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Public sector workers spark national movement for economic justice

Ghana's failed economic trajectory of market liberalisation has trapped the country in a cycle of export dependency based on primary commodities while destroying the domestic industry. A crash in living standards fuelled by high inflation has hit the poorest hardest. Now a new spirit of activism has emerged as a result of this crisis


After years of being hailed as a beacon for neo-liberal economic reform, Ghana’s Black Star appears to be on the descent following months of disappointing growth and plummeting foreign investment. The country has been hit by a spiralling economic crisis, marked by a perfect storm of high inflation, high unemployment and endemic political corruption.

Coordinated national strike action this July brought the country to a standstill as thousands of public sector workers came out on the streets in protest. Their demands for economic change resonated with a disaffected electorate struggling to deal with the rising cost of living amidst escalating fuel and food prices, exacerbated by the rapid fall of the cedi.

Ghana’s experience holds valuable lessons for other African countries following the same neo-liberal economic trajectory spearheaded by the laissez faire policies of the World Bank and the IMF. As Ghana’s labour movement challenges the validity of its government’s conservative economic framework, their capacity to build a political alliance for an economic alternative is paramount not only for the future of Africa’s left, but as a turning point in exposing the paucity of the Washington consensus as an instrument for social justice.


The national demonstrations brought together an umbrella of public sector workers under the leadership of the Trade Union Congress. Protests held across the majority of Ghana’s regions from Tamale to Accra, were reported by mainstream media as the largest anti-government rally in over a decade.[1]

Demands from the unions touched upon the urgent need to put in place measures to halt the depreciation of the cedi, substantial improvements to water and electricity service delivery, investment in long awaited infrastructure projects and above all serious action on the widespread corruption that threatens to engulf Mahama’s presidency. [2]

Angry allegations of public mismanagement of the economy were made voiced by the majority of protesters who called for the President to step down.[3] Placards that read ; “John Mahama, is this the Better Ghana You Promised?” [4] were reflective of widespread frustration over worsening economic hardship, blamed squarely on the administration’s poor handling of a crisis that has cut across class lines.

Expectations that the electorate would be led ‘from poverty to prosperity’ under an NDC government have been grossly unfounded sparking widespread indignation over a lack of political direction. Prior to the July protests, a hastily organised National Economic Forum, bringing together civil society, the government and the private sector, was intended to address the underlying causes of the economic downturn. However the government have since been roundly criticised for failing to act on a number of recommendations pushing for urgent action.

The NDC have been pushed into a political cul-de-sac over a protracted economic downturn with no easy escape route. National demonstrations have succeeded in raising the stakes and placing the spotlight on the how Ghana may or may not emerge from the slowdown. As the public sector awaits the implications of impending reform, the role of the union in shaping negotiations over the future of the Ghanaian economy is likely to become increasingly significant.


In the aftermath of national protests, the President has made extensive assurances that immediate action would be taken to bring down inflation and interest rates in addition to directing much needed investment into agriculture as a way to mitigate rising food imports. [5]

However, it may be too little too late to save the credibility of Mahama’s administration. The NDC inherited impressive growth rates and macroeconomic stability only to preside over an unprecedented economic decline. Just three years ago Ghana was praised as the world ‘s fastest growing economy, yet growth has declined dramatically from 15% In 2011 to less than 6% in 2013. The country’s budget deficit has worsened against snowballing public debt which accounts for 58% of GDP, while inflation has rocketed to 14.5% this year following food and utility price increases driven by record currency depreciation. [6]

Mismanagement of oil revenue coupled with over spending of scarce public finances have only been exacerbated by the failure to address a series of corruption scandals which have dented the legitimacy of NDC’s Better Ghana agenda. Furthermore, structural weaknesses within the economy marked by overreliance on volatile unprocessed commodity exports and a narrow production base have exposed the continuation of a neo-colonial economy unable to deliver the economic transformation that Ghanaians demand. [7]

Efforts to source additional financing for a cash strapped government have become an immediate and urgent priority as confidence on the international markets continues to fall placing further pressure on the struggling cedi. [8] The long avoided decision to enter negotiations with the IMF[9] over an emergency bailout marks a new low for the NDC who had hoped to escape the political embarrassment prior to the 2016 election.

