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Sociology of Religion
Fall, 2000
The Role of Christian churches in National Politics: Reflections from Laity and Clergy in Ghana.
Author/s: Kwasi Yirenkyi

Kwasi Yirenkyi [*]

This study examines the role of Christian churches in national politics in Ghana. It draws on various forms of data: a 1994 survey questionnaire, in-depth interviews, and content analysis of existing data. A total of 355 responses were received on the survey while 110 people were interviewed on a variety of church and political issues. Respondents were drawn from Catholic and Protestants denominational backgrounds. The preliminary results of the study lend support to the view that since the 1980's, Ghanaian Christians have been more actively involved in politics than ever before. These findings have important implications for the role religion plays in political development in Ghana.

In the absence of viable structures of justice in many African countries that are struggling to evolve new democratic systems, the church [1] claims to speak for the silent majority. It also calls on its adherents to participate in the political process to help create just social structures. A review of the literature on religion and politics in Ghana reveals that since the 1980s, the church has taken a more activist role in national politics than at any other time in its history (Aboagye-Mensah 1994; Assimeng 1986; Pobee 1991; Ninsin and Drah 1987, 1991). Much of the church's political activity was initiated collectively under the umbrella of the Christian Council of Ghana (CCG) and Ghana Bishops' Conference (GBC), with it's related body, the National Catholic Secretariat (NCS). [2]

Some Ghanaian scholars have advocated the church's political participation. For example, in analyzing the church's socio-ethical and historical role in Ghanaian politics, Kudajie and Aboagye-Mensah state:

We ourselves are clear in our mind, that the church has a valid case to be involved in the affairs of the state in all aspects including national politics (1991: 33).

In the second volume of their work, Kudajie and Aboagye-Mensah characterized the church as the "moral conscience" of the nation, a claim the church itself has made in a number of its pronouncements (1992: 23; see Memorandum 1978; Joint pastoral letter 1982). In supporting Christian participation in politics, Dr. Peter Sarpong (the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kumase and an Oxford educated social antropologist) writes: "Christ wants his church not to be meaningless in society or to be pushed to the periphery...[but] ... to be right at the center of things, right where the action is" (1990: 9).

There are numerous quantitative and qualitative studies on the church's attitude and role in democratic and fledgling democratic systems (Kiecolt and Nelson 1988; Jelen and Wilcox 1995; Wilcox 1990; Hoffman and Miller 1997; Shepherd 1993; Smith 1994). However, the available literature on the church's increasing political activism in Ghana had mostly concentrated on qualitative analysis. Among the few exceptions is Assimeng's survey of Evangelical Presbyterian clergy who were asked whether they had favorable or unfavorable attitudes toward the involvement of the church in politics. Of those sampled, 73 percent of the clergy respondents indicated a favorable attitude toward the church's involvement in politics, while 12.7 percent had an unfavorable attitude. Another 12.7 percent had no opinion and 1.6 percent had no response (1989: 205). The clergy's attitude to the church's involvement in politics in Ghana was only one of the many issues Assimeng examined. Despite the fact that it was limited to one denominat ion, Assimeng's work provides some useful information about clergy attitudes toward politics.

This study employs both quantitative and qualitative analyses, with the view that it will build on these earlier studies. It will, especially, add to the limited quantitative literature in the field. The study examines the role of Ghanaian Christians in the political arena. It addresses some of the following questions: what are the motivating factors for the church's increasing political activism? Are Ghanaian Christians responding to the call of their leaders to be social and political activists, and do their beliefs conflict with their participation in politics? Should the clergy be involved in politics and does the laity support the clergy's involvement in politics? Should the clergy use the pulpit to address specific political issues? Does the church engage in political education of the masses? Is the church a "moral conscience" of society?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I follow the advise of Gordon Allport who is reported to have said: "If you want to know why people do what they do, why not ask them first?" (Marcum 1995: 18).


The study draws on various forms of data: a survey and in-depth interviews I conducted between August 1994 and January 1995, and content analyses of existing data.

