By Sarah Kent
John Kofi Agyekun Kufuor, President of Ghana, arrived at the Union with fully twenty dignitaries and journalists in tow. It was an impressive, dignified sight. Or at least it was until the President was shown into a private room. Then pandemonium broke loose; suddenly everyone was running up and down the halls of the union, scrutinising very carefully the pictures on the wall and shouting to each other, ‘is that ’61? Have you found ’61?’ This may seem like strange behaviour from fully grown politicians, but there was reason behind the madness. What they were looking for was a picture showing the members of the Union in 1961, a picture which features the President. I was soon running up and down the halls of the Union, in what can only be described as an ungainly manner, leading Ghanaian officials on a wild goose chase along the corridors. Luckily I was prevented from making a complete fool of myself by a call to meet the President.
I walk into the small room in the Union in which the President is being entertained and am immediately impressed. At 6 foot 3, a height that has lead to him being dubbed the Gentle Giant, Kufuor dominates the room, which he is clearly pleased to be in. For him this is not just a trip to Oxford, but a trip down memory lane.
Of course back in 1961, Oxford was a very different place; men’s and women’s colleges were separate and even the men’s colleges closed at 11pm. If you stayed out after that time you were stuck outside the gates for the night. Though the President did not tell me if he was ever left out in the cold without a bed, he did say that his bedroom was not always much more comfortable than the streets. “The rooms were not central heated, my bedroom had no heating system whatsoever and the sitting room had just a very small gas stove. The winter was savage, really savage and all I could do was get myself blankets, lots of blankets. I literally slept with my suit on.”
Pleasant though it is reminiscing, the President has not come to Oxford to be sentimental. He has come to talk about Africa. He is certainly qualified for the job. On a continent with many players, Ghana holds a central role. It was the first sub-Saharan colony in Africa to gain its independence in 1957, and is looked on as something as a role model for African states. It is a relatively stable country, having never experienced the civil wars or ethnic tensions so common in other African states. It also has a lot of potential; one of its primary exports is gold and a large oil field has recently been discovered. It could hardly be seen as short of natural resources. Indeed, Ghana is often hailed as one of Africa’s success stories.
All this sounds rather positive and President Kufuor is rightly proud of his country and the role he and his party have played in its development. Kufuor’s accession to the title of President in 2000 marked a landmark in Ghana’s history; it was the first peaceful handover of power in the country’s short lifespan. But Kufuor’s time is coming to an end. Next year sees another round of Presidential elections for which he will be unable to stand, having served the two terms allowed him by the constitution. He seems content with this. In a country where the smooth and peaceful passage of power is looked on not only as a constitutional demand but as a normal occurrence this may seem unimportant, but it is clearly something the President wishes to emphasise. When I ask him how he feels about having to step down next year he answers firmly, “I entered knowing my time would be up and I tried very hard to use my time productively for the country, and I believe I chalked some successes, and I believe when the time is up I’ll step down.” In England this may sound like stating the obvious, but in Africa, where heads of state frequently ignore the constitution in order to maintain power, this is an admirable statement.
Of course, the President’s serenity about the changeover may have a lot to do with his confidence in his party. Any suggestions that the opposition party may be making a comeback he poo poos as media propaganda. As proof he cites his government’s many successes. “If you went down to the ground to meet people they will tell you of the dramatic economic successes of the government, you would also see the infrastructure in terms of roads, energy, education and healthcare delivery, so many things.” The statement explains his confidence and seems impressive but a little too positive. Charming and earnest though the President appears, it is perhaps not only the opposition who have engaged with the media for its own purposes.
Whatever he maintains, Kufuor’s image is not squeaky clean. Although his government stands on a platform of ‘zero tolerance for corruption’, he has been accused of exactly that, and particularly of nepotism. Yet the President doggedly denies such accusations. When I ask him about it he is quick to defend himself, stating definitively “This is not true.” Of course, he cannot deny that his brother is the Minister of Defence and many of his in-laws hold prominent positions in the government, but the President is quick to defend himself on this count. He explains, “My direct brother, a very brilliant man, a very accomplished man, has been a parliamentarian since before I came to power and I believe he is qualified to be a member of parliament; my brother-in-law, perhaps the most senior politician in Ghana today. He contested me for the candidacy of our party to be president. If you take these two out I do not have a family member in the cabinet.” This sounds rehearsed but, sitting facing the President, his version of events is very compelling and I want to believe that he is the straight-down-the-line official he presents himself to be.
This is almost certainly a naïve hope, but one I’d rather maintain than go down the road of the cynic. Either way, before judgement is passed, Kufor’s presidency must be put in perspective. Corruption is practically a given in any world leader’s assent to power, yet equally it must be acknowledged that he is one of the least corrupt rulers in Africa at the moment. His policy of zero tolerance certainly seems to have been effective. Ghana is currently ranked a joint seventh alongside Egypt as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Given the number of countries in Africa this status is impressive.
And this policy is not Kufuor’s only success. He has also been widely recognised, particularly in the international community, for the economic measures he has introduced in Ghana, many of which have involved increased international development, including the introduction in September of Ghanaian bonds, the first sold by a West African state. A further testament to the success of his economic policy is the award received by Ghana’s Finance Minister just last month from the World Bank, naming Ghana the Top Reforming African Country. But of course there is a downside to all this international recognition. The fact remains that Ghana is still a primarily subsistence agrarian economy and the injection of international money into the economy will not necessarily translate into development.
The problems Ghana faces in such ambitious plans were recently chrystalised in the country’s preparation for the 2008 Africa Cup, which Ghana will host. Two new stadiums had to be built for the event, and contracts were issued to a Chinese company. Immediately a problem arose. In order to complete the stadiums on schedule, the normal technology transfer in such projects – that is, the training and use of local workers – would have to be sacrificed, and sacrificed they were. But Kufuor seems sanguine about such problems. He sees international investment only as a result of internal growth and does not admit to any dangers in his policies.
Ghana is far from being a model country, and Kufuor follows suit. In terms of Africa, though, Ghana is a success story; in terms of politicians, Kufuor is earnest and, more importantly, successful.