Oct 22, 2020

Western Togoland: 60 Members of Homeland Study Group Released

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) welcomes news that 60 members of the Homeland Study Group Foundation have been released from detention by the courts in Ghana, but is concerned that the courts have failed to give reasons for their release.

The Homeland Study Group Foundation is a nonviolent movement seeking greater self-determination for the people of Western Togoland. Its members and leaders are seeking political solutions for their goals and use a variety of means for acheiving this, including demonstrations and protests. 

Over the past three years, Homeland Study Group Foundation members and leaders have been subjected to a series of arrests and detentions following nonviolent demonstrations or actions, including at least once for wearing T-shirts with the inscription “9 May 2017 is OUR DAY Western Togoland”, following a symbolic "declaration of independence" by the organization.

This opened the space for a different group, known as the Western Togoland Restoration Front (WTRF) to try to gain support in the region by using violent tactics in contrast to those of the Homeland Study Group Foundation. Thus, on 25 September 2020, the WTRF unilaterally declared an independent state in the Volta region of Ghana using armed road blockades and attacking police stations and personnel. Immediately after, it issued a press release “emphatically stat[ing] that Homeland Study Group Foundation has no hand in the Road Blocks” in an apparent attempt to build the WTRF supporter base in contrast to the Homeland Study Group Foundation’s.

In response to this, the leader of the Homeland Study Group Foundation, Charles Kwame Kudzordzi, issued a statement decrying the actions of the WTRF and calling for all people to support the political and democratic process.

Nonetheless, despite the clear repudiation of the WTRF's actions by the Homeland Study Group Foundation and the WTRF's own attempts to distinguish itself from the Homeland Study Group Foundation, many members of the Homeland Study Group Foundation were arrested. In the intervening period, the courts in Ghana had expressed exasperation that these people were being held without sufficient evidence against them and on 21 October 60 members were released and charges vacated. No reasons for the decision were given, in spite of requests from defense lawyers.

The UNPO welcomes the news of the release of these members. It is heartening to see the courts in Ghana require prosecutors to show sufficient evidence in order to detain and charge suspects, even in cases that are being closely watched at all levels in the country. This serves as a testament to the indepdence of the judiciary in Ghana.

Nonetheless, the UNPO is concerned that these arrests follow a pattern of practice by the police that indicate a systemic willingness to use the criminal justice system to target free speech, using arrests as tools of intimidation. Since at least 2017, this pattern has been repeated on numerous occassions against the Homeland Study Group Foundation, its leaders and members, with repeated arrests and subsequent releases without charge or with charges quickly dropped.

Criminal justice systems should not be used as tools to silence freedom of opinion and speech, including against beliefs in independence for specific groups. The right to self-determination is protected under international human rights law, including as the first operative article of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In accordance with those conventions "[b]y virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."  While the right does not permit groups to unilaterally declare independent statehood, or confer an automatic right to indepedence more generally, holding a belief in independent statehood for a nation or people and seeking it through nonviolent engagement and political process is protected freedom of opinion and speech. And, as such, criminal justice systems cannot be used to intimidate or harrass those seeking it.

To that end, it does appear that the police in Ghana have been systematically violating basic principles of human rights law in their repeated use of unjustified arrests and detentions of Homeland Study Group Foundation members over the past years. And, while this latest round of releases by the courts in Ghana are to be welcomed, it is to be hoped that, in the future, the courts will seek to hold the police to account, at a minimum by providing reasons for decisions to release unlawfully held detainees. Such decisions would provide the victims an ability to seek redress from higher courts or international bodies for these actions and would have a positive effect on police conduct.

Ultimately, if the government of Ghana wishes to ensure that the Western Togoland Restoration Front does not gain support in Western Togoland, its best course of action is to avoid harrassment and intimidation of nonviolent groups seeking to further their goals through demonstrations and political action and to allow such groups to operate freely and in accordance with the law in Ghana. It is only through the political process, and not through its criminal justice system, that the government of Ghana will be able to make its case that the self-determination of the people of Western Togoland can be realized within the democratic structures of the Ghanaian constitution.

Photo: www.modernghana.com