In the past, groups of people were able to go to the seat of the Presidency to present petitions. Some were able to present their petitions to the Speaker on the premises of Parliament. Others had gone as far as to present their petitions to or lodge complaints with the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), who is the head of Police Administration in the country.
So what do we, as a nation, lose if a group is allowed to present a petition to the Electoral Commissioner (EC), on a matter which is already in the public domain and which had caught the attention of the international community? To me, we have not lost anything but have everything to gain by proving to the rest of the world that we are not paying lip-service to our democracy.
I raise these questions in reference to last Wednesday’s bloody clash which erupted between the police and a group that was going to present a petition to the EC on the subject of a new voters register for the 2016 general election.
I believe this exercise could have gone on without incident to attract the attention of even those in Accra. But we ended up painting a poor and horrible image of ourselves before the international community, which we are always trying to convince that we have come of age in our democratic journey.
Sometimes we make mountains out of mole hills or see a mighty ocean where there is not even a stream. We have come a long way from the days when demonstrations, were at the behest of the police, who must grant permission for the event.
What we must also realise is that the fundamental freedoms and rights granted by the 1992 Constitution, which include freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble and participate in processions and demonstrations, are not just inalienable rights but also an acknowledgement of the fact that these are natural phenomena that cannot be suppressed forever and which must be recognised in any social order.
Emotions or human feelings are like water. They will find their own level in the long run. That is why in every democracy, the citizens are encouraged to express themselves through decent and approved channels so that they do not boil up and explode with devastating consequences.
There is nothing like absolute freedom and nobody was expecting to wake up one morning to see groups of people moving in different directions all claiming to be exercising their right to demonstrate. That would definitely be a recipe for chaos and anarchy.
The first parliament of the Fourth Republic took cognisance of this fact by enacting the Public Order Act (Act 491) of 1994 to define the frontiers of Article 21, Clause 1(d), so that the citizens, in exercising their rights, do not stray into the path of others or create any chaotic situation.
The police, under the Public Order Act (Act 491) were to act as impartial referees to ensure that the right and freedom to demonstrate was not abused. The act was also framed in such a manner as to not give the police absolute power so as to take away from the citizens their right to demonstrate, at least so we thought.
That was why the act did not give the police the power to grant permits. The act requires that any individual or group desiring to demonstrate will give a five-day notification to the police in writing.
The act also requires in Section 1(4) that “where the police officer notified of a special event under subsection (1) has reasonable grounds to believe that the special event, if held, may lead to violence or endanger the public defence, public order, public safety, public health or the running of essential services or violate the rights and freedoms of other persons, he may request the organisers to postpone the special event to any other date to relocate the special event.”
This is the section that has given the police the strength to determine whether a demonstration should take place or not and further determine where, when and how it should be held. Surely this has taken away from citizens their right to demonstrate as enshrined in Article 21, Clause 1(d) and given the police unassailable powers to put forward any excuse to undermine the right to demonstrate.
The courts are the last resort for the police and organisers to go and argue