The survey instrument was designed to measure the attitudes of Ghanaian Christians toward politics, and the extent of their involvement in the political process. Since mail surveys do not have a high return rate in Ghana, I arranged to attend the annual national conferences of a number of Christian denominations. Respondents were drawn from Catholic and Protestant churches, the latter including Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Charismatic churches. This approach enabled me to reach many Christians (clergy and laity) who were delegates to these conferences. These delegates, from all the geographical regions of Ghana, were active members of their denominations and represented varied segments of their churches.

Some of the questionnaires were distributed after church services on Sunday mornings. Others were distributed at the Catholic Seminary at Pedu and the Protestant Seminary at Legon. Using these procedures, 355 questionnaires were collected out of 700 distributed, yielding a 50.7 percent response rate.

In addition to the questionnaires, I interviewed a total of 110 respondents (both church and non-church goers) on a variety of church and political issues. Nearly half of these respondents (45 percent) who participated in in-depth interviews had earlier indicated their willingness to be interviewed on the completed questionnaires they submitted. The other half (55 percent) was selected because of their professional expertise as scholars, leaders of Christian denominations, or leaders of the CCG and the NCS. [3] The objective for interviewing non-church goers was to assess how they viewed the church's involvement in politics. They included representatives of the media, professional organizations such as the Ghana Bar Association, women's organizations, as well as politicians, university professors, and students from the Universities of Ghana at Legon, and of Science and Technology in Kumase, and Ghana's Commissioner for Human Rights and Administrative Justice. [4] The in-depth interviews also enabled me to re ach illiterates who could not complete the survey questionnaire.

Finally, I collected data from church records, archives of the Christian Council of Ghana (CCG), periodicals and other historical records, state owned and private newspapers, and church denominational newspapers spanning the fifteen-year period from January 1980 through January 1995.


Political Participation

The results in Table 1 indicate a near evenly divided laity (41.6 percent, yes; and 43.3 percent, no) on the issue of clergy active involvement in politics. Fourteen percent were not sure and 1.1 percent had no response. In their handwritten remarks on the questionnaire and in their in-depth interviews, the laity explained that their desire for clergy involvement in the political process is due to the fact that the clergy constitute a class not easily intimidated by any government. The laity believes that the clergy are insulated from the risks individual laypersons may face from brutal regimes. Thus, from the perspective of the laity, the need for clergy involvement in the political process is purely pragmatic. This confirms Assimeng's view that the terror inherent in Rawling's military regime was "so severe that only established bodies such as the Christian Council was capable of expressing condemnation" (1989: 242). [5] In addition, the laity sees clergy involvement as a moral obligation on the part of the clergy who claim to be the "moral conscience" of the society.

In contrast to nearly half of the laity who support a more active clergy political involvement, Table 1 shows that a larger percentage of the clergy respondents oppose their own active involvement in politics (36.8 percent in favor; and 46.3 percent against). Of those sampled, 9.6 percent were not sure and 7.3 percent had no response. The differences noted in Table 1 are not statistically significant (* = p [greater than] 0.05). Since the hierarchy of both Protestant and Catholic churches had taken leadership in political activism, and had encouraged the clergy to lead their churches in political education, I expected a higher response rate in clergy interest in political participation than that of the laity. In their hand-written comments and in-depth interviews, the clergy explained their hesitation from a variety of perspectives. One of their explanations is that scripture is at best ambiguous about Christian participation in politics. They also pointed to the variety of theological positions that appear to be irreconcilable with political participation, and to the difficulty associated with their own involvement in politics. For instance, they pointed out that politics stirs a lot of emotions and the minister has to learn to walk a fine line to avoid offending a segment of the congregants, thereby dividing his/her congregation and the larger society in the process.

The clergy further stated that the laity has conflicting expectations of the minister. A segment of the congregation and the larger society, including various military regimes and governments, expect the clergy to get involved in politics. However, for some of these people and governments, this involvement does not include criticism of the political parties or social policies they support. When the clergy criticize a government, which has support from majority of the masses, the clergy are reminded that their duty is to preach the gospel. [6] Thus, on one hand, the clergy are criticized for getting involved. On the other hand, if they do not get involved, they are told that their indifference reflects a lack of concern for nation-building. These conflicting expectations, particularly in the political arena, confuse and intimidate some of the clergy. Similar conflicting expectations have been noted in the United States (Smith 1978: 35).

