Black Stars Tries To rise Again
Fifty years after independence, Ghana looks back with mixed emotions
AT LEAST on paper, every week next year has already been carefully choreographed. Nelson Mandela, it is hoped, will make a speech. A military tattoo is promised, as well as a football match between Ghana's "Black Stars" and England, to "demonstrate the new relationship of cultured civility" between the "former colonial master and the colonised". Even Oprah Winfrey may beam her television chat show from the slave castle of Elmina. So it must be big: the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence from Britain.
If even half of this comes off, it should be an exciting year for the west African country of 22m people. But then if anything unites Ghana's people, it is pride in being sub-Saharan Africa's first post-colonial country. Furthermore, the new nation's first leader, the ebullient Kwame Nkrumah, self-consciously set out to eradicate the vestiges of colonialism by charting a new course not only for Ghana but for the rest of Africa as well. He helped to found the Organisation of African Union and, at home, inspired by the apparent achievements of the Soviet Union, he spent millions of dollars building the dams and factories that he hoped would free his people from their abject dependence on Western capitalism.
Ghana's break with colonial rule also became a beacon of hope for many of America's civil-rights campaigners. Some of the movement's elder statesmen, such as William Du Bois, settled in Ghana out of solidarity with the new nation. Nkrumah was feted in Washington by President John Kennedy and taught to dance by Louis Armstrong's wife, Lucille. Thousands of Americans still make the pilgrimage back to the slave castles on the Cape Coast, whites to atone for their ancestors' sins, blacks to trace their roots.
Yet Ghanaians know there is just as much to regret as to celebrate in 2007. Just as Ghana blazed the trail for African independence, so it also became an example of all that has since gone wrong on the continent. Nkrumah himself became the prototype of a particular sort of African leader, setting out with noble ambitions, becoming increasingly authoritarian and corrupt, bankrupting the country on grandiose projects before being overthrown in a military coup in 1966. The country, at the time of independence one of Africa's richest, experienced a catastrophic fall in living standards. By the end of the 1990s, when the country came out of its tailspin, real GDP per person had only just recovered to the level achieved in the mid-1960s, when Ghana's figure was higher than South Korea's; today, at the official exchange rate, it is 35 times lower.
The man in charge of the celebrations, Charles Wereko-Brobby, concedes that more than half the post-independence years have "been lost". But the freedom to discuss those lost years also points to a renewed sense of optimism, based on a decade or so of economic recovery and the restoration of democracy.
Indeed, Ghana once again sees itself in the vanguard of a new African renaissance, but very different from the 1950s. This time it is all about good governance and macro-economic stability, so that African countries can prosper without constant bail-outs from the IMF. To this end, Ghana was the first to submit itself to the African Peer Review Mechanism, whereby for the first time African countries can judge each others' democratic standards.
The report on Ghana, just out, is frank about the continuing virus of corruption. But the fact that it has accepted this problem is a step forward. Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, head of the Centre for Democratic Development in Ghana, who was commissioned to do the work on corporate and political governance, says he was "impressed by the candour with which we were allowed to express ourselves." He argues that the current period, in terms of political freedom, is "the best we have had so far".
Political stability has been accompanied by a better economy, with inflation coming down to 10% and growth in recent years of between 4% and 6%. Ghana's achievements look all the better compared with its neighbours, Cote d'Ivoire, mired in strife, and Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, trapped in crises for many years.
Still, for all its claims to lead the way in Africa again, Ghana still limps along, tethered to the ball and chain of its recent past. It remains one of Africa's poorest countries, with 35% of its people living on less than $1 a day. In its three northern provinces, between 70% and 90% of the people live in poverty; 43% are stunted by malnutrition and a further 33% are underweight.
Hobbled by decades of state control, business remains feeble. A full recovery will take many years. But the hope is that Ghana will continue on its slow upward curve, as Mr Wereko-Brobby puts it, by carrying on with its present "democratic dispensation rather than the short-term injections of messiahs".