Ghana @ 60: Taking Stock, Did We Go or Did We Come as a Nation? By Ben Ofosu-Appiah & Obeng-Diawuoh

Sixty years in the life of a man (and I mean this in generic terms) is a very important milestone. If Ghana were a human, he/she will be hitting the retirement age in March. You know what that means, don’t you? It presupposes that you must have worked hard, put together some decent savings to help you live a decent life after retirement. In the Ghanaian culture, if you fail to save towards retirement, you are described as a stupid old man, who failed to work hard in his youth or just enjoyed partying, drinking, womanizing etc. making all the wrong choices in life.

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Has Ghana as a country put down some good savings at the age of 60 for its citizens, particularly the children of today and those to be born? In the period of 60 years, South Korea went from a country devastated by war to become an OECD member state, Singapore, Malaysia all went from a poor country to very decent upper middle class countries knocking on the doors of becoming a first world country. Where do we stand in this? Will Ghana be described as a ‘stupid old man” who fooled about in his youth and failed to make decent savings for its people? Where do we stand as a country 60 years after independence? Today our debt to GDP stands at above 70%, about 40% of our population still survive on less than US$2.00 a day, there is still open defecating where shockingly Ghana ranks only second to Sudan in Africa, we still have dumsor, statistics are hard to come by but unemployment may be as high as 40%, many have no access to clean drinking water, basic health services, and formal education.

The President Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo was charitable in his choice of words when he described Ghana’s development in the last 60 years as slow. It has been painfully slow and in fact in many instances, we either stagnated or retrogressed. It is disheartening to note that Ghana, once the beacon of hope in Africa, a country so blessed with many natural resources cannot meet the most basic of its needs after sixty years of political independence. What went wrong? Where did the promise and the dream go?

There’s an article that I like sharing with Ghanaians on the occasion of important milestone in the country’s history hoping it will prick our conscience to start addressing with all seriousness the issues that have bedeviled our development efforts over the years. I have shared it a few times in the past, but it is timeless. So I would like to draw readers attention to a very well written and well analyzed article by my dear friend B.K. Obeng-Diawuo, originally titled: “Ghana: The Burden of Underdevelopment”.  So I am reproducing the original article here. Credit is due him. Please read on.

Sometimes, I even wonder if we aren’t going back instead of forward. I grew up at Asamankese in the Eastern Region. When I take a look back at the township, in terms of social development, I do not find any remarkable changes that have occurred in the last forty years that I have known this beautiful town. The first and only public water pipes that were laid for the town were provided by the Progress Party government of Dr. Kofi Busia in 1970. Around the same time, the Asamankese-Suhum road was constructed under Busia’s Rural Development Programme. Ever since then no more pipe stands have been added to the already existing ones; infact, the few that were erected have long since ceased to function and have not been serviced since.

No new roads have been added to the ones that were constructed in the early 1970s by the Busia government. This is regardless of the fact that the number of vehicles on our roads have increased by over 1,000% since those roads were built. No new School buildings have been added to the already existing ones. The same buildings that served as classrooms and offices for the Asamankese-Anum Presby School, where I received my Public School education, have not seen any major renovations. The same old dwarf walls remain to this day. In some parts of the town, erosion has undercut several structures, so much so that what used to be a favourite haunt of children have become decrepit death traps that people stay away from. Yet the township has increased in size far beyond what used to be its boundaries in the 1970s.

I have only used Asamankese as a microcosmic picture of what may be happening elsewhere in Ghana. I am sure that many other towns in Ghana have undergone similar structural damage and ecological atrophy. Some people look at the number and sizes of private buildings that have sprung up across the country since say, 1990, and the number of cars that ply our roads today as opposed to what the number was in the same period, and conclude that Ghana is ‘developing’. I call this ‘Growth without Development’. These optimists are often too quick to point out that if you go to Accra or Kumasi and see the cars that some people are driving, “you wouldn’t believe it”. They argue that the Developed World must stop calling us Third World because we drive the same cars that they drive and live the same affluent lifestyles that they live.