The Ghanaian situation is not unique. This happens more frequently in some developing nations where the democratic system does not exist or may be limited. For example, Tamney has noted that in Singapore the conservative "government does not want religious leaders straying beyond the religious realm" (1992: 207). However, some of the religious leaders oppose the government's interference and "defend the right of religion to judge the state" (Tamney 1992: 207). The division among the laity and the clergy does not mean that Christians in general are disinterested in politics. On the contrary, the extensive literature reviewed and the ongoing Christian political activities clearly demonstrate active Christian participation in local and national politics. For example, the populace had previously elected a number of clergy, including some of my respondents, to the local district assemblies under Rawlings's revolutionary military regime, which emphasized grassroots participation in Ghanaian politics in the 1980s (Pobee 1991: 58--75).

Many of the current parliamentarians and some of the cabinet ministers claim to be Christians and regularly attend church. Some of my respondents pointed out that since the military had ruled Ghana for so long the populace did not have the opportunity to vote in parliamentary elections. Further, many Ghanaians were not interested in politics because of military brutality. I have already indicated the lack of any quantitative studies on Christian voting patterns. Despite all these limitations, all interviewees claimed to be more active in politics now than they were prior to the 1980s. For example, in my survey, the frequency distribution showed that since 1979, 91 percent of the respondents (laity and clergy) had voted at one time or the other in previous local and national elections. Seventy-eight percent claimed to have voted in the 1992 general elections.

According to Jelen, "the 1980s witnessed a great deal of political activity on the part of religious leaders" in the United States (1994: 23; see also Jelen 1993). Indeed, there is a significant amount of literature on the Religious Right and their active participation in American politics since the 1980s (Jelen and Wilcox 1995; Wilcox 1996, 1992, 1988a). Thus, the case for active Christian involvement in national politics is not limited to Ghana.

The data in Table 2 show that while 62.4 percent of the laity respondents want the clergy to use the pulpit to address specific political issues, only 50 percent of the clergy themselves support that position. Of this sample, 30.8 percent of the laity and 39.7 percent of the clergy oppose it. Again, as was demonstrated in Table 1, the clergy is more cautious than the laity. Although there are some differences in answers to the question in table 2, these differences are not statistically significant (* = p [greater than] 0.05).

The Ghanaian clergy are not alone in their reluctance to use the pulpit for political purposes. Jelen's study of evangelical and mainline clergy in Indiana shows that all the clergy interviewed had reservations about making political pronouncements from the pulpit (1994: 29).

The clergy involvement in politics and the use of the pulpit for political discourse have always been controversial issues in many church denominations. Clergy and laity who support the church's political involvement in this controversial arena need to weigh their options and the practical consequences of their actions. Sundstrom takes a position on involvement but he also cautions the clergy. He states that the church is required to resist evil and support the common good as it faces the challenges and temptations inherent in national development and democratization. However, he rightly warns that in respect to political involvement, pastors may not be able to satisfy everyone in the congregation when they speak out (Sundstrom 1995: 5; see also de Gruchy 1991; Villa-Vicencio 1992; Pobee 1991; Yirenkyi 1992).

As can be seen in Table 3, nearly three quarters (73.5 percent) of the clergy and 60.7 percent of the laity believe that their churches should be responsible for political education. It is only in political education that more clergy than laity support church involvement. There is a statistically significant difference between laity and clergy regarding whether the church should be responsible for political education (* = p [less than] 0.01).

The church has a two-fold educational objective. The first is to prepare Christians for national elections, make them aware of their civil rights, and educate them about government policies and programs. The second is to act as the moral conscience of the society. Apart from participating in the electoral processes, the churches led by the CCG and NCS, with its parent body the GBC, have organized numerous educational seminars on a variety of sociopolitical and economic issues at the local, regional, and national levels. The monographs produced after these seminars addressed issues such as the role of the church in the promotion of ecumenism and a democratic culture, individual and other human rights, the role of the Christian in the socio-political and economic development of the nation, and the role of the media in a democracy. [7] The churches were previously engaged in similar educational activities in 1979 and 1984. There is an overwhelming support for political education, especially on social justice is sues. For example, in my study, I observed a very high proportion (87 percent) of laity who expected the clergy to be concerned and to get involved in educating Christians on social justice issues. The percentage of clergy responses to this question is nearly the same (89 percent). In the context of military violence against many Ghanaians in the 1980s, it is not surprising that both clergy and laity strongly support education on social justice issues (Yirenkyi 1992: 155-157, 1993: 201-209). The seriousness of the social justice issue as a national concern is illustrated by the creation of an office of the Commissioner for Human Rights and Administrative Justice in the 1992 Constitution (see note 5).

