17.08.2006 Feature Article

Social Justice in Contemporary Politics of Ghana

Social Justice in Contemporary Politics of Ghana
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For if I do not know what justice is I am scarcely likely to find out whether it is an excellence, and whether its possessor is happy or not happy. Plato: The Republic, 354C


The very meaning of the concept of Social Justice remains elusive and problematic. The quotation above by the great Greek philosopher and thinker, Plato, demonstrates the difficulty of even defining the concept of justice. The Austrian born British economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek is one of leading writers on social justice in modern times. Hayek argues that “whole books and treatises have been written about social justice without offering a definition of it”. Michael Novak, the American conservative Catholic philosopher and diplomat states: “I have never encountered a writer, religious or philosophical, who directly answers Hayek's criticisms” on the concept of social justice. The first to use the term “social justice” was the Sicilian Jesuit Priest, Luigi Taparelli d'Azeglio, and given prominence by the Italian philosopher Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. It therefore started as a religious concept but the English liberal economist and political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, gave it an anthropomorphic approach in his writing on Utilitarianism.


In an attempt to find a definition for the concept we will start at what 'justice' means. In “The Republic” Plato considers justice as “to render to each their due”. The contention still remains as to what political thinkers, sociologists and philosophers consider as “social justice”. Prof. Antony Flew, the British philosopher quotes Hayek as being convinced that “the people who habitually employ the phrase simply do not know themselves what they mean by it, and just use it as an assertion that a claim is justified without giving a reason for it”. Indeed Hayek contends that the concept “is allowed to float in the air as if everyone will recognize an instance of it when it appears”. Hayek identifies another defect in the application of the concept whereby most authors employ “social injustice” as a perception of unfairness of the society in its divisions of rewards and burdens. He states that they use the concept “to designate a virtue (a moral virtue, by their account)” thereby employing conditions of impersonal state of affairs such as 'high unemployment', 'inequality of incomes' or 'lack of living wage' to describe what constitutes social injustice.

The concept of social justice has come to represent the application of justice to an entire society. It can be seen as a reflection on the way by which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society. For the purpose of this piece the working definition for social justice would be regarded as moving towards the realisation of a world where all members of a society, regardless of background have basic human rights and equal access to their community's roles, wealth and resources. It is both a philosophical subject and a political issue. It is argued that everyone wishes to live in a just society. However different political ideologies hold different conceptions of what actually represents a “just society”. Left-wing ideology holders contend the present day society is highly unjust whereas those on the right-wing believe that the present day society is already just. Social justice is deemed to be at the core of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights which asserts that: “human rights are based on respect for the dignity and worth of all human beings and seek to ensure freedom from fear and want”. This declaration stems from a series of principles enunciated by H.G. Wells and his friends.

Another major problem associated with the concept is the derivation of its authority from the codes of morality prevailing in each culture. Moral and ethical codes hardly lend themselves to easy reference and interpretation unlike codified laws. As Michael Novak noted the concept has become a term of art whose operational meaning is, “we need a law against that”. The concept has become an instrument of “ideological intimidation” for the purpose of gaining the power of legal coercion. John Rawls, the Harvard based American philosopher, states in his book “A Theory of Justice”, and (1971) that “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.” It is therefore wrong (unjust) to sacrifice the rights of one individual ostensibly 'for the good of the whole society'. The concept holds social, economic, legal, political and other connotations. For instance the Ontario, Canada based Centre for Social Justice declares itself as a “progressive think-tank that campaigns to narrow gap between rich and poor and reduce corporate domination”. The organisation further claims to advocate for greater equality and democracy. The right wing conservative Centre for Social Justice of Britain however believes: “Methods of the past, Community entrepreneurs are overcoming social challenges that are defeating the agencies of the state. The war on poverty can be won if government gets off the back of the armies of compassion and helps them to succeed.” These ideologically and diametrically opposed groups all seem to be fighting for social justice with different set of tools.