The extent of Ghana’s economic crisis has surprised most of the development commentariat confident of the county’s rising post-oil fortunes. Crucially the crisis represents the limitations of a neo-liberal model that has failed to address the underlying weaknesses at the heart of the Ghanaian economy. Liberalisation has worked towards the interests of a corporate minority but has contradicted efforts to raise living standards for the majority of Ghana’s working poor. As Ghana moves from boom to bust, (in a recurrent cycle of market failures in its liberal democratic era), the political currency that the labour movements holds has risen markedly, highlighting a potentially seismic shift in the electoral landscape.


In the face of acute public anger, Ghana’s labour movement have vowed to keep political pressure on the government to accept its core demands. Unlike previous protests, criticised as standalone events with a lack of strategic political direction, emphasis has been placed on building an alliance of public sector workers supported from civil society in defence of decent living standards for ordinary Ghanaians.

A new spirit of political activism has emerged as a result of the current crisis, with many for the first time openly confronting government policy, while contesting a dominant conservative culture which traditionally censures public protests against the governing leadership. Vicky Wireko writes of a new awakening by the Ghanaian electorate in a time of democratic change; ‘Years gone by, it would have been sacrilege to pour out in thousands to tell it as it is to a government by way of demonstration. The law enforcers would definitely have swept over them in no time……the typical Ghanaian’s psyche has always been that demonstrations had their limits and that certain things are best left as they are. That was the non-confrontational Ghanaian of yesteryear. Those days are sweeping past. ’[10]

Unlikely support from customary institutions in opposition to the government has added political weight to the unions stands. Chieftaincy has traditionally remained neutral during public disputes due to the commitment to local rather than national based cleavages, their backing (however symbolic) represents a valuable faction to the unions broad alliance which may prove critical prior to the election. This was particularly the case in the Eastern region, where Chiefs and elders cleverly used the protest as a platform to bring attention to depleting road infrastructure. [11]

As Ghana’s youth population booms amid worsening youth unemployment, their voice in national protests has become confidently articulated with specific social and economic demands targeting the young. Essentially, the advent of youth associations able to organise around specific development concerns is a major asset for the unions who are able to tap into their rich social networks and recognized organising power. Moreover the widened inclusion of the youth in political protests have deepened channels of social media with the use of Twitter, Facebook and Wasup being used as key communication platforms at the heart of July’s national demonstrations.


More than twenty years after Ghana’s transition to parliamentary democracy, economic turmoil is fast transforming the political culture of accountability, which if successfully exploited, may lead to a new social democratic direction. Already the terms of an impending negotiated settlement with the IMF are being debated as either being aligned or in opposition the principles and demands that trade unions expressed during the national protests. The key issue will be whether the labour movement has the political capital and organisational capacity to force the government’s hand and deliver genuine and lasting economic reforms. Concerted pressure is likely to be placed on the Mahama administration by the Washington institutions to accept the bitter pill of public sector reform and further liberalisation in order to escape a massive funding deficit. Nevertheless any further public economic hardship in the short term will undermine the NDC’s election prospects with only two years to go, giving the political advantage to the unions in the coming months.

Whatever the outcome, the political alliance encompassing public sector workers, youth associations, chieftaincy and civil society have sparked a crucial debate over the long term economic direction of the country and who wins from the spoils of national development. Moreover, Ghana’s changing political climate has demonstrated the emerging possibilities that social activism can create when the electorate publicly contests rather than readily accept their challenging economic reality.


1. Organised labour to strike on Thursday

2. Genesis and solutions to Ghana’s current economic crisis

3. Nationwide Demonstration By Organised Labour

4. Economic Crisis: 2014 could become worse - Prof. Botchwey

5. Ghana Turns to IMF for Help as Currency Crisis Deepens

6. Ghana: President pledges to respect concerns of organised labour

7. If You Can’t Rule, Step Down -… Workers Tell Mahama

8. Organised labour petition: High and rising cost of living in Ghana

9. A new Ghanaian is beginning to emerge


[1] Nationwide Demonstration By Organised Labour :
[2] Organised labour petition: High and rising cost of living in Ghana:
[3] If You Can’t Rule, Step Down -… Workers Tell Mahama:
[4] Nationwide Demonstration By Organised Labour :
[5] Ghana: President pledges to respect concerns of organised labour:
[6] Genesis and solutions to Ghana’s current economic crisis :
[7] ibid
[8] Ghana Turns to IMF for Help as Currency Crisis Deepens :
[9] A new Ghanaian is beginning to emerge :
[10] ibid

* Joan Nimarkoh is Ghanaian journalist working in Accra and a policy consultant for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.



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