In their hand-written remarks and in-depth interviews, the clergy respondents made it clear that they are not adequately trained to deal with political issues. The older clergy took no courses in political education during their seminary days. Current students claim that the education they receive is inadequate. Thus, the current educational seminars conducted by the CCG and the NCS help both the clergy and laypersons.

Gilbert (1993) has stated that churches do affect how their members perceive the world as well as their voting preferences. Of those sampled in my study, 70 percent believe that the various educational seminars conducted by the CCG and GBC motivated both clergy and laypersons, especially those in the mainline churches, to participate in the political process. They further believed that their participation in the political process, especially during the difficult period of the 1980's, was a crucial Christian responsibility.

The extent to which the church achieved its second educational objective as the "moral conscience" of the society in the political arena is examined in the next section of the paper.


According to the church, its two educational goals, namely, the political education of the masses through seminars and its prophetic role as the conscience of society, are inseparable. Pobee aptly characterizes the church's dual role as follows: "They [i.e., the CCG and the GBC] spoke and continued to speak against the evils of the government and the nation. ... They took steps to educate [emphasis is mine] the people and the government on the issues at stake; ... they discouraged violence, chaos and bitterness" (1991: 72).

In a paper entitled: "The church and state: Christian Council and national affairs," the CCG had catalogued its moral and prophetic role in some specific socio-political issues from 1941-1994 (A Call to Citizens 1992; Communique 1994, 1993, 1991). For example, the Council sent two memoranda urging the government to "exercise justice, fair play, and respect for human rights" and also advised against "arbitrary death sentences" (CCG & GBC Pastoral Letters, 12, 22 June 1979). In the second memorandum, the Council expressed grave concern about executions and insisted that arrested persons should be given the opportunity of public trial (26 June 1979; see also Pobee 1991:61).

Many of such memoranda and pastoral letters on a variety of issues were sent in subsequent years. Some express concern about justice, insecurity coupled with frustration of citizens, socio-economic deterioration, education, and attacks on churches. Out of about sixty letters listed on the records I obtained dating back from 1941-1994, forty of them were sent in the 1980s alone. The frequency and the sheer number of these memoranda is an indication of the seriousness with which the church viewed the violence against Ghanaians. The church was not immune to the attacks (see Christian Council pastoral letter to Ghanaian Christians on attacks on the Methodist church, May 1983; CCG & GBC Pastoral Letter, October 1989; CCG paper on the revolution, 25 November 1982; Joint Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Hierarchy of Ghana 1990; Joint Pastoral Letters, 10th Anniversary, 1980-1990). These letters affirm the church's self-assertion as the "moral conscience of the society."

In supporting this moral assertion, Pobee writes:" ... the historic churches have continued to be 'the voice of the voiceless,' the champion of freedom, integrity, and fair play in national politics" (1991:59). He further points out:"... the churches stood guard over human dignity and justice with a human face ... it was a courageous stand to take in a context of immense violence, intolerance, and recklessness of soldiers" (1991:62). According to Assimeng, the act of brutality that intimidated the masses led the church to act collectively. He writes:

Leading Christians have been quite vocal in their assessment of the Rawlings regimes ... the terror inherent in their regimes has been such that only established bodies such as the Christian Council, the Catholic Bishops Conference, and the Association of Professional Bodies, [8] have been capable of collectively expressing condemnation of the regimes (1989: 242).

The church's moral responsibility carried a considerable risk because of the brutality of the military government against those who criticized their activities (see CCG Pastoral Letters to Christians on the Revolution January 1982; November 1982).

Apart from the church, students, and the Association of Professional bodies who frequently spoke against injustices, the rest of the Ghanaian society adopted a culture of silence. This silence was characterized by "apathy, indifference, refusal to accept appointments from the government, premature retirements from the public service, and refusal to register and/or to vote" (Boahen 1989: 56). If the assertion that military brutality and general indifference to human rights turned Ghanaians off from local and national politics is true, it is ironic that the same brutality which turned them off also brought them back to politics when the repression was severe in the 1980s.

