28 October 2021

Ghana’s Transitional Justice Project

A recent PhD thesis in International History assesses Ghana’s long road to democratisation through contests over human rights ideas. For Frank Afari, the transitional justice project in the country was the climax of a struggle to establish and defend African rights at the national scale under colonialism, within the postcolony and within Ghana’s place in the international sphere.

How did you choose your research topic – Ghana’s transitional justice project?

My choice of topic was serendipitous. Over a decade ago while I was pursuing graduate studies at the University of Ghana, I interned as a part-time research assistant with the National Peace Council (NPC) or the “Peace Council” as it is popularly called, which is a statutory body mandated to resolve sporadic conflicts and build peace in the country. While assisting its field staff with rudimentary duties in conflict-ridden communities and flashpoints noted for recurrent reprisals, I encountered at first hand the gruesome violence, destructions of lives and property emanating from interethnic clashes and disputes over land, chieftaincy succession, mining issues, and partisan politics. As a student of history, I discovered that most of these conflicts had long historical roots which required probing in order to understand trends, patterns and manifestations of their contemporary reprisals. These encounters sparked my search for a window into historical injustices and human rights in Ghana since independence in 1957. The “aha moment”, however, came when I discovered that a truth commission, the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), which was established in 2002 to inquire into politically motivated human rights violations associated with erstwhile governments and to promote national reconciliation, provided a better prism to understand this past. Unlike the Peace Council, the NRC became the first official, statewide attempt to probe the systemic human rights violations of the past by engaging victims, survivors, witnesses and perpetrators in a series of televised public hearings with the goal of promoting national reconciliation. This type of enquiry into past wrongs, which scholars have termed as “transitional justice”, did more than just attempt to “reconcile” the nation. It exhumed the country’s unsavoury and turbulent past – a past which had been obscured both by the mechanisms of silencing and forgetting that occurred under past repressive governments and by the country’s growing image as a hub of democracy in West Africa. The scale of horrific revelations of past injustices unearthed by the commission’s hearings caught my attention. I knew then that I had discovered a topic of personal interest. I began to read around it and later drafted a PhD proposal by which I applied to the Institute.

Can you describe your research questions and methodology?

The central questions which this thesis sought to answer are: “What patterns, causes and types of violations inspired the establishment of the NRC and how have they inspired the course of human rights in Ghana?” For years, answers to those questions have traditionally been bedevilled by litanies of state-sanctioned human violations – tales of arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial, murders, abductions, tortures and confiscations – often touted as scholarly analyses. Regrettably, these “analyses” have been bereft of attention to the regime-dependent and context-specific political ideologies and constructions of legality that engendered the perpetration of human rights violations by those in power, both military and civilian. My thesis therefore examines the political mechanisms behind human rights development and is also a reconsideration of past political transitions in Ghana leading eventually to the formation of the NRC. It illustrates the roles that rights (and their abuses) have played in shaping legislations and political transitions, constitution-making and constitutional protections as well as laying the foundation for the country’s attempted reconciliation and democracy. To do so, I drew upon archival sources and witnesses’ testimonies generated around Ghana’s truth and reconciliation process. This includes the reports and evidence (documentary and recorded), along with a range of media interviews and reports. These source materials were augmented by some interviews which provided corroboration of key points of argument and discussion. Outside the discipline of history, I drew upon political thought, law, and constitutionalism for theoretical understanding of some key concepts and debates.

What are your major findings?

I find that Ghana’s descent into state-sanctioned human rights violations right after independence in 1957 has roots in the decolonisation struggles of the mid-1950s. A lack of consensus among the local leaders of the decolonisation struggle over their competing visions of political emancipation blighted the run-up to independence. Their rivalries, contentious politics and the sectional demands which they made during negotiations over the transfer of power from the departing British colonial administration consequently trumped over the necessity to secure a constitutional framework for protecting and defending human rights in the newly emergent nation. The lesson here, if any, is that partisan interests ought to always remain secondary to broader statewide priorities and national interests.

Another major finding is that despite the universal importance of transitional justice, human rights in Ghana have been in large part defined by Ghanaians themselves, and fought for by them in numerous struggles over many years past. Human rights are no Western imposition, but must be viewed as an arena of active and strident African agency. This agency can be projected back beyond the origins of transitional justice discourse and situated in several historical moments in Ghana’s past. This of course justifies my historical approach to an understanding of how Ghanaians have asserted their “rights” through political contestation. 

Ghana’s transitional justice project therefore was the climax of a struggle to establish and defend African rights at the national scale under colonialism, within the postcolony and within Ghana’s place in the international sphere. Finally, it must be noted that the development of a global human rights machinery in the late twentieth century had impact upon Africa in general and Ghana in particular. 

What did you discover as a major challenge confronting your research into this sensitive aspect of your country’s past, and what do you intend your contribution to be?

At the archival repository in Ghana which houses the commission’s entire archives containing victims’ and perpetrators’ testimonies, I was given restricted access by the archivists who claimed to be acting upon direct orders by office-holders to treat the documents as confidential. Unlike other repositories where documents open to public access could be photocopied and scanned for academic uses, the archivists at the NRC repository forbade any kind of reproduction. I was only permitted to take notes under the watchful gaze of an archivist assigned to guard me against breaches of that rule. The supposed confidentiality of these documents speaks to the value of the archives as a threat to power. How on earth could hearings which were televised live, excerpts of which remain in private hands and are still accessible via social media, be deemed sensitive to public order and treated as confidential even years after the commission had completed its hearings?

In my view, the ascription of confidentiality to the records of the NRC’s hearings indicate that archives have power. Archives generate unease over their potential utility and therefore they risk becoming the target of what anthropologist and historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot has termed as “an unnecessary restriction of the battleground for historical power.” “Forgetting”, argues historian Ernest Renan, “is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” Yet historical inquiry requires plumbing the archives, which essentially, in the words of Renan, “throws light on the violent acts that have taken place at the origin of every political formation.” My thesis, I hope, would constitute a good example of the judicious use(s) of feared and sensitive sources to construct a fair and balanced assessment of a country’s long road to democratisation through contests over human rights ideas.

What are you doing now?

Currently, I have resumed lecturing at a local university established for training teachers in Ghana where I held a brief appointment prior to starting my studies in Geneva. Alongside that, I have been revisiting and reworking shelved drafts of articles that I got ideas for in the course of my studies but never got to finish. 

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Frank Afari defended his PhD thesis in International History in September 2021. Professor Mohammad-Mahmoud Oud Mohamedou presided the committee, which included Associate Professor Aidan Russell, thesis director, and Professor David Anderson, Department of History, University of Warwick, UK.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Afari, Frank. “Laws of Change: Rights, Transitions and Violence in Postcolonial Ghana.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.
For access, contact Dr Afari at

Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Diego Schtutman/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.