Ghana: A glimmer of hope emerging from Africa

The great historian A.J.P. Taylor, writing about 19th century European diplomacy, used words to the effect that “it would be tiresome, if every time a rule was established for the period, we had to add ‘except for the Italians’.” For the past generation, as benchmark after benchmark was passed in world economic development, climate control or population growth, we had to say “except for Africa”. The continent was off all the charts.

Now, perhaps that sad era is drawing to a close, at least for that part of the continent at or north of the Equator. South of it, the sad tale moves on: a cholera epidemic and inflation at a rate not seen since Weimar Germany in the 1920s besieges Zimbabwe, while AIDS continues to ravage the rest of the roads-connected region.

The health choices (or lack of choices) in Southern Africa since the 1980s were so dumb that the roll-out of consequences will be there for another 50 years — 250,000 unnecessary deaths in South Africa alone because then president Thabo Mbeki played ostrich.

The election this past week and the run-off now in Ghana bears watching. That state always saw itself as the “beacon for Africa”, being the first black state to attain independence, in 1957. But it was led by an ego-driven Marxist, Kwame Nkrumah, who didn’t waste any time bankrupting the state with harebrained schemes to industrialise it.

The army and police overthrew him while he visited Hanoi in 1966 and there was brief hope, a flickering candle blown out by a succession of self-styled generals, culminating in another egomaniac who began his presidency by lining up the three living ex- presidents and executing them on the beach.

“If you think a state can’t go any lower when it hits bottom, watch Ghana,” a colleague of mine said. “It’s just started digging again.”

But eventually President Jerry Rawlings was forced by the democratic drum roll starting in Washington to concede elections, though he hovered over the head of his successor for years. President Bill Clinton wouldn’t even start his African visit in Ghana unless Rawlings publicly committed, in front of the American leader, to stepping down.

When the International Monetary Fund began supervising the Ghanaian recovery in 1980 it looked hopeless, because at the level to which the country had sunk even a rapid economic growth rate was hopelessly slow (six per cent of a US$100 per annum income is almost invisible).

But at a point in the late 1980s, Ghanaians began to feel the improvements. In 1992, Rawlings let politics flow and after “electing” himself couldn’t prevent a popular leader emerging from the long democratic tradition that opposed Nkrumah from independence.
Eventually Rawlings’s dark shadow receded.

Now, oil has been discovered on the western shores of the republic. Growth is self-sustaining. And a true leader has emerged. I have known Nana Akuffo Addo for 40 years and he represents a new level and style of professional attainment. His father was chief justice and president in the second republic, and while democracy waited in the wings Nana (chief) got himself educated in London and even had a stint at the posh Parisian firm Coudert Frres.

In the past 20 years, he’s stood for and done all the right things. He had a solid lead in the first round of voting but just short of 50 per cent. There’s a run-off coming this week, but his lead seems safe enough, and in Africa even more than elsewhere, being the official candidate of the ruling party more or less guarantees success.

In 2001, I was in Ghana, staying at the national university. The security guards chose to beat a boy from a different tribe who made the mistake of doing my laundry.

When I came upon this appalling scene I asked them if the rule of law hadn’t returned to the country. That didn’t register but when I told them I was on my way to visit the attorney-general (and the statement had the additional advantage of being true) they asked me his name. I said, “Nana Akuffo Addo”, and they immediately stopped the punishment, released the boy, and hurriedly helped me into the car. The name itself struck awe into them.

Now we await confirmation of the old trend – Ghana leading the way. Senegal has made its own mark among Francophone states, to balance the near immolation of Ghana’s next-door neighbour Ivory Coast, once the marvel of West Africa.

The horrors of Liberia and Sierra Leone have not only stopped but new leaders have emerged, including a world star, Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, elected president of Liberia in 2005.

It takes courage to be hopeful about Africa. Too often in the past 50 years we’ve said, “it’s turned the corner”. Bad traditions will be hard to eradicate.

My favourite student from the continent, himself a Ghanaian chief far higher than Nana Akuffo Addo, took me to task in 2001 when I told him the rumours that a certain politician had a Swiss bank account.

“Professor,” he said, “surely you know that all African politicians have these. Remember the French anthropologist’s book about Africa you assigned us, the title derived from the fact that a tethered goat eats everything in its radius, right down to the ground?”

But now a third generation of African leaders is taking charge. They are professionally successful enough to be less tempted by traditional largesse; they could earn it without stealing it. They did not study law in jail, like their predecessors. And Africans everywhere are so embarrassed by the past that they really want to get on with it.

A first step would be in Zimbabwe to just get rid of President Robert Mugabe, a second to end the carnage in the east of Congo, and thirdly to take heroic measures against AIDS.

A final one would be a little humility about the depths to which Africa has sunk and to admit that it will be a long road ahead.

Credit: W. Scott Thompson
Source: New Straits Times)

* The writer is professor emeritus at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

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