In Ghana, Peacebuilding as Safeguard and Foundation
By Henry Robinson
I walk through Accra’s eerily silent International Trade Fair Center, wondering if I’ve come to the right place. The walled, open-air complex spreads out in all directions, its dusty roads stretching so far that I can’t see where they end. The sun beats down on disused, overgrown buildings; there are no clear direction markers.
After a slightly anxious phone call and an assurance that no, I didn’t give the taxi driver the wrong instructions, I finally arrive at The Global Peace Association of Ghana (GLOPAG). It’s a small and otherwise unassuming brick building, but its cheery color serves as a stark contrast to the burned-down house across the street. I follow the Director of Programs and Projects, Ernest Gibson, into a one-room office, where I see the organization’s entire leadership arranged in a semicircle. There are smiles on their faces and they radiate determination.
They’ve been eagerly expecting me.
Ghana is home to many organizations like this one – each dedicated to peace-building, often through youth-empowerment programs, in a country sandwiched between nations struggling to contain their own internal conflicts. Some of these groups, like GLOPAG, are secular, others religious; some are internationally renowned, others powered by the vision of one or two individuals. Regardless of their affiliation or economic position, they all embody an idealism that parallels Ghana’s own successful history.
Ghana enjoys relative pride of place among African countries. Military rule was replaced by a democratically-elected regime in the early 1990s. Ever since, the country has enjoyed a steady series of peaceful power transfers. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index, a non-partisan annual study, Ghana is the fourth-most peaceful nation on the continent and 43rd in the world – receiving favorable scores in areas like ‘Terrorism Impact’, ‘Political Instability’, ‘Homicide’, and ‘Displaced People’. Even in the last three (highly contentious) presidential elections, the country largely avoided political violence.
John Mukum Mbaku, an Economics professor at Weber State University, attributes Ghana’s electoral stability to several factors; unlike other African countries whose leaders are more opportunistic, Ghana has “managed to have leaders who have a national outlook on things… [and] are willing to leave when they’re no longer relevant to the national scene.” He also notes that “Ghana has very good institutions. The electoral commission is very independent, an independent press stands by to scrutinize the system…[and there’s] an independent judiciary.”
But although Prof. Mbaku speaks with assurance about Ghana’s prospects, he largely limits his analysis to macroscopic, institutional factors – whereas the peacebuilders I spoke to think in terms far more wide-ranging, and hence much more cautiously optimistic. Their work asks us to consider why a seemingly peaceful nation might require active efforts to promote nonviolence, and what precisely it means to call a nation “peaceful” at all.
Although the Global Peace Index uses 23 indicators to determine a country’s overall “peacefulness,” my interviewees seem to base their analysis on many more. Our conversations often become so wide-ranging that I feel I could be there for hours, delving ever deeper into the complexities of their projects.
Ernest Gibson and Joseph Donkoh, GLOPAG’s Secretary-General, see threats to peace around every corner. Peace, Donkoh says, “can never be taken for granted. We have a lot of youth being left on the streets; these are very dangerous to peace building…[and] women in Africa are all the time being marginalized; it doesn’t promote peace.” Gibson adds that the influx of illegal migrants from other African nations could jeopardize Ghanaian elections, if their votes are co-opted by nervous incumbents seeking to shore up their constituencies. Both stress the danger of Ghanaian youth unemployment and its potential to foster small-scale violence.
Nana Osei-Darkwa, the founder of Youth Icons Ghana – a nonprofit that works to empower youth to make a positive change in Ghana’s future – takes a similarly broad view. “There are different forms of domestic violence, violence that is driven by racism, religious-based violence,” he notes. “I see corruption as a form of violence…[and] people have [also] perpetrated too much violence on the environment.”
Kojo Frempong, Darkwa’s former student, notes his own past belief that “violence was an act, that it was something you did physically.” This can have particularly troubling consequences for gender relations, apropos of what Donkoh pointed out. “I did not think,” Frempong says, “that emotional violence constituted violence – sexual abuse, you thought of it [only] as rape.” He now works with Ghanaian youth and tries to expand their understanding in the same way.
In addition to a condition touching seemingly all spheres of political and cultural life – migration, environmental degradation, gender, religion – most of the people I speak with also understand peace as an intergenerational project. Many of their organizations, even those without an explicit youth-empowerment focus, value educating children and adolescents about nonviolence. Darkwa’s organization runs trainings for youth in which they are encouraged to explore alternatives to violence in everyday situations, asking them to draw inspiration from the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Frempong runs a youth football league, where he incorporates lessons about fairness and mutual respect into his practices. Others, like Kwame Otchere’s AFS Ghana, send young Ghanaians on overseas exchange programs, in hopes of building the intercultural understanding necessary for a sustainable peace process.
For someone like Samuel Afriyie, these kinds of lessons can be significant. Afriyie, who now works as a peace educator and serves on the board of a children’s hospital, began living on his own at 16 after his parents died. “I had to pay my fees and do everything by myself,” he says. “I wasn’t getting the help that I deserved to get…[but] through the experiences I had in life, by meeting people from diverse backgrounds, it made me learn a lot of lessons of love.” Through his work with underserved young people, he wants to make success stories like his more common.
Otchere understands the process as intergenerational knowledge transmission, calling Ghana’s youth “custodians of peace.” He says older people like himself should pass down wisdom to the younger; “we have done the dress rehearsals already, and we have made our mistakes.”
But Dr. Charles Yeboah – the director of Ghana’s private International Community School – cautions that without substantive reform to Ghana’s formal public education system, the problems keeping so many youth in poverty are unlikely to change. “In Ghana today, if you are poor the public school is your only place,” he says. He cites a lack of funding and teacher accountability as two primary reasons why, “especially at the basic level”, there is currently “no hope” for public education.
“Young people have a lot of energies to exert,” Darkwa warns, “and without the necessary environment where they can put their energies to positive use, they will use [them] in the wrong way.”
On the one hand, my interviewees understand their work as defensive, speaking as though their society were continuously under threat. This idea contains a logic familiar to Western audiences; recent studies of African representation in Western media have found that major news outlets routinely perpetuate stereotypes of Africa as the “dark continent,” an underdeveloped place where violence and poverty reign supreme. And certainly, one thing that binds these workers together – despite their many organizational and methodological differences – is a conviction that Ghana’s relative stability is not guaranteed. The socioeconomic problems they identify are sparks waiting to catch.
But intertwined with – and perhaps more significant than – that sentiment is a powerful, proactive ambition for Ghana’s future. Although I’m at first overwhelmed and slightly skeptical when I realize how far afield our conversations range, I begin to realize that the scope of the problems they identify indicates the breadth of their vision. Their goal is not just to quell imminent threats; it is comprehensive macro- and micro-level reform that establishes a foundation for Ghana’s growth as a 21st-century nation.
“Without peace,” says Darkwa, “there can be no development – I have yet to see any country anywhere in the world that has developed in violence and chaos. We have gold, we have timber, we have cocoa, we have everything – but without peace we cannot explore the benefits of all these natural resources that we have as a nation.”
The vision of these peacebuilders extends beyond the urgencies of the present, towards a loftier and more robust ideal – an outlook perhaps best encapsulated in a telling moment, towards the end of my conversation with Darkwa:
“If you do not disturb the peace architecture of Ghana, it gives you enough room to develop yourselves,” he says. “Peace is nonnegotiable. Hold on tight to it, because it is your future.”
Henry Robinson ‘19 is an English major in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.