Organized by the Concerned Ghanaians for Responsible Government, about 500 participants occupied Flag Staff House, the office and residence of President John Dramani Mahama, to protest government corruption and petition for government action to address numerous social ills.
Problems and Purpose
Occupy Flagstaff House was a protest against government corruption and failure to provide basic social services. Led by a small group of middle-class professionals calling themselves the Concerned Ghanaians for Responsible Government, the protest began as an online hashtag #occupyflagstaffhouse but soon migrated to the streets where people marched on Flagstaff House, the office and residence of then president John Mahama. While this initial act of protest was made up of self-described middle-class professionals, the movement quickly opened its membership to different socio-economic groups. Crucially, the protest led to the creation of OccupyGhana – a political organization that, three years later, continues to draw a large and diverse support base who advocate for responsible government.
Background History and Context
2014 was a year of worsening economic fortunes for the Ghanaian people. The national currency (the cedi) was unstable, depreciating steadily since the beginning of the year. Word of government corruption and crony capitalism was not uncommon as social services deteriorated, unemployment rates soared and utility price inflation left many without power. In the midst of all this, a group of middle-class professionals calling themselves the Concerned Ghanaians for Responsible Government started the hashtag #occupyflagstaffhouse as a way to discuss the government’s inept handling of the economic crisis. The situation came to a head when the government, in what was seen as its characteristic, out-of-touch-with-reality form announced the introduction of new taxes on a population which, by June, was struggling just to get by.
On July 1st, the day celebrating the creation of the Ghanaian republic and installment of the first democratic government, #occupyflagstaffhouse members took to the streets. The timing of the event was not coincidental but was meant to draw attention to its importance as a milestone in the history of freedom from British colonial rule – of which 2014 would mark the 54th anniversary. Indeed, the purpose of the protest and the subsequent OccupyGhana movement was never regime change, rather it was a reinstatement of responsible, democratic government.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
It is unclear which individual or group created the online discussion using the hashtag #occupyflagstaffhouse. As is most often the case with spontaneous online initiatives, it is likely that several people had the same concerns vis-à-vis economic deterioration and government ineptitude and that the hashtag served as a kind of meeting point of like-minded individuals. From there, a self-defined group emerged with the title Concerned Ghanaians for Responsible Government. This group helped schedule the timing and location of the July 1st march, drafted a petition and gathered signatures. Before the protest, leaders submitted an official request to hold the demonstration. Initially denied, the Ghana Police Service reversed its decision granted the small group of leaders be the only ones to enter Flag Staff House. In this capacity, the CGRG leaders acted as interlocutors between the protestors and the Deputy Staff of Government when handing over the petition which eventually reached the President.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The protest and the core leadership of the CRGR was made up of middle-class professionals, notably lawyers, teachers, doctors, students, researchers, bankers, and journalists who have been largely shut out of government despite the signing of the Fourth Republican Constitution in 1993.
According to news reports between 300 and 500 individuals took part in the Occupy Flagstaff House protest. Notably, in an editorial from Al Jazeera, “many of the protesters who spoke to the media sought...to distance themselves from other segments of the Ghanaian population, especially those perceived to be either poor or uneducated or both, by claiming they were the "middle class" - not the riffraff of society. Some also claimed they were marching for those who do not truly understand the issues.” This classist approach would have undermined the efficacy of the protest if not for the launching of the #RedFriday movement ten days later which specifically called on Ghanaians from all socio-economic backgrounds.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The hashtag #occupyflagstaffhouse was created sometime in early 2014 as a way to bring attention to and talk about economic hardships. It soon became apparent that those using the hashtag on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook shared many of the same goals: ending government corruption, addressing infrastructure decay and intervening in Ghana’s worsening economy. Consequently, a non-partisan group calling themselves “The Concerned Ghanaians for Responsible Governance,” (CGRG) used the hashtag to transition the online discussion to on-the-ground action. Drafting a petition and gathering online signatures, organizers scheduled a non-violent protest. On July 1st, Republic Day, approximately half a thousand people congregated at Efua Sutherland Children's Park in the nation’s capital, Accra, and marched on Flag Staff House, the office and residence of President John Dramani Mahama.
After diverting the main crowd to local television station TV3, the police allowed the small group of organizers to deliver their petition to the government asking for immediate action on numerous social ills. Using the website change.org, the group posted the petition online to gather more signatures. Unfortunately only 2,713 supported the petition, falling short of their goal of 5,000. However, the president did receive the petition and assured Ghanaians he was addressing their concerns – whether or not this was likely to have been said in earnest will be discussed in the following section.
