On Friday, March 22, 2020, Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo, addressed the nation for the third time in one month, a record for a president who met the press once in 2019 and often commented on national issues from abroad. “There are obvious difficulties ahead of us, and we should all brace ourselves to face them. I will be transparent with you and not shirk from sharing with you the realities of our situation,” he said. The address was part of a broad public relations offensive from the president, whose response to the coronavirus crisis has boosted his popularity in recent weeks. But his own executive actions give reason to suspect that the president is also using the moment to consolidate power in ways that extend beyond the immediate needs of the crisis.

As of April 12, Ghana had 566 recorded cases of coronavirus. Six people have died, and more than 15,000 are believed to have been exposed. In response to the pandemic, the government has closed all schools, banned religious worship, halted funerals, and closed the country’s borders for a month. Workers have been advised to stay at home, and a partial lockdown has been imposed in the two regions that have recorded most of the cases. 

President Akufo-Addo’s style of governance has changed quickly since the virus’s outbreak. Since assuming power in 2017, Akufo-Addo has earned a reputation for commenting on national crises from afar. When seven Ghanaian banks abruptly collapsed in 2018 and sent the economy into free-fall, Akufo-Addo made his first public comments from abroad while traveling on an unrelated matter in Rwanda. Save for national events that required his presence, he rarely spoke directly to Ghanaians. 

All of that has changed in recent weeks: Akufo-Addo announced on April 5 that the government would pay the water bills for all Ghanaians for the next three months. He has started giving regular national broadcasts updating the citizenry on the crisis. On his authority, the Finance Minister applied for Parliamentary authorization to spend 1.2 billion Ghanaian Cedi or around $205,655,520 from a government contingency fund on what it calls the Coronavirus Alleviation Program. The government has said the program’s money would go to health professionals, small and medium-sized companies, and Ghanaians in need.

These decisions, which have assuaged anxiety and appear to have limited the virus’s spread so far, have quickly boosted the president’s popularity and criticism of him taboo, even in the mainstream media. The government’s competent response to the epidemic has quickly led to an environment in which criticism of the president is spurned, if not met with outright abuse on and offline. When the General Secretary of the main opposition party – the National Democratic Congress – suggested in an interview that the president was using the crisis for political ends, he was roundly condemned by the country’s journalists and Ghanaians on social media

Some criticism is nevertheless justified: The Government of Ghana was caught unprepared for the country’s COVID-19 cases. On February 21, President Akufo-Addo took off on a jaunt to Europe while the disease ravaged parts of China and Europe. He visited Norway, Scotland, Belgium, Switzerland, and the UK, meeting local political leaders and Ghanaians living in these countries. Barely two weeks before Ghana recorded the first two COVID-19 cases, the president laid the foundation for a $100 million national cathedral for which he imported marbles from abroad. The government insists the cathedral will be built with private funds, but it has already allocated $20 million in public funds for the project. It has also pledged to cover the cost of providing new homes for judges whose homes were demolished to pave the way for the project. The president responded to critics of the building that the cathedral was a way to thank God for preserving Ghana from civil war, famine, and epidemic.

The lavish spending now looks shortsighted, and the thanksgiving to god seems premature: The government applied and received $1 billion from the International Monetary Fund on April 13, to fight the pandemic and its shocks to the economy. Even though Ghana has received support from the World Bank, the government is still considering withdrawing funds from the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Heritage Fund, a deep reservoir of public money made from the government’s sale of oil. The money was not supposed to be tapped until a year after oil reserves are depleted (an event that most people expect to take place in 20 years or more). 

The preventive measures taken by the government have also thrown structural inequities in Ghanaian society into stark relief. Take the decision to absorb the water bill of all Ghanaians for the next three months. Unicef data shows that over ten percent of Ghanaians “still drink from the surface and other unsafe water sources.” There was already water rationing and shortages in parts of the country. The poor and vulnerable did not feature much in the interventions. It took news stories about the stranded kayayei (women from the three regions of the North who travel to the South for work) for the government to include them in a plan. The government has said the Coronavirus Alleviation Program’s money would go to businesses and households in need of support. But given that Ghana’s Fourth Republic history is replete with scandals about mismanaged public funds, there should be questions about how small businesses and households can access this money. 

Perhaps more disturbing are the ways in which the government has used emergency measures and the impunity from public criticism that the virus allows to quickly expand its own powers through an executive order and a new law. 

The president did not face much resistance when, on March 23, he issued an executive ordering phone network companies to “cooperate with the National Communications Authority Common Platform,” an agency under his purview, “to provide information to state agencies in the case of an emergency.” This gives the government broad powers to track phone calls of everyone in the country, monitor mobile money transactions and other communications. The government maintains this order will only be used for contact tracing but it allows the government to collect large amounts of data on citizens.

On March 20, the government passed the new Imposition Restriction Law, which allows the president to take extraordinary measures such as restricting the movement of people in an emergency. Critics including an associate professor in law at the University of Ghana say that the law is unnecessary to respond to the coronavirus crisis, since Article 31 of Ghana’s  constitution already outlines how the president should handle emergency situations. Though the government said they passed the law to deal with this crisis, the powers it grants have no expiration date. With this power, a president can limit basic freedoms granted by Ghana’s 1992 Constitution, such as freedom of expression, movement, information, to practice religion, of assembly, association, and to participate in political activities. 

All of which means the party in government could use this power to silence critics, opposition groups and even the media.  Some have even compared the Imposition Restriction law to the 1958 Preventive Detention Act, which allowed Ghana’s first president to detain people without trial for up to five years. Given that the Akufo-Addo government has in some instances, defied court orders and overlooked violations of media freedoms by state agencies, their fears do not seem unfounded. 

The crisis may also change the country’s upcoming elections. Before the virus’s outbreak, the two main political parties in Ghana, President Akufo-Addo’s governing New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the opposition National Democratic Congress had been locked in a battle over the national registry of voters. Although this is the same register which was used in the 2016 election won by the NPP, the government  maintains that the existing voters’ register is bloated with ghost names. The NDC insists the register is good enough as it is the same register that was used in the 2016 elections which was won by the NPP. Civil society organizations like the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition have also rejected proposals for a new registry. Both critics and the main opposition party, NDC agree that the project is a waste of resources. Some fear this new registry could cause the unexpected disenfranchisement of voters opposed to the governing party. It took a lawsuit and enormous amount of public outrage to compel the National Identification Authority (NIA) to suspend the registration of people in the eastern region of the country.   

If the Electoral Commission is unable to undertake compilation of a new register before its chosen deadline (and it does seem impossible at this point) the government will have two options – restore confidence in the old register or rush the registration process and risk undermining a process that is already fraught with tension. Given that the date for general elections in Ghana is set in stone by the 1992 constitution, the delay could alter steps for elections.

No one knows when life will return to normal in Ghana but for now, COVID-19 has given President Akufo-Addo a boost that might continue to ripple long after the curve has been flattened around the world. 

Note: This piece was first published on theballot.world in April, 2020.