Honorable Ministers and Members of Parliament,
Your Excellencies and Dear Colleagues from the Diplomatic Corps,
Chairperson of the Electoral Commission Charlotte Osei,
Traditional and Religious Leaders,
Representatives of the Media,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good evening. Babs and I are delighted to welcome all of you here tonight to recognize an extraordinary woman who I feel fortunate to call a partner in the quest to safeguard Ghana’s democracy. The United States has a long tradition of recognizing women who have advocated for peace and democracy at great personal risk. These women include Josephine Obiajulu Odumakin from Nigeria, who was arrested 17 times for her involvement in more than 2,000 cases to protect the rights of women and children, and Henriette Ekwe Ebongo, a Cameroonian journalist who fought for freedom of the press during the years of one-party rule in the 1980s. Like these women, Charlotte Osei epitomizes the phrase “Woman of Courage,” and I am honored to recognize her today on behalf of the U.S. Government.
Ms. Osei rose to international prominence when she was named first female Chair of the Electoral Commission of Ghana. But throughout her life, she has made a name for herself as a trailblazing woman and defender of democracy.
She began her career as a lawyer and law professor, emerging as one of Ghana’s leading minds on constitutional law. She was subsequently appointed as Chairperson of the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE). She used this post to promote civic engagement and elevate democratic discourse. She launched an official website, increased communication with citizens, and initiated new programs to raise awareness and ignite debates, including Citizenship Week, the Dialogue Series, and the Democracy Lectures. These events educated the populace and got Ghanaians across the political spectrum excited about the democratic process.
But of course, Ms. Osei is best known for overseeing the 2016 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections—the seventh consecutive democratic elections in Ghana, which set the stage for the third consecutive peaceful transition of power between political parties, since Ghana became a democracy in 1992.
Overseeing the logistics of this election was a daunting task and the stakes could not have been higher. As the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission, Ms. Osei held the country’s future in her hands because, in the words of American politician and reformer Al Smith, “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.” Before, during, and after the 2016 election, she faced a tremendous amount of scrutiny, under which many would have buckled. And not all of the criticism was constructive or about the political process — she faced a number of personal, base, and inappropriate attacks. But regardless, she persisted, using her conscience, her expertise in Ghanaian law, and her determination to uphold a democratic and fair process as her guide.
Under her leadership, the Electoral Commission undertook tough but necessary reforms, meticulously trained each and every electoral official and polling agent, and enforced electoral laws, regardless of any backlash. She endured threats to her safety and that of her family for her strong stances, but she stood her ground, and undoubtedly raised the bar for what it takes to abide by the law.
She ensured the Electoral Commission was open to change, and she employed strategic partnerships to great effect. She leveraged support from the African Union, ECOWAS, the United States, United Nations, and the European Union among others to deploy election observers to polling stations throughout the country. She partnered with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to develop and launch a new communication strategy to increase the flow of information to voters and boost the transparency of the Commission’s work. And she coordinated with various bilateral and multilateral development partners including the United Nations Development Program and the European Union, as well as Ghanaian civil society organizations, uniting a wide range of stakeholders behind a free, fair election that reinforced Ghana’s proud democratic legacy.
Throughout her career, she has prioritized the active participation of vulnerable citizens. Under her leadership, both the NCCE and the Electoral Commission trained hundreds of women’s groups to get out the vote, and expanded efforts to address the needs of people with disabilities by working with the Ghana Federation of Disability Organizations to conduct disability access training across Ghana. Thanks to this partnership, during the 2016 election, all 29,000 polling stations were equipped with Braille ballots so that visually impaired Ghanaians could vote independently.
Ms. Osei received high praise for her management of the elections from international observers. The 2016 elections solidified Ghana’s status as a democratic role model for Africa, and indeed, for the entire world.
But there is much work ahead. Democracy is not something we tend to once every four years. It never outgrows the need for active, engaged citizens and leaders who insist on fairness and due process over political expedience.
The Electoral Commission and its leadership will continue to face challenges, criticism and scrutiny. The vigorous debates that exist in Ghana are testament to the strength of this country’s democracy. As the Supreme Court’s investigation of the accusations about impropriety at the Commission reminds us, democracy is messy and noisy. However, when every single Ghanaian can feel safe in their ability to criticize their government — and to criticize those criticisms, the entire country is better off. The key is to harness criticism as motivation to do better, while not allowing it to distract you from doing your job.
While we are presenting this award to Charlotte Osei, I know there are many Ghanaian women who have taken a stand for strengthening democracy. They too are heroes because they exemplify the highest commitment to advance the spirit of democracy for all Ghanaians, especially women and girls whose efforts are necessary to succeed in this critical journey.
I would like to close with a quote from another “woman of courage,” the African American civil rights legend Rosa Parks. She said, “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.” I urge everyone here to use these words as guidance. I look forward to continuing to partner with you for a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic Ghana.