The writing of this piece was inspired by contributions by D.Z. Asigri to an earlier write-up of yours truly on the title “Putting Intellectualism in Our Politics”. To begin with I considered Mr. Asigri's contributions as some of the most insightful and intellectually stimulating. However it was obvious we did not share the same political and ideological beliefs, notwithstanding our mutual respect for each other. In a comment he states that: “My reason for choosing the term 'social justice' is that our struggle for democracy is not over. Terms like 'equality' or 'equal opportunities' may be reborn at a later date. For now, their devaluation is a reality that needs to be acknowledged.” Unless my understanding of Mr. Asigri's comments is wrong he may subscribe to the leftist ideological belief that the “present society is highly unjust”. His belief that the concepts of 'equality' and 'equal opportunities' have been devalued under the present regime belies his call for their acknowledgement. It is unquestionable that democracy as a principle is an unending process, not unlike most human institutions. It continuously goes through processes of change and evolves to suit current conditions.

Mr. Asigri introduces the important element of political “power” in the quest for social justice. He rightly contends that power can be used for “good or ill”. The importance of the power holder in the application of social justice cannot be underestimated. Power in sociological terms implies the ability to impose one's will on others. In politics, power holders are deemed to have the ability to influence the behaviour of others, with or without resistance. The contention of Mr. Asigri lends itself to serious scrutiny in our understanding of the concept of “social justice” in the context of contemporary Ghanaian situation. Of further interest is his reference to the concepts of “rule of law” and “rational techniques of government” in the country. His views are obviously influenced by the teachings of John Stuart Mill and the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Indeed the former in his work Utilitarianism states that:

Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge.

However, such a condition can only exist in an environment where the whole society can be as virtuous in the same way that individuals can be. Michael Novak maintains such a condition can exist only “in highly personalised societies of the ancient type … under kings, tyrants, or tribal chiefs.” This is so because it is only in such social settings that one person is responsible for making all the crucial decisions. The irony is that the concept of social justice is relatively new. It has emerged in modern times in with more complex societies which operate by impersonal rules applied to all under the rule of law. A major flaw of this argument is its supposition that people are guided by specific external directions rather than internalised, personal rules of just conduct. This stems from the communist/socialist paradigm espoused by the Marxist Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski that: “you suffer, your suffering is caused by powerful others; these oppressors must be destroyed”. This rings a 'revolutionary' bell about our situation in Ghana and strongly confirms my position of Mr. Asigri belonging to this school of thought. The period under consideration for this piece has been limited to the era from Dr. Kwame Nkrumah's leadership of the country to the present. This discussion would be centred on the Nkrumaist traditions of governance, the Rawlings' era and the Danquah/Busia politics. The military governments of Generals Ankrah, Afrifa, Acheampong and Akuffo have been excluded from this discussion for lack of information on their take on the concept.


The first President of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah is among the first to employ the concept in the context of the Ghanaian political situation. He refers to the concept in his work Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, 1965. Social justice was at the core of the beliefs of the Convention Peoples' Party (CPP) he formed and led. The party was started as a vehicle of emancipation of the nation and the whole of Africa. The party proclaims non-distinctions and believes that the state must ensure that all people are given “equal opportunity to develop themselves before any tribal consideration” and that the state must be “committed to solidarity in the poor”. The party's conviction is underlined by the statement that: “you cannot have a nation that is half marginalised and half affluent”. This belief of Dr. Nkrumah led his government into taking major steps towards lifting the country out of poverty through the creation of a welfare system. The state was the main provider of many essential services. Developmental projects in the form of water, health and roads were constructed in all parts of the country. Community programmes were commenced and schools established throughout the country.

The philosophy was by and large continued by the President Hilla Limann led Peoples' National Party (PNP) government which takes its root from Dr. Nkrumah's CPP. Whilst not following to the letter the brand of socialism of Dr. Nkrumah, Dr. Limann's government was a moderate socialist with strong pan-African leanings. The government's social justice concept was spelt in its belief in the socio-economic system in which property and the distribution of wealth are subject to social control. Notwithstanding this the government remained pro-business in the pursuit of its policies. They pursued liberal centrist economic and social policies throughout its life. This was however considered more as a result of the exigencies of the time than a shift towards market economy.

