Sunday, February 4, 2007

More Power to the People

Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations are March 6th. The government will spend the equivalent of $20 million dollars to herald the countries 50-year severance from Colonial rule.

Malaysia, a country on a similar geographic parallel to Ghana, is also celebrating 50 years of independence from Britain this year.

Educated Ghanaians who have expressed their thoughts to us on the March 6th celebrations are furious with their government. They don’t believe there’s much to celebrate. Malaysia, they say, has made huge strides since 1947 and deserves recognition. Ghana has only stepped backwards.

There are two things most often cited as examples of Ghana’s lack of development and poor management. The first is electricity. This year Ghana is back to regularly scheduled blackouts, something that last happened ten years ago. In 1996 the same situation caused the power shortages. Lake Volta couldn’t handle energy production for the entire country so the people were forced to ration electricity. One angry Ghanaian said, “If the government can’t learn from problems of the past, how can we expect them to lead us into the future.”

Ten years ago, he said, there were planned blackouts every three days that rotated throughout different neighbourhoods. At the time there was a popular TV show that had taken the city by storm. On blackout nights, people could be seen running from neighbourhood to neighbourhood carrying their TVs to homes with power.

The solution this year is to stop supplying energy to Togo and Benin. Nigeria is supposed to take over this role so that Ghana can focus on providing power to its own country. People are skeptical that this will work. Nigeria has worse problems than Ghana with even more frequent blackouts.

We’ve also heard that many small villages and towns have been promised access to power for almost a decade. Much of the mineral resources are found in rural areas, but due to lack of power, once mined, they are shipped by rail to the coast, and then brought by ship to Accra, where they are processed. With regular power, the minerals could be processed in the areas where they’re mined bringing jobs and prosperity to desperately poor parts of Ghana. Instead, many young people who can’t find work in their home towns leave in search of work in the cities. This relocation causes resource problems in the cities, and high unemployment levels.

Joseph, a new friend of ours, is from one of these small villages. He told us that every four years prior to an election, a government official makes an announcement that power will come to his village. One time they even put up electrical poles to suggest progress. Still, he said, there is no power, and he along with many others, have been forced to leave for the city.

The second example cited is the case of the Palm Oil. Palm Oil production is huge in Ghana. In the late 40s the Malaysians asked to come in and learn about Palm Oil production. Ghana opened its doors and taught the Malaysians how to process Palm Oil. At the time, the majority of Ghana’s Palm Oil exports went to Malaysia.

Malaysia took its new found knowledge and started developing its own Palm Oil industry. Now, Malaysia not only supplies all of its own Palm Oil, but it has also found multiple uses for this product and is exporting these products internationally. Ghana, we are told, is still only using Palm Oil for its primary purpose - to make Palm Oil soup.

The 20 million dollars the government is spending on the Independence celebrations could be used to take electricity into villages and towns in the country, and to encourage industrial innovation, we’ve been told. One cynical Ghanaian, who works for the BBC and CNN said with a wry laugh. “I’d like to see what they celebrate.”

When asked if they have hope for the country, people we meet hesitate and then say they have faith in the people, but not the government. Ghanaians, we are told, are resilient, and will keep going.

Still, one of the most common expressions I hear every day is “Let’s wait and see.”

At a Jubilee lecture last week celebrating Ghana’s upcoming 50th anniversary, the Chairman of the Council of State stood up and spoke pointedly to the audience of 2,000 of Ghana’s elite. He was following Kofi Annan, who had given a very positive, inspiring speech on Ghana’s progress over the past half century. The Chairman obviously didn’t want people leaving thinking everything in Ghana was okay. He looked into the eyes of everyone in the room and said seriously, “We must work harder, we must work quicker.”

Every day I wake up with these words in my mind. He’s right. I’m just not quite sure how to manage this effectively in the heat. Do they have more air conditioning in Malaysia?

- Janet

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