Thus, it is in the context of the unparalled dehumanization and economic deterioration of the 1980s that the church's role as an instrument of change through protest and, in Paulo Freire's terms, conscientization should be viewed (Freire 1970: 12-13, 19).


Religion has a double function of legitimating both the status quo and protest. In this study the church has successfully played the latter role as an instrument of social change. According to the church, Ghanaian civil liberties such as the protection of human rights, concern about the poor and the oppressed, and freedom of the press had been seriously jeopardized by the military. Therefore, the church undertook a dual responsibility. First, it insisted on its prophetic role (i.e., as a social critic) in the political arena and challenged unparalled military violence. Thus, Ghanaian Christian political participation had primarily been based on social justice issues. Second, the church educated Christians about their civil rights and motivated them to participate in the democratic process. In fulfilling this educational objective, the church avoided partisan politics.

The increasing political activism since the 1980's, supported by majority of Ghanaian Christians in this study, is not unique. A similar Christian political activism has been observed since the 1980s in the United States, especially among members of the Religious Right (Rozell and Wilcox 1995; Wilcox 1996). In contrast to the Ghanaian Christian focus on social justice issues, the Religious Right has primarily been interested in moral issues such as restoring prayer in schools, and elimination of laws protecting both abortions and lesbian and gay rights (Wilcox 1996). In contrast to the Christian Right, the Christian Left in the United States has traditionally focussed on social justice issues (Kiecolt and Nelson 1988).

The reluctance on the part of almost half of the Ghanaian clergy respondents to use the pulpit to address political issues or for clergy direct involvement in politics is an indication of the inherent difficulties involved in political participation. Jelen's study shows that American clergy share a similar view (1994). Judging by the volatile nature of Ghanaian politics, the caution by those who oppose clergy political involvement may be prudent. However, the clergy and laity who support political involvement are very much aware that the democratic experiment in Ghana, and elsewhere in Africa remains fairly tenuous. Thus, despite the problematic nature of involvement, these respondents see their continued political activism from a social justice perspective as crucial. In this context, the Ghanaian laity has a much broader perspective, and is willing to take more risks than the clergy.

Since Ghanaian Christians constitute the largest religious group as well as the majority of the population (62.6 percent), they were right in rejecting the government's insistence that the church should get out of politics. The church claimed that Christians have every right to participate in the political process and to make their voices heard on social policies as individuals or collectivities (Aboagye-Mensah 1994). Carter (1993) has made a similar argument about the role of religion in the United States. Cautioning against liberal intolerance of the Religious Right in politics, Carter argues that "there is nothing wrong when a religious group presses its moral claims in the public square" (1993: 91). He believes that democracy benefits if religion is allowed to act as independent moral voice in society. In his opinion, we should envision a "public square where all are welcome" (p. 229). Carter's view reflects the church's position in Ghanaian politics.

Looking toward the future of religion in a nation where 99.7 percent claim to be religious (see note 1; Yirenkyi 1999: 180-183), it is most likely that religion's prophetic and educational role will move to the center of Ghanaian national debate.

(*.) Direct correspondence to Kwasi Yirenkyi, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 448 John Sutton Hall, Indiana, PA 15705.

Research support from the Senate Research Award Committee and International Venture Fund, Indiana University of Pennsylvania is gratefully acknowledged. My profound gratitude to Yaw Asamoah, Amadu Ayebo, Harvey Holtz, and Baffour Takyi for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this article; Jasper Ackumey of the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research, University of Ghana, Legon, who did the initial analysis and served as my research Assistant; and to all the numerous respondents and particularly those with whom I had in-depth interviews. Equally helpful were the comments of two anonymous reviewers and the editor.

