The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will ‘Ghana First’ protests threaten a U.S military agreement?

A man walks past political campaign flags in Accra, Ghana, in 2016, the year of the country’s last presidential election. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)

A new agreement between the U.S. military and Ghana prompted “Ghana First” rallies last week in the capital city of Accra. The agreement updates the 1998 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The U.S. is providing an estimated $20 million in training and equipment to the Ghanaian military in 2018.

Protesters voiced their concerns that the agreement compromises Ghana’s sovereignty. It outlines parameters for U.S. access to certain facilities in Ghana — a shift that some interpret as a U.S. effort to establish a military base on Ghanaian soil. The U.S. and Ghanaian governments have vehemently denied this is the case.

The U.S. periodically renegotiates SOFAs it holds with 100 or more countries. These agreements are designed to protect the rights of U.S military personnel in host countries, but they also detail specifics of the U.S. military presence. The U.S. and Ghana are updating their SOFA to better reflect the current range of bilateral exercises and assistance.

Ghana is one of Africa’s most democratic and economically prosperous countries and has a strong history of U.S. partnership — and the anti-American slogans are a surprising development. The protests in Ghana are even more puzzling when we consider that the U.S. has a stronger military presence in nearby Niger, where recent protests have nothing to do with the U.S. military, in fact.

Niger’s protests are ramping up. Here’s why.

What’s going on in Ghana, then? To understand the SOFA controversy, we need to look at domestic political forces at work.

In other words, it’s all about internal politics

The Ghana First Patriotic Front (GFPF) is the group behind the protests — with the support of the main opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC). When the SOFA came before Ghana’s parliament for ratification on March 23, NDC members politicized the agreement by walking out, leaving only the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) members to vote on its passage.

In subsequent days, NDC leaders denounced the agreement. One NDC senior official went so far as to suggest the possibility of a coup, which has led to his arrest on charges of treason.

The NPP and NDC are Ghana’s two main political parties. Both are well-organized, with strong roots in society. In many other African countries, parties are centered on particular candidates and typically disappear or reinvent themselves during the periods between elections. In Ghana, however, the opposition remains active in monitoring incumbents and mobilizing citizens in nonelection years.

What will Ghanaians expect from their new president?

This means that Ghana’s protests often involve political parties. According to the Social Conflict Analysis Database, which tracks all protest events across the continent, political parties led 24 percent of all demonstrations, riots and strikes in Ghana between 2000 and 2016, compared with an average of only 11 percent across sub-Saharan Africa (based on author calculations). In 2015, for example, the then-opposition NPP led large demonstrations to protest the country’s erratic electricity supply.

Mobilizing around the U.S.-Ghana agreement

Typically, protests in Africa take place because of economic grievances or demands for major political change. In Ghana, where opposition parties often lead these protests, the movements reflect a political calculus that seeks to damage the ruling party and bolster the opposition’s reputation, even if it does not result in immediate policy or political change.

Here’s the political science behind this. African voters, as recent research from Zambia and Ghana shows, tend to evaluate political candidates based on their ability to deliver once in office. Parties respond to these “evaluative” voters by trying to establish their credibility as the leaders who can best provide public goods and services. This leads parties to adopt policy platforms that are easily implemented — and that tie clearly to executive action by the ruling party.

This political calculus is evident in the recent protests in Ghana. Much of the protesters’ rhetoric is not explicitly anti-American. Instead, the goal is to damage the ruling party’s credibility by criticizing the government’s decision to accept the agreement, noting specifically that the NPP has “sold Ghana” to the Americans for $20 million — too low of a price.

The SOFA controversy also allows the opposition NDC to bolster its credibility by promising to change the agreement if it wins the 2020 election. With this political calculus in mind, it’s not so surprising that the NDC has decided to mobilize around the U.S.-Ghana agreement.

Will there be more protests about the U.S. military presence?

One question is whether the controversy surrounding the U.S. military presence is likely to continue in Ghana, or even spread to neighboring countries. Ghana’s history at the forefront of anti-colonial struggles means that this issue may resonate with many Ghanaians. But the implementation of the agreement is not likely to have a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of most Ghanaians, making it unlikely that the NDC would be able to sustain attention to this issue in the weeks and months ahead.

9 things you should know about Ghana’s election

Because few West African countries have stable opposition parties like Ghana’s, there is little reason to believe that similar, politically charged anti-U.S. military protests would occur. That said, political protests have transcended West African borders in the past. Given the increasingly high profile of U.S. military actions in the region, we should not completely rule out the potential for diffusion.

Rachel Sigman is assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Her research focuses on African politics, democracy, state building and development.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.