction things are going to go, they will not be involved in making the decision of who gets into government. Essentially, I believe we need every citizen to appreciate that they control the narrative.

This conversation is important because every time we have an election, there is tension. Take as an example, the Ayawaso West Wuogon by-election; a relatively small but significant exercise; where violence occurred, with people wielding harmful tools, prompting the security forces to also come out in full force; a microcosm of what can happen in an election of a country when tensions are not quelled ahead of time.

This conversation is important to engage the citizenry because in Ghana, as it is in many places, there is considerable tension that builds up around elections and electioneering. It may seem as though countries with advanced democracies do not have such experiences but whereas the Scandinavian countries typically have calm easy elections, democracies like the USA have tension-filled elections every time that season comes. We need to develop a socio-political space that allows us to go to the polls without so many nerves and drama.

I have identified 3 main causes of these escalating tensions.

The first being politicians.

Politicians like to do the blame game and cast aspersions on one another, leaving the electorate heavily polarized. Many times, altercations and more serious scuffles have broken out during electioneering season because of these polarizations.

Secondly, the media.

There are sensational reports that include embellishment and sometimes twisting of facts. This again works to intensify the polarization.

Finally, precedence.

Based on prior experiences like vigilante activities, there’s an anticipation that things will be business as usual. Violence begets violence. An eye for an eye etc.

Often citizen engagement is viewed with suspicion, scepticism or apprehension by policymakers. Here are a few reasons why it is necessary and useful to do it:

  1. Citizens are central to governance. Although this may seem straightforward, oftentimes governments, international organizations, and academia can be very inward-looking, with a focus more on processes, systems and organizational structures, rather than the people those institutions and systems are meant to serve. To make a difference for development, institutions need to be visible and valuable to citizens.
  2. Engaging citizens need not be complicated. Naysayers often think that involving citizens can slow down reform processes, but in my experience, the reverse is true. The effectiveness of many public policies depends on the response of citizens and businesses. If citizens are engaged effectively and on a timely basis, such responses may be more predictable, preventing costly mistakes and saving governments a lot of time, funds and resources in the long term.
  3. Citizen engagement does not pit citizens versus civil servants. Citizen engagement is about collaboration, not opposition. When citizens are included in public policy processes, ordinary citizens and civil servants can work together as partners to solve major development challenges and neutralize the influence of powerful interests. This, in turn, will ensure accountability and stamp out corruption and ensure accountability from the citizenry.
  4. Citizen engagement pays off by building trust in institutions. Citizens’ trust in institutions is a huge asset for countries, as this trust enables the smooth implementation of public policies and service delivery. When this trust is missing, governments face higher costs and complications as informality becomes generalized and citizens seek services outside of formal public systems.
  5. Citizen engagement complements, not substitutes representative democracy. The interaction between citizens and public institutions happen at different levels and in different capacities. Strategic priorities are and should continue being set by the political process. Citizen engagement, in turn, is fundamental to translate such priorities into concrete actions and delivery.
  6. Citizen engagement is happening now and everywhere. In countries all over the world, citizen engagement is taking hold as a critical part of participatory policy-making. With the MOOC, we hope to create a space for the exchange of global knowledge and lessons and look forward to hearing from participants on their local experiences, as the online course moves from theoretical frameworks to real-world examples of citizen engagement.

HOW TO ENGAGE CITIZENS?

We can employ Citizen Campaigns before, during and after an election, using mass media, state agencies (NCCE, ISD), NGOs and community leaders.

We can also introduce the concept of “POLICE OF OUR PEACE” (Citizens not Spectators). Therefore, Policing the politicians, leaders, media and each other as citizens, with the sole aim of preserving Ghana.

EXAMPLES OF CITIZEN CAMPAIGN TOOLS

  1. Short videos
  • Get politicians who have family members across the political divide (e.g The Ramadans and Jinapor Families), to speak on camera to show how a family can live in harmony regardless of political persuasion.
  • Get ordinary citizens with relevant experiences to also share their stories, insights, anecdotes.
  • Get respected community, and religious leaders, especially with large followings to also speak on citizenship and peaceful coexistence
  1. Use Unforgettable Catch-Phrases

A few years ago, one of my favourite catchphrases was coined. ‘Hwe w’asitena mu, na to aba pa’, to wit, consider your current living conditions and vote wisely. Even though this was espoused by a political party, the phrase is apolitical and catchy. Slogans and catchphrases are easy to remember and use.

Eg

    . THINK BEFORE YOU ACT!!!

    .  VET BEFORE YOU SHARE!!!  (For media reports)

 BISA WOHO!!!

  1. Who are you really fighting for?
  2. How will you and your family gain?
  3. How can I help and not hurt myself and others?

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