While media reports quote protestors as specifically distancing themselves from the lower-class, organizers quickly came to see the short-sightedness of this approach. A new protest – #RedFriday – was launched just ten days after the first and called for all Ghanaians, regardless of social standing or profession, to again turn to social media to spread their message and to wear the colour red in solidarity with the campaign. According to Al Jazeera, this second attempt was the true turning point in the creation of Occupy Ghana as a standing organization. Included in #RedFriday were “countless individuals and diverse groups - ranging from faith-based organisations, academia, farmer-based associations, non-governmental organisations, women groups, students and political parties.” Accordingly, the Occupy Ghana membership now covers a wide range of people from all spectrums of society.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The immediate response of the government was dismissive. Minister for Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, Hannah Tetteh, took to Twitter to mock the protest’s low-turnout rate. However, she did point out one truism: “their [Occupy Flaggstaff House’s] social media campaign was much more effective than the actual turnout.” Indeed, the hashtag #occupyflagstaffhouse and its successor, #RedFriday, have been very effective in bringing local and international attention to government corruption and ineffectiveness. While it is impossible to establish a direct correlation, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTD) report two days after the protest appeared to echo some of the Occupy’s concerns. According to the report, “African leaders [need] to tackle economic development strategically by investing in areas that can generate employment.” The UNCTD went on to highlight the threat unemployment poses to the world’s fledgling democracies of which Ghana is a member.
As for specific policy outcomes or direct government response, the movement has had some successes. 100 days after the original protest, Occupy Ghana – now an established organization – encouraged demonstrations against the hosting of the African Cup of Nations Football tournament. The group helped spread awareness of the risk holding the tournament would pose to the spreading of the Ebola virus. The government subsequently withdrew its bid. Then, in November, Occupy Ghana investigated the Auditor-General, apparently finding evidence for his mishandling of public finances.
While the #occupyflagstaffhouse’s largest achievement appears to be the establishment of a very active citizen-watchdog group in OccupyGhana, their success has to be measured against its mission: to promote good governance and to inspire responsible leadership in Ghana. Assessing the success of the initiative will require more time to pass although the recent election of a new president – Nana Afuko-Addo of the opposition – could see more of the group’s concerns addressed. At the very least, however, the group provides a way for middle and lower-class Ghanaians to become meaningfully involved in the political process - something that they have been left out of as it became more insular and corrupt.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The protest was purposefully non-violent, involving a combination of occupation, picketing, and demonstration. The fact that the CGRG submitted an official request to hold the protest supports their non-violent intentions. Indeed, rather than break through the police barriers cordoning off all routes into Flagstaff House, the main crowd complied with organizers and diverted their march to the nearby studios of local television network TV3.
The strategy settled by the movement’s creators, namely starting an online discussion that would attract and engage professional, middle class people who had historically been reluctant to be publicly involved in politics and to attend demonstrations proved effective, at least at the outset. During the #occupyflagstaffhouse protest, members actively sought to distance themselves from the rest of Ghanaian society, perhaps in the belief that only middle class, educated professionals would evoke a reaction from the government. This approach not only failed but it also undermined the legitimacy of the protest – whose asks were not unreasonable – since the Constitution guarantees equal representation and denies the privileging of certain voices. However, the launching of the #RedFriday movement and the establishment of the OccupyGhana organization appear to have been a conscious attempt by organizers to diversify their supporting demographics.
While not initially successful, the #occupyflagstaffhouse provides insight into a question that plagues many social movement theorists: how to keep an initiative going once its started. Unlike Occupy Wallstreet which has all but disappeared from the public sphere, OccupyGhana remains an active citizen-watchdog group that has demonstrated its ability to organize and execute large scale protests.
 Sylvester Bagooro and Kwesi W Obeng, “Occupy Flagstaff House: Wake up call for Ghana's democracy?” Al Jazeera. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/07/occupy-flagstaff-house-...
 Jennifer Sefa-Boakye, “Ghana’s #OccupyFlagStaffHouse Movement Hits Accra On Republic Day” okayafrica. Int’l Ed. http://www.okayafrica.com/news/ghana-occupy-flagstaff-house-movement-rep...
 Jennifer Sefa-Boakye, “Ghana’s #OccupyFlagStaffHouse Movement Hits Accra On Republic Day”
 Jennifer Sefa-Boakye, “Ghana’s #OccupyFlagStaffHouse Movement Hits Accra On Republic Day”
 Elsa Buchanan, “Ghana: Hundreds take part in #RedFriday protest against ‘faltering’ economy,” International Business Times. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ghana-hundreds-take-part-redfriday-protest-agai...
 Mawuli Tsikata, "Hannah Tetteh slammed for mocking OccupyFlagStaffHouse," citifmonline. http://citifmonline.com/2014/07/01/hannah-tetteh-slammed-for-mocking-occ...
 Bagooro and Obeng, “Occupy Flagstaff House: Wake up call for Ghana's democracy?” Al Jazeera. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/07/occupy-flagstaff-house-...
 “October Demonstration against bad governance,” http://www.occupygh.org/story/october-demonstration-against-bad-economic...
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