Ghana at 60

On March 6, it’ll be 60 years since Ghana became independent; one of the first on the continent to go it alone. This diamond jubilee has drawn mixed feelings.   The article below first appeared in Forbes Africa and is republished with its permission. Subscribe today by contacting Shanna Jacobsen [email protected]

At least the new president Nana Akufo-Addo is optimistic. In a press statement he called for reflection on what makes Ghanaians who they are. This year’s theme, according to him, is:  “Mobilizing for Ghana’s Future.” That is, a year for Ghanaians to understand their country’s shortcomings and look at ways to improve.

Good timing, when growth is falling. According to figures from the World Bank, Ghana’s economy grew by 4.9% during the first quarter of 2016. However, overall gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the whole of 2016 could be below the 3.9% achieved in 2015, due to production problems in oil.

Inflation is at 16.7%, made worse by the country’s erratic energy supply that sees businesses put prices up when they use generators.

Victor Ohene Oppong, Founder of Invest Hub, a financial advisory firm in Accra, is, like many of his countrymen, in no mood for jubilation.

“Sixty years ago our founding father, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah famously opined, Ghana your beloved country is free forever, and we all thought managing our own resources would lead to prosperity for everyone but that has simply not been the case. We have issued our fifth Eurobond debt for $750 million and the oil crisis has led to a sharp contraction in oil exports. Businesses are fighting for survival because when there is no cash flow you die. So what is there to celebrate?” he says.

Economic hard times have hit Oppong in the pocket. Last year, he had to lay off five expatriates and close down one of his two branches because of low revenues.

“The debt to GDP ratio stands at about 70% and the last unemployment figures show at least 42% of people are still struggling to find jobs. I think the president is right when he calls this a time of reflection, we need to think very hard and carefully about the future of this country,” says Oppong.

Richmond Nartey, Managing Director of RN Shipping in Tema, agrees.

“Sixty years is a lifetime. For most people that is the age when they begin to think about retirement and enjoying life. But that is not the case for Ghana. The value of our currency is still very weak against the dollar and even though we decided to use our own local currency, many companies still charge in dollars. Foreign currency restrictions in Ghana are still a big issue for our kind of business. What happens to businesses that cannot get their hands on the much-needed dollars to be able to run their business?” says Nartey.

Following the end of decades of rule by former coup leader Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, Ghana has done its best to clean up its democratic act. Ghana’s two-party electoral system is earning the confidence of the world for its peaceful political transitions. For this reason alone, Mary Osei, Account Manager at HFC Bank, believes there is cause to celebrate.

“This is a time to remember all the things that make this country a wonderful place to live. Yes, there are several challenges we are facing, but which economy isn’t facing challenges? We have to continue to work together to build on the achievements we have and make this nation great,” says Osei.

“If there was ever a day to be proud of your Ghanaian heritage and to be patriotic, there is no better day than March 6, so I do not agree with the naysayers and people who believe there is no need for celebrations,” she says.

Yet the debate over how to celebrate Ghana’s 60th birthday has been fierce. Akufo-Addo set up a 30-member committee to plan the celebrations with a budget of GHc20 million ($4.57 million), which has proved controversial on the streets.

“If there is anywhere that money needs to be spent, it should be in the creative industry instead of throwing it away on branding buses with faces of old presidents or parties. There are failing sectors in the economy where that money could be put to much better use,” says Adamz, a hip-hop artist in Ghana.

The influence of Ghana’s independence over Africa cannot be underestimated. It was the first black African nation to cast off colonialism and inspired many others to follow suit.

“At long last, the battle has ended!  And thus, Ghana, your beloved country is free forever!” said Ghana’s first leader Kwame Nkrumah on independence night in 1957. The new leader wore his prison cap – a symbol of his incarceration by the British during his independence struggle – with the letters PG, for prison graduate, embroidered on the front.

Martin Luther King Jr. was with half a million Ghanaians at the ceremony and saw a parallel with Ghana’s freedom and his struggle for civil rights in the United States.

“Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment,” recalled King in an interview years later.

Nkrumah, the father of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which evolved into the African Union, drew many admirers in his first bold steps as a pan-Africanist leader. They included a young teacher by the name of Robert Mugabe who had been seconded to Ghana, by the then Rhodesian government, to a training college.

Mugabe was very taken by the sight of confident Africans in an independent nation and returned home determined to fight for an independent Zimbabwe.

Independence turned out to be bittersweet for Ghana – it was followed by assassination attempts and coups. The idealistic Nkrumah disappointed many when he declared himself president-for-life in 1964.

At least, in the 21st century, democracy in Ghana is closer than it probably ever has been to the shining ideals of 1957.

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