My answer to these arguments is this: majority of the people in Ghana do not live in Accra, Kumasi, etc. and even in Kumasi, Accra, etc, less than 1% of the people drive those cars. Whenever you notice one stae of the art vehicle passes by, because your attention is riveted on that car for the next five, or even ten, minutes, you do not notice that ten or 15 tro-tro buses and /or taxis will pass by before another similarly state of the art car zooms by. The ‘tro-tros’ and taxis that limp by in between the porsh cars, carry the bulk of the people who live in the cities – the average person, those who constitute the other 99% of the population and for whom ever riding in such cars remains, for now, only a mirage. In fact the average person does not even live in Kumasi, Accra or Takoradi. How many of such cities do we have in Ghana? The average person lives in places like Aburi, Akropong, Asankragwa, Enchi, Goaso, Sankore, Bogoso, Ayanfuri, Ateiku, Huni-Valley (these are places I have lived before, so am familiar with life there) etc. And how many of these cars and buildings do we see in these towns?

It is fine that people drive such sleek automobiles in Ghana, because it graces their egos and make them feel really good; but that is not a true indicator of the fact that we are not a Third World country. The true indicator comes when that US$150,000 cross country vehicle overturns somewhere between Obuasi and Akim Oda (one of the worst roads I have ever travelled), or veers off the Goaso-Sankore road. Suddenly, there is an emergency on our hands. Several people are unconscious and some are losing blood quickly. You pull out your cell phone to call, and all lines are busy. You may never reach the police because they do not even have a telephone. But let’s say you finally reach the New Edubiase or Goaso police, you are most likely to be told that there is no vehicle at the station because the District Police Chief has travelled to Kumasi, or Sunyani in the only official vehicle. So you resort to self help, which is what we rely on for many things in Ghana. You literally beg the commercial vehicles that pass by, and a kind driver finally stops to empty his Sprinter of its passengers and offers to transport the victims to the ‘nearby hospital’. This phrase ‘nearby hospital’ always fascinates me. Sometimes it is three hours’ drive away.

The accident victims are, by now, in a hopeless situation because no first aid/care is being administered on the way to the hospital. What is even worse, the fact that they were scooped out of the wreck by untrained, on-the-spur-of-the-moment road-side paramedics who did not give any thought to the correct way of handling accident victims, has even pushed these hapless victims much closer to the point where they are almost beyond any help. Now, you finally arrive at the Assin Foso Government Hospital only to discover that the only doctor on duty has already left. It takes about three hours to get him to come back. Tragically, all of this has taken a total of about five hours! Five hours in an emergency like this one is too long a time to be toying with the lives of accident victims. By now most of the critically injured victims – those who need oxygen, or those who have been bleeding from major arteries are too far gone to be redeemed. Many are dead, and the luckier ones are comatose – and may never regain consciousness, because they have suffered massive brain damage. A few others have had their spinal cords severed at the base of their necks and at other delicate spots because of their handling by untrained persons.

Unfortunately, this is what many Ghanaians go through every day – whether they are driving state-of the-art cross country vehicles (V8s) or glistening salon cars; or whether they are brandishing the latest models of NOKIA cell phones, Blackberry or iPhone 7. Many people die untimely deaths because what is considered basic services in other lands are beyond our reach in Ghana. And this is regardless of whether you drive a Jaguar, a V8 or you steal a ride on a Goaso-Berekum ‘kosan’ ‘watonkyene’. In other words, the concept of Development is not necessarily about sleek automobiles, cell phones, computers, etc. Development includes among many other things, how speedily certain essential amenities and social services could be accessed by the people of a given country. A country’s level of development also manifests in times of emergencies when swift action is needed to cope with situations that are spiraling out of control.

The physical tools that are considered status symbols in Ghana, or that are seen as the paraphernalia of the elite, such as sleek cars, high-rise buildings, overhead roads, cell phones, computers, microwave ovens, rice cookers, etc. are merely what I call the accessories of a country’s level of development. They are not the real indicators of whether or not a country is developed. In other more developed lands, these things are not used to assess the level of development because they are basic to life. The foundations of a country’s level of development go much deeper than these superficial indices. Much of the time, the real indicators of Development are intangible factors that we do not see as we go about our normal routines – until something critical happens.

