Ghana splashes out for jubilee

The Times of London
Accra, Ghana

Salamatu Abukare, 55, will witness for the first time this week the lavishness that African leaders usually reserve for their own.

She will watch agog as a fleet of 50 Mercedes, 50 BMWs and 30 Jaguars, costing about £3 million, ferry the continent’s elite to a huge party to celebrate Ghana’s 50th anniversary of independence — an event that was regarded as heralding the end of British colonialism.

She will then sit back and watch as the sky is lit up by a fireworks and laser display.

Mrs Abukare lives with her husband and four children in a wooden shack with a corrugated iron roof in the heart of Sodom and Gomorrah — the name given by its residents to the stinking, sprawling suburb of Agbogbloshi on the edge of the shabby capital, Accra.

Her grey hair tied in a bright headscarf, she smiles as she remembers the celebrations when Ghana became the first African colony to break free of British rule. “Then, I never thought I’d be living like this,” she said, gesturing at her surroundings. Many Ghanaians have little to celebrate today. But they bear remarkably little bitterness.

Ghana, which on independence had an economy larger than South Korea or Malaysia, is in many ways the tale of modern Africa. The optimism that accompanied what Harold Macmillan called the “winds of change” disappeared in a morass of civil wars, tribal conflicts and brutal dictatorships.

Africa is the only continent in the world to have become poorer in the past 50 years. Most people eke out an existence on less than 50p a day, and life expectancy is on average — at 46 — lower than a decade ago.

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first charismatic President, who famously danced with the young Queen Elizabeth at a State House function in 1961, was a pan-Africanist who wanted to unite the continent and a staunch believer in African socialism. But his policies, strongly backed by other independence era leaders such as Julius Nyerere, of Tanzania, and Kenneth Kaunda, in Zambia, quickly destroyed the economy of a country that had abundant supplies of gold and cocoa, an efficient civil service, more than £250 million of foreign reserves, and an educational system that fed many international organisations.

Nkrumah was replaced in a Western-backed military coup in 1966 — the first of many as the former “Gold Coast” descended into chaos, corruption and mismanagement. Only neighbouring Nigeria, which has wasted four decades of oil wealth, has had more coups.

That story is not the one that will be told at this week’s party, where at least 24 African leaders — including President Mugabe, who is overseeing the world’s highest inflation in Zimbabwe — will praise the country’s achievements following years of Western economic exploitation and slavery.

Guests such as the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and President Mbeki of South Africa, the main proponent of a new African renaissance, will remain silent or focus on much more recent advances. The Queen, who was “bowled over” by Nyerere in 1957, will be represented by the Duke of Kent.

The present Ghanaian Government, led by President Kufuor, is widely praised for sound economic policies and there is a feeling that after several lost decades, the country is about to fulfil its promise.

Professor Kwame Boafo-Arthur, head of political science at the University of Ghana, says: “The problems today are as daunting as decolonisation itself. Of course, Ghana has had her fair share of instability, but Ghana can look back with pride because it has not gone down the doldrums like other African countries.”

Ghanaians love a party and national pride has come to the help of a government whose Ghana@50 celebration has been criticised for its cost when much of the 22 million population live in poverty.

The parliamentary finance committee was told last week that $5 million (£2.4 million) had been spent on sprucing up Independence Square and Liberation Circle, a further $7.8 million on other infrastructure projects and $1.4 million on administration and publicity.

Events include a Miss Ghana competition, an African fashion show, the longest table of traditional food dishes, a golf competition, lectures, boxing and a beach party.

Karim Abubakari, 25, who runs a bicycle repair business in Agbogbloshi, seems to speak for many ordinary Ghanaians. Wrapped around his head, turban-like, is the green, gold and red of his country’s flag, but he says that he is disappointed: “It is not good. The money should be spent on houses for us, for schools and for toilets, not on luxury cars.”

Yunusa Eliasu, 32, a wood trader, agrees. “We are proud to be Ghanaians but we are not proud to be living like this.”