Is religion becoming Ghana’s new parliament?

"When religion begins to influence policies that affect every single person, then there is a problem. Religious beliefs are private and personal, but laws are not," says Alex Kofi Donkor

Human rights-based civil society organisations are advocating against the potential of a takeover of parliament by conservative religious actors. At the centre of this growing union between religion and state lies the dilemma between freedom of belief and association, and protection from abuse.

Religion plays no official role in secular Ghana, but it has some effect on Ghanaian culture. With over 70% of the population identifying as Christian and over 17% professing Islam, Ghana is one of the most religious countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Since the coming into force of the 1992 constitution, when you look at our political landscape and you look at our electioneering campaigns, I can say without fear of contradiction that religion has played a critical role, from campaigning to sloganeering, and that’s because the people are very religious,” notes Kwaku Agyemang-Budu, a constitutional lawyer and law lecturer at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration.

While Article 21 of Ghana’s constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice,” Article 56 makes it clear that Parliament shall have no power to enact a law to establish or authorise the establishment of a body or movement with the right or power to impose on the people of Ghana a common programme or a set of objectives of a religious or political nature.”

Despite this constitutional protection, Ghana’s secular status has increasingly come under pressure in recent years with religious groups, most vocally Christians, pushing their reach into governmental affairs. 

In 2019, the Ghana Education Service (GES), which operates under the Ministry of Education, introduced new guidelines on Comprehensive Sexuality Education for local schools. Educational authorities said that the new policy “held the key to effective sexuality education for the youth and aimed to reduce teenage pregnancy, sexual abuse and sexually transmitted diseases”, according to the head of public relations at the GES, Cassandra Twum Ampofo.

Although the GES maintained that the policy was meant to empower children with relevant knowledge on sexuality to protect them from sexual harassment and to make informed decisions, opponents of the policy argued that the introduction of sex education at a young age would expose children to sexual immorality. Faith-based organizations and the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights led the charge against the policy.

The GES and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the state body that developed the proposed curriculum, insisted that the condemnation of the guidelines was misplaced and emphasised the importance of the curriculum amid a rise in cases of teenage pregnancy and sexual harassment. The GES, eventually, withdrew the policy.

In a similar clash in Accra between religion and educational policy, two students who wore dreadlocks were denied admission to a senior high school in March 2021 on the basis of their hairstyle. School authorities claimed that dreadlocks were not permitted under its rules, but the students’ parents insisted that keeping the locks was part of their Rastafarian faith. A human rights court ordered the school to admit the students, ruling that failure to do so was a violation of their right to education and dignity.

A month before the dreadlocks saga, an office space belonging to the sexual minority advocacy group, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, was shut down after it was raided by the police. Members of Parliament (MPs) and religious leaders joined the police in the raid.

In June that year, a group of Christian MPs submitted an anti-LGBTQ+ bill titled “The Promotion of Proper Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021” to Parliament. This stirred debates about whether the activities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons should be criminalized. Religious groups, particularly the Christian community, threatened to vote out MPs who did not support the bill.

Arguments supporting the anti-LGBTQ+ bill assert that the activities of LGBTQ+ persons go “against our culture”, but historical records, including landmark research conducted by anthropologist James Christenson in the 1950s, establish that men who have sex with men were an integral but obscured part of Ghanaian culture in pre-colonial times.

Christian clerics in Ghana organise national prayer against LGBT+ persons

LGBTQ+ is not the only social issue receiving conservative backlash in Ghana today. “Indecent dressing” and certain hairstyles are frowned upon and considered Western; they are regarded as alien to the Ghanaian culture. Such assertions are often made from the perspective of religion; ironically, from religions that originated in the West or Middle East. 

The challenge when it comes to faith-based policymaking is, who then becomes the yardstick?” asks Kojo Mensah, a human rights and policy expert with Wayamo Foundation Africa.

Even within major religions there are sects with varying doctrines that do not agree. When creating laws, the principle of the common man must be applied. If the law is only for one group, then it is not for the common man. So, when these laws are applied and people use guilt to trip others based on their Bible or Quran, it is dangerous.”