On the question of human right, democracy and political pluralism Dr Nkrumah's government may be found wanting. I have submitted in earlier writings that the human rights records and the democratic credentials of the CPP government remains blemished. This arises out of its use of the Preventive Detention Act (PDA) to imprison political opponents without trial, turning the country into a one-party state and declaring Dr. Nkrumah as Life President. These acts fly in the face of John Rawls' viewpoint that “justice denies the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others”. The society cannot be deemed as socially just if the basic rights of sections were taken away on the altar of political expedience. Notwithstanding these the economic and social achievements of the Nkrumaist governments, particularly the CPP government led by Dr. Nkrumah, arguably remains unsurpassed. Further the PNP government of President Limann did not repeat many of the political mistakes of the CPP government.


It has always been the contention of yours truly not to lump together the military and civilian rule of Flt. Lt. J.J. Rawlings. The two eras are separate and markedly different in many respects. Any attempt to mix them together would be most unfair. However, by and large, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) and National Democratic Congress governments share virtually the same ideological beliefs and pursued similar policies. The leader of 'the Revolution', then Chairman Rawlings, claimed to have no political or economic ideology. However, key members of his governments have included Marxists and socialists. Paa Kwesi Plange, a journalist and a columnist on the in his piece entitled “The NDC's Social Justice Agenda -Part I” opines that: “It is no secret that Ghana's largest opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) has both its political and economic antecedents in the socialist agenda of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.” It is therefore not surprising when Flt. Lt. Rawlings is deemed to have popularised the concept of “social justice” in the political lexicon of Ghana. The PNDC government in line with its socialist beliefs formed pseudo-military groups including the Peoples' Militia and the Peoples' Defence Committees. The state-owned newspaper the Daily Graphic was christened People's Daily Graphic and employed as a propaganda tool of the 'revolution' to reflect the socialist outlook of the government. Mr. Asigri in another contribution contends that:

The key to social justice lies in power which also can be used for good or ill, and needs to be used in articulation with rules of law, or rational techniques of government and of ethos, of practice of self and freedom as French Philosopher Michel Foucault has pointed out. It is worth giving credit to Rawlings regime of truth in search of social justice for the country as a whole. 'Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power'. Perhaps these are some of the ideologies that govern the principles of social justice said to be lacking in our society to date.

By and large yours truly accepts the above principle but not its application here. Further, the concept of truth, or “integrity”, a common mantra of President Rawlings, is a subject to be considered in a future write-up. But when supporters of President Rawlings claim he stands for the “truth” the question I pose is: 'Whose truth?' I have been careful to separate the PNDC government from the NDC government for obvious reason. To restate, the PNDC came into power under the cloak of an illegal coup which overthrew the constitutionally mandated government of Dr. Hilla Limann. On the political and social front the government ruled against the expressed will of the people, many human rights abuses and politically motivated murders occurred, freedoms of expression, association and movement were denied. Wealthy individuals were accused of committing “crimes against the people” and “acts intended to sabotage the economy”. The court system, also labelled “Peoples' Tribunal”, was manned by judges sympathetic to the regime and individuals of doubtful legal background. On the economic front, the poverty reduction expected of the World Bank/International Monetary Fund imposed Economic Recovery Programmes (ERPs) and Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) were never fully realised. The curfew imposed throughout the country for a number of years destroyed the 'night economy' on which many poor households depended. The entertainment industry was the hardest hit and many musicians never recovered from their economic difficulties. Notwithstanding, all these some modest gains were chalked by the PNDC government in the economy. Economic development was carried out throughout the country without discrimination to any group.

