Ghana: gloom amid the boom

Retail heaven, Accra

Retail heaven, Accra

It’s been quite some time since I last visited Ghana, where my father hails from, so my recent visit there left me reeling from the amount of change that has come about in the ensuing years. But I should not have been that surprised. There has been much talk recently of Africa’s emerging middle class which is reaping the rewards of of the kind of robust economic growth that deserted much of Europe a long time ago. While we in the west struggle under the weight of government imposed austerity, there are riches to be had in Africa like never before and anyone who still thinks of the continent in terms of mud huts and famine had better adjust their heads.

This prosperity is nowhere more apparent than in Accra Mall in the Ghanaian capital, said to be one of the biggest shopping arcades in West Africa, comprising supermarkets, fancy stores, bars, fast food joints and a multi-screen cinema. It is here that  smartly dressed youngsters hang out and parade themselves like peacocks just like their Westfield peers in London, while security staff patrol its pristine marbled floors compliments of G4S. In the South African owned Shoprite and Game supermarkets, the consumer boom is in full swing as busy shoppers fill their trolleys from the aisles of mostly imported goods, be it apples and fine wines from Europe, pre-packaged foods or flat screen TVs.

The days when economic power lay with the Makola Market women, who once had a reputation for making and breaking governments, are long gone. If you’ve got money in your pocket, why bother to haggle in the scorching heat amid smelly drains when you can do all your shopping  under one roof in air-conditioned convenience ?  ‘It’s Africa but not really Africa,’ admitted my brother as we left the Mall laden with goods. An accountant, he works in property development, a sure fire winner judging by all the shiny new retail and office schemes springing up in central Accra alone.  The place looks like a gigantic building site. Still, my sister-in-law remains stubbornly loyal to the marketplace for some of her produce in much the same way as the die hards in London continue to buy their fruit and veg from the street markets, perhaps in the hope that their patronage will keep them going.

Inevitably, Kentucky Fried Chicken is a popular eatery in Accra. McDonalds hasn’t set up shop yet but I’m told it will only be a matter of time once the franchising rights are sorted out. This is not to say that Ghanaian restaurants and ‘chop bars’ don’t exist. They do in abundance and there is no amount of burgers and KFCs that can undermine the love of local dishes like fufu and soup and ‘red red’. And of course, a better standard of living with more choice has to be seen as a sign of progress, as my sister pointed out, fed up with all my carping. At one time there were only two department stores in Accra, Kingsway and GNTC, aimed mainly at Europeans or rich Africans. Everyone else shopped in the market. Nevertheless, the arrival of western-style  consumerism and brands that are flaunted to announce that Ghanaians have ‘arrived’, is somewhat unsettling to someone brought up in the west and well acquainted with the eroding effects of the spend, spend, spend culture.

It is especially so when the progress is as uneven as it is in Ghana. It hits you as soon as you step foot on Ghana soil as you spend a couple of frustrating hours queuing up to get through immigration in Accra’s too small Kotoka International Airport. Then there are  the frequent power outages, rubbish strewn streets, and the stinking presence of Sodom and Gomorrah, a vast shanty town on the edge of Accra’s central business district. Going back to Accra Mall, it is hell to get in and hell to get out of  because of the the city’s notorious traffic congestion. While plenty of private investment is going into ambitious construction projects, the road network remains largely neglected, unable to cope with the number of new car owners. The result is virtual gridlock during the peak hours, aggravated by the fact that the majority of people can no longer afford to live in central Accra because of rising real estate prices and have to commute to work from the suburbs. With such a captive market, the winners are the ubiquitous street hawkers selling anything from iced water to replica Big Bens.

There is one impressive modernised road development, though, a six lane, 14km highway linking central and Greater Accra complete with overhead bridges, cycle lanes and flyovers. It was completed in 2012 but had nothing to do with the Ghana government as such. Built with money donated by the US’s Millennium Challenge Account as Ghana’s reward for being a stable democracy, I did a double take when I saw what it was called – the George Walker Bush Highway. An urban railway system would single-handedly transform Accra, but the cynic in me believes this will only come about through a similar foreign intervention.

The fact remains that most of Ghana’s major infrastructural projects were built during the nine years of the Kwame Nkrumah government, including major roads. That ended quite some time ago with his overthrow in 1966. Turn off the main highways and you travel largely on potholed dirt roads. Even in the main cities, smart housing schemes are reached via clouds of dust. It seems roads are considered an afterthought in any but the most expensive urban development.

So all that glisters is not gold, or even oil. At the end of  2010 Ghana began pumping oil following the discovery of the offshore Jubilee field  some years earlier, prompting predictions that the country would soon be entering middle income status. However, oil production has been lower than expected, leading to accusations that the government, unwittingly or otherwise, hyped it all up. Go west to Takoradi, the port city that was all set to benefit most from oil production, and the many gleaming new banks fail to lift the air of general disappointment. ‘The oil boom is only in name,’   one trader in household goods glumly  told me. ‘Many people opened up businesses here in preparation for it but the extra customers did not come, so there are more of us competing for less.’

A big problem is that major oil companies like Tullow and Kosmos are based in Accra and fly their workers in and out of Takoradi, a journey of around 30 minutes. In any case, the centre of operations, the production platforms, are far out to sea.  A joke doing the rounds at the moments is that prostitutes who  moved to the city en masse in readiness for the expat workers now offer the cheapest services in the country, so much have they had to cut their prices.

Apart from oil, the country is rich in other mineral resources, gold, manganese, bauxite to name but a few, as well as cash crops like cocoa. But it seems to have settled into the role accorded it by the colonialists as an exporter of raw goods rather than a manufacturer of products. That’s why almost everything you buy in the shops is imported.  A broad industrial base, not to mention a beefed up service sector, would help dent Ghana’s high graduate unemployment rate  – there are so many out of work that they have formed their own ‘union’. The oil sector employs better qualified foreigners, the government having failed to put its own anticipatory training regime in place, and at the moment the best job prospects seem to be in the thriving banking and finance sector, but there are only so many banks on the ground.

Right now the Ghana government’s finances are squeezed as it copes with a ballooning deficit and, for what its worth, rating agency Fitch, has downgraded the country’s credit rating to negative from stable. Recent falls in the global price of gold and oil will not have helped. As Ghana enters the global economy as a haven for foreign investment and as a consumer of western goods, it also must confront the contradictions that this throws up. Ghana may remain a poster boy for African neo-liberalism, but it should be mindful of what has happened to Europe and North America since 2008. An expanding middle class, with  enough money to spend on an enviably comfortable lifestyle with  private education and healthcare thrown in, is no excuse for a neglected state sector.

This brings me back to Accra Mall again. In a book store there, I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole section devoted to Nkrumah, a change from a few years back when it was hard to find anything written by him in his own country. These days  politicians of all persuasions revere him for his courage and vision as a matter of course. But, sadly, they seem to have no intention of following in his footsteps. I wonder if they have even read his books.

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