Ghana Peace Journal continues with our contribution towards sanitizing security provision for electoral processes in Ghana, we serialize an expertly written and well researched article on the topic of political vigilantism in Ghana.

The write-up was presented as Thesis of a Masters Program in Security Studies, to one of the renowned universities in Africa.
We hope that this read gets to the appropriate offices and serves a good input into the national attempt for a lasting peace to our electioneering.


By Paa Nana

Since the 1980s, the phenomenon of vigilante and vigilantism have been widely studied through an analysis of the rise of crime and insecurity, the involvement of local groups in political conflicts and, in a more general framework of a possible decline of law enforcement in state agencies.

Inspite of the fact that vigilante and vigilantism have acquired a renewed interest particularly in the African literature, there is as yet no scholarly consensus on what exactly vigilantism is, especially as regard the nature of its relationship with the state and the word has been used to describe movements of a different nature and compositions across the world, with Africa being no exception.

One can cite examples such as white farmers in the 1910s and the 1920s Orange Free state in South Africa, anti-thieves and anti-witches organizations in Bugisu District in Uganda in the 1960s, anti-cattle raiding movements in Tanzania in the 1980s and 1990s, state sponsored groups fighting ANC members in the 1980s South Africa, or political militia with an ethnocentric and strong religious agenda such as the Mungiki in Nairobi or the Oodua People‟s Congress (OPC) in South-western Nigerian cities today, are all examples of vigilantes and vigilantism.

In any case, vigilante groups interrogate the relationships between the society and law enforcement agents, the issue being whether such groups are tolerated or even supported by the police or if they are forbidden, because they are considered to be a threat to the state monopoly of legitimate violence.

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in using community organizations as vehicles, to control conventional crime and has primarily developed as a result of three factors: 1. the effect of the fiscal crisis of the state on police department budgets, and the interests of the police in passing of nuisance-type crimes (disturbance calls, domestic problems, etc) that interfere with more important‟ police work”; 2. the increased interest of the police in using the “eyes and ears” of residents to aid them in serving as a deterrent both by reducing the opportunities for crime and by increasing the certainty of responding to crime; and 3. the presence of community organizations.

Today, community policing groups are called different names like the neighbourhood watch, vigilante, and community integration among others.

Over the years, it has become public opinion that police is corrupt especially in African countries. However, the degree differs according to the guiding or regulatory laws from one country to the other and this has also been described as a major bane of police efficiency.

Police corruption is not an individual irregularity of an incidental nature that can be readily combated with temporary, severe measures, therefore, the emergence and acceptance of vigilante groups or community crime prevention groups, becomes a must because they are fulfilling a social need of a community.
The “Positive Side” of Vigilantism

Another popular way by which police is involved in neighbourhood policing is through vigilantism, especially when they are efficiently regulated by the police, for vigilantism, has assisted many countries in complimenting the work of the police in crime control and/or prevention.

Vigilantism does not always denote something illegal or violent, it has positive sides when well regulated by the law enforcement agencies. When allowed to operate without regulation, they tend to foment violence and trouble within society.

Vigilantism has been a label placed on so many different situations over the centuries that no precise definition can capture all its elements, and arguments necessarily arise over the appropriateness of classifying some group or event as an example of vigilantism and the essential defining components of vigilantism are that it incorporates the following: 1) A social reaction to crime; 2) A response that involves violence that exceeds the legitimate use of force in self-defense actions taken by civilians (whether as individuals, or as members of clandestine groups, massive crowds, or magnitude movements) as opposed to government officials;

Thirdly, an intent to dispense discipline and pain in order to retaliate a previous wrong or to deter future misconduct or to disable dangerous persons; 4) A feeling that the resort to force is necessary and justifiable because government agents cannot or will not provide protection or enforce the law; 5) and a recognition that the countermeasures undertaken are illegal, since governments maintain a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in the form of police and military action.

Questions that arise out of the list of characteristics pertaining to the definition of vigilantism is, does the positive effects of vigilantism outweigh its negative effects?  What are its implications for a nation’s security, if not well regulated by governments?  How does its activities affect the image, operations and administrative authority of law enforcement agencies?

It is the responsibility of the state to create a regulation policy for these groups to operate within, if they would be allowed to exist, because the average man coming from a background where the perception is that the police is corrupt and not likely to be just, would resort to a vigilante group to seek justice.

There are other situations where this same vigilante groups have perpetrated crime and violence against the less privileged in society, such as victimizing the innocent, the defenseless and caused chaos and disorder in order to have their way.

The positives and the negatives of vigilante groups cannot be overlooked, but an effective law enforcement mechanism is what a state needs to create security and justice for its citizens.

Gated communities, the mushrooming of private security and military companies – these are all aspects of vigilantism and can be seen as an activity that is performed by social groups that attempt to enhance the security of their communities, for it is a reaction to the perceived outgrowth of deviance.

This perception is also fuelled by the lack of reaction from the institutions of the state that are legitimately supposed to curb crime, such as the police, the judiciary system, border guards and so forth and so on. In this respect, vigilantism is an autonomous activity that does not require the support of the state and can be directed against the institutions of the state, insofar as they uphold or cannot control a perceived climate of deviance and crime.
Vigilantism and Security

Vigilantism as a security phenomenon runs in parallel to the state’s security apparatuses, as such, the actors that perform vigilante security, have to negotiate their position in relation to the state’s monopoly on violence and security.  The first possible explanation of vigilantism is that it appears as a reaction to a security vacuum left by the state. This vacuum is translated in the lack of protection, justice and safety from the competent authorities of the state.

