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General News Mon, 1 Jan 2001

Ghana's new leader takes tough stance

John Kufuor, Ghana's president-in-waiting, said on Monday he would move quickly to mend divisions in the country following elections last week which provided a rare African example of democracy in action but reopened wounds from a turbulent past.

He was speaking in an interview with the Financial Times as millions of his supporters celebrated the first election victory for an opposition party, the New Patriotic party (NPP), in a country whose formative years of independence were plagued by coups and dictatorships.

Mr Kufuor said his immediate priorities would be to unite the country behind him and secure the loyalty of the army. But he also warned Ghanaians that a period of austerity lay ahead as efforts to revive the faltering economy and stabilise the depreciating cedi currency get under way.

"I am ready to be efficient, to turn the economic and social tables which have been stagnant over so many years. If this means my being unpopular it's just unfortunate. I'm ready to be very tough, but tough for a purpose," he said.

His government would push forward free-market reforms, he said, ease out subsidies where wasteful and attempt to accelerate diversification of an economy vulnerable to market swings in the price of gold and cocoa on which it relies for foreign exchange.

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He reiterated a campaign pledge that officials from the defeated National Democratic Congress (NDC) would not be hounded. Jerry Rawlings, the outgoing president who has ruled Ghana for the past two decades, would be treated "as I would like to be treated at the end of my term in office".

But to provide an outlet for victims of the bloody aftermath of the coup which brought Mr Rawlings to power for a second time in 1981, an institution in the spirit of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation committee would be set up.

"Government is not going to go out threatening prosecution. But we just can't cover the truth," he said.

"Some people lost their lives, some lost their properties. There are many people who are aggrieved and unless the government steps in to reconcile the people we might find vendettas and reprisals. These would lead to chaos and I will not permit that to happen," he said.

Mr Kufuor, an Oxford-trained lawyer, businessman and veteran of Ghana's right-leaning political opposition, won presidential election run-offs with 57 per cent of the vote. John Atta Mills, the vice-president and ruling NDC candidate, won 43 per cent.

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He is due to be sworn in next Sunday as Mr Rawlings steps down after completing a constitutional two-term limit as elected president.

At the weekend the contrasts between the outgoing and incoming heads-of-state were on show.

Mr Kufuor was celebrating a thanksgiving mass at a Catholic church frequented by well-heeled members of the Accra intelligentsia.

Meanwhile Mr Rawlings, dressed in military fatigues, barked a defiant acknowledgement of his party's election defeat. He was addressing the armed forces in a parting speech spiced with irony and bombast on the oddly timed occasion of the December 31 anniversary of the coup that brought him to power.

The prospect of his departure after so many years dominating the political scene has stirred bitter memories of his first years in office. His crusade then against decadent officials who contributed to Ghana's downfall in the 1960s and 1970s led to a brutal series of extra-judicial killings.

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He subsequently presided over the most sustained period of stability independent Ghana has known, ushering in democratic reforms while reviving economic growth under a World Bank structural adjustment programme, which became a continental model for development.

But until recently he and his henchmen from the NDC maintained a firm lid on political opposition, ultimately betraying in the view of his critics the spirit of his revolution by growing fat on the proceeds of power.

Mr Kufuor attacked his regime's economic legacy, saying there was too little to show for the billions of dollars poured into Ghana during 14 years of donor support.

"It didn't believe in the private sector being the engine of growth. Unfortunately for it too it didn't manage the public sector efficiently. It allowed corruption to seep into government and there was a lot of waste."The new government would be "the most business friendly Ghana has had to date".

"These people paid lip service to the private sector and I'm telling you it won't be lip service with us, it will be real support.

"Protection is not going to be part of our scheme of doing things. No. We would rather broaden the base of production and try to enlarge the market within which Ghana would earn hard currencies to give us the insulation against external shocks."

Source: By William Wallis in Accra