  1. The "church" in this context refers to the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations. The latter include mainline, charismatic and/or independent African churches. Christians constitute 62.6% of Ghana's population estimated to be about 17 million. Other religions include Islam (15.7%) and African Traditional Religion (21.4%) (see Pobee, 1991:12). Muslims and adherents of traditional religion are actively involved in Ghanaian polities. However, this study is limited to Christian participation in politics.
  2. The Ghana Bishops' Conference (GBC) and its related body, the National Catholic Secretariat (NCS), is not a member of the Christian Council of Ghana (CCG) but the two bodies work closely together on many social and political issues at the national, regional, and local levels. The GBC acts as the official body of the Catholic church. The NCS is the executive body of the GBS. "The NCS implements and interprets the decisions and policies of the GBC when the GBC is not in session" (Pobee 1991:50). As will be noted in the paper, I will use the collective term "church" when referring to the socio-political activities of the CCG, the GBC, and the NCS.
  3. James Anquandah, a noted historian of the CCG, Rev. Asante Dartey, General Secretary of the CCG, and other officials of the Council granted me in-depth interviews that helped me to understand the sociopolitical role of the Council in the life of the churches in Ghana. Rev. Dartey also gave me a letter of introduction that facilitated my interviews with many churches and organizations. Other officials from the NCS and other churches were also interviewed. I am deeply indebted to all of them.
  4. The responsibilities of the Commissioner for Human Rights and Administrative Justice include the Investigation and appropriate corrective action of complaints of violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms, injustice, corruption, abuse of power, and unfair treatment of citizens of Ghana" (Constitution of the Republic of Ghana, Chapter 18, Articles 216-230, 1992). An in-depth interview with the Commissioner gave me a clear understanding of his crucial responsibility and the conflicting expectations of the government, opposition, and the populace in a fledgling democracy.
  5. By all accounts Rawlings's regime was the most brutal on record. He also held the record for the longest military rule. Ghana gained independence in 1957. The first successful coup d'etat was on 24 February 1966. That regime lasted until 1969 when Ghana's Second Republic headed by Dr. Busia rook over. General Acheampang's coup ended the Second Republic on 13 January 1972. General Akuffo staged a palace coup and removed Acheampong's Supreme Military Council I and replaced it with Supreme Military Council II on 5 July 1978. FL Lr. Rawlings overthrew Akuffo on 4 June 1979. He allowed a scheduled election to take place, ushering in the Third Republic led by Dr. Limann in 1980. However, on 31 December 1981, Rawlings successfully staged another coup and ruled until the 1992 general elections which brought in the 4th Republic. Rawlings's party won the 1992 and 1996 general elections. In effect, Rawlings has ruled Ghana since 1981. Since the First Republic ended in 1966, civilians had only two opportunities to vote in general elections prior to 1992.
  6. An incident between President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana and the Rev. Asante Dartey, a Presbyterian clergyman and the General Secretary of the CCG, illustrates the dilemma the clergy face. The President, in an address to the Ghana Pentecostal Association in the Fall of 1994, used the occasion to attack Rev. Dartey on national television. The President was responding to an earlier criticism the Rev. Dartey is reported to have made against the President. For a number of days, all the government newspapers used their columns to justify the President's and their own attacks on the General Secretary. The papers reminded Rev. Dartey that no one had appointed him the opposition spokesperson, and called on him to concentrate on religious matters. The Secretary had been criticized on other occasions by the government's controlled media. I had an in-depth interview with the General Secretary after this incident. The purpose of the interview was to assess the role of the CCG in Ghanaian politics, and to ascertain the Secretary's own role as the church's representative on a Commission that drafted the 1992 Constitution of the Fourth Republic. A previous General Secretary had represented the church on a Commission which drafted the 1978 Constitution of the Third Republic. When I brought up the incident, Rev. Dartey stated that he was used to the attacks. However, he was concerned that the incessant attacks would adversely affect his family. While he received encouragement from many people, he was also concerned about the lack of moral support from some of the church leaders. Other clergy activists face similar problems when they act as prophetic ministers who criticize what they perceive as wrongs in society.
  7. Substantive literature on these seminars include: Report of the church leadership seminar on church, ecumenism, and democracy, January 1993; Report of the workshop on the role of local councils of churches in the promotion of ecumenism and democratic culture in Ghana, October 1993; Report of the follow-up workshop on the church, ecumenism, and democracy, November 1993; The Catholic church's democracy paper on human rights, 20 February 1991; The Catholic church and Ghana's search for a new democratic system, 1990.
  8. These professional bodies include University Teachers' Association, Ghana Bar Association, Ghana Medical Association, Ghana Nurses' Association, and so forth.


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