As we speak, the country is divided over the building of a national cathedral,” said Mensah, referring to the government’s proposal to build an ecumenical centre for inter-denominational Christian worship in Accra. “Now imagine if the Muslims also want a state-sponsored mosque, and the traditionalists also ask for a national shrine”, he added.

Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo announced the cathedral plans in 2017 but received mixed reactions. Some applauded the proposal while a vast majority of the population thought money for the project should be used for other developmental projects.

In December 2022, the president defended the project, saying it would serve as a “place of thanksgiving and rallying point for the entire Christian community of Ghana, which represents 70% plus of the country’s population.” He likened those who oppose the project to the biblical figures Sanballat and Tobias (opponents of the Jews who tried to stop Nehemiah from rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem). 

President Afuko-Addo added that he respects opponents’ right to differ but maintains “confidence in the vast number of enthusiastic supporters whose spiritual dimension is limitless.

Work on the $400 million cathedral project, which was scheduled to be completed by March 2024, has halted. Its fate hangs in the balance. 

Aerial view of national cathedral site under construction

In the midst of this ambitious project is an ailing economy. Ghana’s annual inflation exceeded 50% in 2022, the highest in decades. Many groups have called for the cathedral project, now embroiled in a corruption scandal over misappropriation of funds, to be ceased. They say it is a needless expense when the country is still reeling from the aftereffects of COVID-19 and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. 

Ghanaians are suffering excruciating hardship and do not need the scarce state funds accrued from taxing them to be used for funding fanciful frivolities that President Akufo-Addo considers his priority of priorities” says Selorm Dzramado, leader of Justice for Ghana, a pressure group that has been at the forefront of the campaign to stop the project.

Religious influences are blurring the lines that define Ghana’s secularity in other areas as well. Agyemang-Budu believes that the encroachment of religion on national affairs is an issue that can only be managed but cannot be entirely done away with.

Yes, we are indeed a secular state as captured in Article 56 of the 1992 Constitution. We are not a religious state. But even that line is not clear. For instance, the same constitution saying we are a secular state has its preamble starting with ‘in the name of the Almighty God’, and so even though we are a secular state, the people themselves are heavily religious, and it permeates every facet of our national lives”, Agyemang-Budu said.

The role of religion in Ghana’s national affairs cannot be overemphasized. According to Agyemang-Budu, “it may be responsible for how far the country has come in maintaining relative peace and security compared to its counterparts in the West African sub-region”. However, security analysts are sceptical about the sustainability of this peace and security because of the growing unemployment and economic hardships. They predict that this will lead to an increase crime and violence. 

Policy experts are worried that religiously motivated policies like the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values bill may lead to loss of funding from international development organisations and make Ghana less attractive for foreign direct investment. This could further exacerbate the country’s economic woes and derail its overall development.

So, will this union of religion and politics in Ghana be sustained, and for how long? With growing pressure from global human rights mechanisms like the United Nations Universal Periodic Review calling on Ghana to protect the rights of marginalised groups including gender and sexual minorities, can the state uphold the rights of minorities while guaranteeing the majority population’s right to their religious beliefs?

“When religion begins to influence policies that affect every single person, then there is a problem. Religious beliefs are private and personal, but laws are not”, says Alex Kofi Donkor, a human rights activist and leader of LGBT+ Rights Ghana.

“Although most Ghanaians identify as religious people, the state must remain secular. Insistence on the secularity of the state should not be construed as a declaration of war on religion, it is rather to chart the path for future continued peace sustained through tolerance, diversity and a strict adherence to state laws that benefit everyone”, concludes Agyemang-Budu.

About the writer

Solomon Terkimbi Akumun known professionally as Solomon Ter, is a Radio presenter and Producer for Asaase Radio in Accra. He is also a culture enthusiast, writer, researcher and Law scholar with over 7 years of experience in communications, justice advocacy, media and PR, academic research and brand consultancy. He’s currently the host of Accra-Lagos-Joburg on Asaase Radio 99.5mhz, a Pan-African radio show that connects Africa through music, people and culture. Twitter: @LordTer995 Instagram: @solomonter_


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