To a great extent and almost in a complete turnaround, the NDC differed almost entirely from its PNDC counterpart. Without a doubt the personnel and ideological beliefs remained almost the same but the system of governance completely changed. The NDC government was a legitimate constitutionally elected government which respected personal freedoms and the rule of law. The government generally respected the principles of democracy and allowed the legislature, judiciary and the press to perform its functions without any noticeable hindrances. The concept of social justice as a political slogan was greatly silent during the NDC era. However since the 2000 elections, many leaders of the party have tried to reposition the party by adopting political ideologies and concepts which include “social democracy” and “social justice” as its core values. The new projection has also tacitly received the support of the Kwesi Pratt led Socialist Forum through the Committee for Joint Action (CJA). Some critics have questioned the collaboration considering the Forum's criticisms of the activities of the Breton Woods institutions. However this needs not be since Dr. Nkrumah's CPP government were the first to start a relationship with the two institutions.


The present New Patriotic Party government led by President John Agyekum Kufuor takes its root from the United Gold Coast Convention, the Progress Party, the United Party and the Popular Front Party. The grouping proclaims its belief in the principles of property owning democracy with a common tune of “creating wealth to reduce poverty” with the “private sector as the engine of growth”. It is often considered capitalist and the party's recent flirtation with the Democratic Unionists of Africa sets it out as a centre right party. The grouping on ideological grounds hardly ever employ social justice as a political agenda. However viewed against its political ideologies and its governmental policies, the NPP government and its predecessors have pursued their own brand of social justice. The tradition believes that good governance, respect for rule of law and the rights of the individual are all ingredients of social justice. As espoused by the British based Centre for Social Justice, private entrepreneurship rather than the state remains the cornerstone for creating jobs and wealth which would eventually lead to the demise of poverty, and not perpetuate it. The privatisation policies they have pursued could be due more to IMF/WB prescriptions than to their capitalist beliefs. Such policies are no different from those pursued by the PNDC/NDC governments. It is not any wonder the only true socialist, Dr. Yao Graham and his Integrated Social Development Centre (ISODEC), Ghana, has been one of the few credible opponents to the government's water privatisation project.

At a closer look, however, the policies of the Danquah/Busia/Kufuor governments are characterised by a liberal centrist outlook. Whereas they do not deviate entirely from their belief in capitalist market economy, they pursue welfare policies that are commonly associated with socialist oriented governments. Typical examples of such policies include the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), the Capitation Grant and primary school feeding programme, and the Metro Mass Transport (which also offers free ride to school pupils).


Social Justice as a political concept does not seem to be definitive but rather descriptive. Philosophers, sociologists and political scientists do not seem to have or agree on any definition for the concept. Although socialist oriented groups often lay claim to the concept as their preserve, capitalist, conservative and right leaning groups also assert their belief in the concept. The essential ingredients of the concept include democracy, rule of law, respect for individual right, equal rights and opportunities for all regardless of class, race, ethnic or creed.

The question is whether the concept is realisable or remains utopian. In Ghana, many proponents of the concept tend to consider it more from the point of poverty, equal opportunities, living wage and corruption. The quotation below is a comment on an earlier write-up by an anonymous contributor who writes under the pen name of “Ma Oman Yi Ho Nhia Wo” which literary means “let the nation be important to you” or “let the nation concern you”. He opines that:

The progressivism Ghana seeks to achieve today shall not be understood in the language of a defunct revolutionary class struggle. The emerging generation of change-making Ghanaians will seek to create an egalitarian paradigm of economic empowerment through national and citizen self-responsibility: the blame-shifting weapons of the past have not taken our nation anywhere. A realist worldview of politics will continue to inform the national decision-making process. Hard work, results and constructive engagement are the ingredients this nation needs.
I found the contributions as significant as his/her chosen pen name. The view above largely succinctly captures my personal take on the concept of social justice. The only suggestion I would like to make to the above is to substitute “will continue to” with “should” in the penultimate sentence of the quote. I do sincerely hope all my good net friends would congregate and present their views on this 'controversial' subject.

God bless Ghana.

Kofi Nyame
Thornton Heath,

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