Consider this hypothetical case: A person may be living on Welfare in any of the Developed countries of the world. She may be living in a run-down apartment in a slum area of the city. She may not have a car; maybe not even a telephone. But at 7am when people are leaving their homes to go to work, her child is suddenly taken ill. She asks her neighbour to call the emergency number for her, and you’ll bet that within 5-10 minutes, or even less time than that, an ambulance may be whisking her child to the nearest hospital. In her country it is really the nearest hospital. The early morning rush hour traffic would not get in their way, because this is an emergency vehicle hurtling down a city road on a dedicated lane. And even before they get to the hospital, treatment of her child may have already begun. The woman may not have any medical insurance, but that problem would not prevent her child from receiving critical care at the time that she needs it most. She would not have to put forward any down payment before her child is given the essential care she needs.

If a similar thing happened to a family in Ghana at 7am, there obviously may not be any ambulance to her rescue. But that family drives a US$50,000 cross country vehicle or a Jaguar. So fine, they haul the dying child into the car and roll out of their drive way at East Legon. The struggle then begins to fight the early morning infamous traffic under the one lane bridge or the Tetteh Quarshie Circle jams because this is not an emergency vehicle. I am nervous because this little girl’s life is slipping away in the early morning Accra traffic, and no one seems to care because again, this is not an emergency vehicle. In fact, on the contrary, the ‘tro-tros’ and taxis and the ‘mmobrowas’ are fuming with anger because they mistakenly think that this wealthy family is trying to bully them out of the way. So, quite often, out of spite, the ‘mmobrowa’ would get in their way to frustrate them. I wonder if this critically sick child will ever make it to the ‘nearest hospital’. Don’t make any mistakes. This is a filthy rich family who could fly their child out of the country and pay for her treatment without sweat.

This is a very wealthy family who may even have millions of cedis loaded onto their car ready to pay for the best treatment that any Accra doctor would offer their dying child. Let’s say their daughter was pulled out of the bottom of their swimming pool. When a person is unconscious under such circumstances, she needs oxygen to her brain to avert brain damage, she has only minutes to receive the care she requires or she would become permanently brain-damaged and later die. The traffic is so heavy that even before the family gets to the Airport intersection, their child breathes her last.

So on the one hand a working class woman on welfare receives timely and quality treatment to save her child from imminent death. On the other hand, an affluent family in Ghana watches on as their child’s life slips away because of in-built weaknesses in the system that her country runs. That’s why it doesn’t pay to steal your country’s money as a politician to give yourself a better life at the expense of all. That cannot save you in an emergency. Politicians must think of a way of making life better for all not for themselves and their families.

It seems obvious on a casual look that the wealthy Ghanaian family enjoys a higher standard of living than the American, British or Japanese woman in our hypothetical story. But it might be a little simplistic to come to this hasty conclusion without analyzing what goes into making a country a Developed entity. What constitutes a high standard of life? Is it seen only in pleasant physical structures and contraptions, or in intangible attributes as well? In developed societies, those whom political power is entrusted think of how to make life better for all not how to make things better for themselves and their families. I don’t want to dwell too much on the subject of ‘standard of life’ because it is a highly controversial one. Suffice it to say that, I only want to stir up debate in your minds about what really constitutes a higher standard of life using the above hypothetical story as a tool of analysis.

The point I am making here is that, it is not enough to be wealthy in a Third World country and assume that all is well and will continue to be well. There are times when your wealth may be useless in your hands to save you from certain situations. That is what our elders call, SIKAMUMU (literally, money that cannot speak, but idiomatically it means useless wealth). On the other hand, it does not always require money or status to receive some of the more important services in the more advanced societies of the world. I believe that we would be better off to know quite clearly where we stand when it comes to the roll call of development after 60 years of nationhood. This would jolt us into action, because we need to take drastic measures to prevent a further slide down the hole we are in right now.

Our governments, past and present, do not seem to feel this sense of urgency. Successive governments have failed our country! There are certain basic services or social amenities and infrastructures that are needed to deal with emergencies, especially those that border on life and death. We thought that 60 years of independence and 24 years of uninterrupted democratic rule would provide us with a certain level of development that would form a basis for pulling Ghana out of this present predicament. The benefit of being a late comer is that you learn from the mistakes of others and take the positive lessons from those who managed to lift their people out of poverty within the same period that we messed up big time as a nation. We can learn from Singapore, Malaysia and South Korean experience.

Yep, Mr. Obeng-Diawuoh did a cogent analysis of the concepts of development and underdevelopment as they apply to our current situation in Ghana. I think it is a brilliant analysis that deserves commendation from all. Are we moving forward or backwards or maybe we are just marking time 60 years after independence.


The author is a senior political, economic and social analyst.