By Victor Nsoh Azure
A lot is at stake as Ghana’s parliament opens public deliberations on the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill, 2021, more commonly known as the Anti-LGBTQI+ Bill. The proposed law strikes at the heart of equality and liberty in Ghana. How parliament responds to it will be pivotal for the future of Ghanaian democracy.
The bill is popular. A 2019 Afrobarometer survey on social tolerance revealed that 93% of Ghanaians dislike homosexuals. The bill’s sponsors have played the violin with that number in their bid to stop “western decadence”, real or imagined, in Ghanaian society. But their bill will do far more than that.
If passed, it will not only make non-cisgender orientations and identities criminal. It will also, directly and indirectly, curtail a range of rights, including speech, thought, association, and privacy for queer Ghanaians and their allies. It recalls the Dark Ages in the false choice it gives those accused under it between “recanting” and submitting to conversion therapy under non-state actors, or facing state prosecution, as noted by some eminent Ghanaians in a memo to the house.
In essence, the bill will chill free expression across national life, make queer Ghanaians second-class citizens, and legalise cruelty towards them.
It is also an attempt to topple Ghana’s constitutional rights framework.
Ghanaians have traditionally fought back against legislation that accumulates unnecessary power in the government and undercuts due process. The Preventive Detention Act of 1958, the “Spy Bill” of 2015, the Public Universities Bill of 2019, and the Imposition of Restrictions Act of 2020 met public resistance.
But a religious framing and ahistorical claims about the country’s culture have swayed public opinion this time in favour of a bill that will ruin the foundation of democracy in Ghana: the constitutional guarantees of equality and individual liberty.
Constitutional democracy, by design, is fragile. Equality, liberty, and justice anchored on the rule of law rely on people’s willingness to accept limitations for the sake of others. It crumbles when some realise they can afford to be intolerant or uncompromising.
In Plato’s dialogues, the legendary Socrates is skeptical about democracy for that reason. Governance by majority consent is betting that most people will make better choices. But majorities can be, misguided as former US president Theodore Roosevelt notably quipped: “It may be that the ‘voice of the people is the voice of God’ in 51 cases out of a hundred; but in the remaining 49 it is quite as likely to be the voice of the devil or, what is still worse, the fool.”
And majorities are susceptible to demagogues, too. What Socrates feared about democracy ultimately ended his life. Like Jesus Christ, he was tried and executed for holding views contrary to powerful interests and public opinion.
Similarly, the Anti-LGBTQI+ Bill places Ghana’s civic commitments to equality and liberty in the crosshairs of popular opinion backed by a strong religious and political coalition.
If the bill prevails, it will empower the government and license busybodies to invade the private lives of Ghanaians in a way that harks back to the country’s authoritarian past. But instead of rolling back progress in Ghana’s democracy, parliament can reaffirm that by design, informed by experience, the human rights protections under the constitution protect everyone, even those on the margins of society.
A bill of rights for all
Ghana’s constitution shares a common premise with democracies everywhere: that, owing to our inability to pronounce on the nature and content of justice for all time, and our skepticism that government actors will always do justice, they must be bound by an objectively discernible predetermined set of restraints.
Without a bill of rights to protect the individual from the state and mobs, there can be no democracy. That is why the bill of rights itself is protected from the majority in Ghana’s constitution.
After Socrates was killed in 399 BC, his student, Plato, became even more cynical about democracy. He writes in The Republic about how democracy often leads back to tyranny. He notes that it is not only because the people sometimes miscalculate what is best for them. It is also because gatekeepers of democratic institutions sacrifice institutional integrity to aid them.
As parliament considers whether to honour the wishes of the majority, even though that would undermine the promise of democracy in Ghana, the message from dead democracies across millennia is loud and clear: Don’t do it. – The Conversation
- Victor Nsoh Azure is a legal and policy analyst from Ghana, and a member of the African Liberty Project