Letter from Africa: Ghanaians learn legalese

An electoral officer checks the voter card of a woman as she arrives to vote at Bole polling station in the northern region in Ghana on 7 December 2012

In our series of letters from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene considers why the lengthy legal challenge in Ghana to the results of December's election is proving a popular courtroom drama.

We are all lawyers now in Ghana.

We use courtroom language in communicating with each other.

We suggest to each other, we put it to each other and we ask each other for further and better particulars.

Start Quote

We are in a lot of unchartered waters and it is doubtful we have ever watched so much television”

End Quote

Children object with the greatest respect to being asked to turn off the television and mothers overrule or sustain the objections as the mood takes them.

After three weeks of live broadcast of hearings at the Supreme Court of an election petition, it is fair to say that Ghana is in the grip of a one-item conversation subject.

Almost five months after we had parliamentary and presidential elections and almost four months after a president was inaugurated, the petition challenging the validity of the election of the president is now being heard at the Supreme Court.

We are in a lot of unchartered waters and it is doubtful we have ever watched so much television.

Television cameras are not normally allowed in Ghanaian courts and to most of us the entire judicial process is shrouded in mystery.

We tend to treat judges, lawyers and courtrooms with a lot of deference, verging on fear.

Traffic jams clear

The live transmission of the Supreme Court proceedings has therefore gripped the public imagination and exploded a few myths.

There have been loud complaints that the live transmissions are wreaking havoc on the economy.

Attorneys outside the Supreme Court in Accra, Ghana (22 April 2013) Ghanaians are learning to use legal language thanks to the Supreme Court petition

I am not sure that it will be allowed as evidence but I have heard it on the radio and read it in the newspapers that there is no work being done in the country as everybody is watching the court proceedings on television or computers or listening on the radio and productivity has ground to zero.

Even Accra's notorious vehicular traffic congestion is reported to have gone down these past three weeks as we all stay glued to our television sets.

Start Quote

When one lawyer stands up in court and refers to "my learned friends"... we are able to decipher that he can barely contain his contempt for them”

End Quote

I can testify that when I walked into a doctor's waiting room in Accra recently, I saw a roomful of people with everybody's eyes hypnotically trained on the television set up in a corner of the room and the slightest cough was met with hostile disapproval.

This is doubtless the greatest show in town and Ghana has never really had anything quite like it.

The courtroom drama is electrifying enough but the stakes are very high and deadly serious.

Having watched the hearings in Kenya that were all wrapped up in a fortnight and before the inauguration of Uhuru Kenyatta as president, some here wonder about the magisterial pace of our hearings.

But our constitution says if the petitioners are successful, the Supreme Court can declare the election of the president invalid - no matter how many months after his election and inauguration; and so we are ploughing on till the court gives its verdict.

In the process of all the bowing and scraping, and the use of arcane language, many myths are being dispelled.

Presidential election results

  • John Dramani Mahama, NDC: 50.70%; 5,574,761 votes
  • Nana Akufo-Addo, NPP: 47.74%; 5,248,898 votes
  • Disputed votes: 1,340,000

When one lawyer stands up in court and refers to "my learned friends", that is, the lawyers on the other side in the case, we are able to decipher that he can barely contain his contempt for them.

He does not believe they are learned, he seems to think they are dunces and they are certainly not his friends.

The rules that have been imposed on the state broadcaster mean that the cameras cannot zoom in on the judges, so we do not see their faces, we can see their outlines and hear their disembodied voices and we know they are in charge because they have the last word and everybody bows to them.

My favourite moment so far has been the star witness turning to the lawyer who was cross-examining him and saying: "Don't shout, counsel."

I never knew you could get away with that in a court.

Believe me, Ghana will never be the same again after this.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


More on This Story

Letter from Africa


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I thought Ghananian presidential election was settled when Mahama was sworn-in. Obviously, the losing candidate Akufo-Addo must have taken his case to Ghana's Supreme Court. While seeking redress through the courts is preferred to street protest/ violence against the opponents, I cannot wait for African politics maturity to when losing candidates concedes and not always mounting a legal challenge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    When you consider the importance of the judicial in everyone's life at some point or another, the topic should be taught in schools. Legalize is not just manner of dress, but matters of the Constitution, Courts and Due Process.
    Regular people should understand & speak up for their rights; "learned friends" may not do it for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.


  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I think the previous comments are missing the important point of this article. The challenge to the election results are being challenged in a more or less properly conducted judicial fashion. Why gripe about wigs and gowns. Would you prefer that they pursued disagreements with the outcome the way we saw in the last couple years in Ivory Coast, or the next to last election in Kenya? Get real!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    A good example of the continuing tragedy of the third world, in which western outfits and superficialities are laid over an ancient culture that cannot reallty manage with them.

    Cultural imperialsm goes on long after political imperialism ended.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The proceedings reveal how Ghanaian lawyers & Judges cling to antiquated mannerisms, no matter how bizarre, uncomfortable, or plain silly. Why do Ghanaian lawyers and Judges continue to wear those funny dirty wigs? Why do lawyers continue to refer to Judges as My Lord? The Judges are NOT Lords; and the lawyers certainly NOT subjects. And Gowns in that heat! Away with the colonial encumbrances


Comments 5 of 6


More Africa stories



Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.