The state, in this respect, should be conceived of as a social relation that crystallizes the balance of the dominant forces in a society, thus, rather than being only a set of administrative institutions that govern through technocratic mechanisms, the state can be taught to incorporate the hegemonic discourses, practices and groups within a society.

The inability of these state apparatuses to uphold the law and deliver justice to the neo-liberal policies, entail the withdrawal of the state from certain segments of service provision, including security and during this current stage of globalization, the withdrawal is seen as a solution to the destabilizing forces of the global markets.

States choose the strategy of cutting back on spending in key sectors, in order to create incentives for direct investment and this leads to the privatization and outsourcing of security to private agents such as security companies, which in turn leads to an unequal supply of security, based on the ability to acquire services.
The Electoral Process and Vigilantism in Ghana 

In Ghana, violence is evident in all three phases of the electoral process (before, during and after voting), often giving rise to heightened tension across the country. These acts of violence are usually typified by threats and intimidation; physical assault of voters, electoral officials and supporters of rival parties; burning and looting of property; seizure of ballot boxes by ‘macho men’ and unemployed youth; and direct clashes between opposing local party supporters.

For instance, violence during the 2008 elections began during the registration of voters, the first major exercise ahead of the elections. A simple and practical exercise that should normally pose no problem was characterized by acts of vandalism and attacks on party agents, journalists and ordinary civilians along with clashes between supporters of the NDC and NPP, mostly in the Northern, Volta and

Ashanti regions.  In the Northern Region, in particular, there were instances of sporadic gunshots as supporters of the NPP and NDC vandalized registration centres in protest over the integrity of the registration exercise.

As voting day drew closer, so did violence escalate with attacks and reprisal attacks mostly by NPP and NDC supporters, often involving unemployed youth and ‘macho men’ (muscular men).

The major vigilante groups identified are the Azorka Boys and The Hawks, who are affiliated to the NDC and the Bamba Boys, Kandahar Boys, Bolgatanga Bulldogs and Invincible Forces, affiliated to the NPP. These groups continue to carry out election-related violence especially during keenly contested elections.

A recent Afro-barometer survey reported that a majority (81 percent) of Ghanaians agreed that some of the activities of party foot soldiers/vigilante groups have the potential to derail the country’s democratic development, thus, it is obvious that, vigilante groups’ mode of party activism violates the norms of liberal democracy and creates insecurity in society.

In some cases, particularly in northern Ghana, the elections provide the opportunity for groups to express other grievances, mostly relating to land and chieftaincy.

A study conducted by the Centre for Democratic Development in 2008 observed that: ‘the most serious threat of violence occurred in the Tolon constituency. A chieftaincy conflict, with political undertones, was brewing in the area’ [and that] ‘a known sympathizer of an opposition party, was suspected to be trying to install two sub-chiefs in two villages noted to be strongholds of the ruling party (Kpalsogu and Golinga) in the Tolon-Kumbungu District.’ There were also spontaneous clashes between the two leading political parties.

In August 2008, for example, a political rally organized by the NPP was brought to an abrupt end following a shooting incident believed to have been orchestrated by members of a rival party. As noted already, both the NPP and the NDC were guilty of criminal electoral behaviour.

The police at a point had to impose a 12-hour curfew in the Northern region together with the deployment of joint military police patrols in order to bring the escalating violence under control. There were also violent clashes in the Volta, Ashanti, and Greater Accra regions, though not to the scale witnessed in the three northern regions of Ghana.

During the 2008 elections in Ghana, a major threat to peace on election day was posed by the attempts of some disgruntled individuals in some parts of the country to snatch ballot boxes during or just after voting (Daily Guide, December 2008; Ghana News Agency, December 2008). There were also allegations of vote rigging, especially in the Volta and Ashanti regions.  Allegations of vote rigging nearly plunged the country into turmoil after the announcement of official results by the Electoral Commission (EC) was postponed several times.

These postponements prompted scores of party supporters of both leading parties to gather near the EC Headquarters threatening to attack the facility on successive days. Although Ghana’s 2008 elections managed to deliver a winner in the person of Professor John Atta-Mills, and even though the election was widely hailed by the EC and major international stakeholders as free, fair and transparent, the level of violence that marked the process clearly showed that Ghana is not out of the woods yet, as the Commonwealth Observer Group would report.

Acts of violence also characterized the 2012 biometric registration exercise in certain parts of Ghana, which called for the need to revisit the entire electoral security architecture and the issue of political vigilantism. The resort to election-based violence and other illicit electoral behaviour, such as vote rigging, registration of minors, ballot snatching, defacing of posters, bribery and multiple registration invariably spell trouble for the survival of any democracy.

This is particularly the case in contexts that are characterized by weak and unresponsive institutions and while the threats it poses to life and limb are menacing enough, electoral violence also corrodes the very foundation of democracy, the idea that government ought to operate by the consent of the governed. In other words, force and fraud, rather than freedom of choice, become the ultimate decider of who rules when institutions degenerate.

Such developments can breed voter apathy or, in the worst-case scenario, result in all-out armed violence, if electoral outcomes persistently fail to reflect popular will.
To be continued.


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