Ghana — An Example for Africa
How has Ghana influenced the failures and fortunes of its African neighbors?
June 27, 2002
On March 7, 1957, the day after Ghana became the first Sub-Saharan nation to win its independence, founding president Kwame Nkrumah sent a letter to his former colonial ruler, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
Ebullient, but gracious, the letter also contained an ominous warning.
“If we can make a success of our endeavors, it will be demonstrated to the world that a former African colonial territory is as able — and capable of conducting its own affairs — as any country in the world. This will be an event of tremendous significance,” wrote Nkrumah.
“If on the other hand we fail, then we shall have gravely harmed all those millions in Africa who put their trust in us, and looked to Ghana to prove that African people can build a state of their own.”
Nkrumah concluded the letter with a quote from Edmund Burke: “We are on a conspicuous stage and the world marks our demeanor.”
That was not just pomp. At the time, Ghana’s economy kept growing — and it soon became the richest country in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Because Ghana produced more cocoa than anyone else in the world, it was one of the prime cash cows of the British Empire. For a short while, Ghana succeeded in proving itself worthy of the position — and aspirations it had written England about.
It set an example that helped its neighbors win their independence much faster than anyone expected — and Nkrumah drew in international investment and aid that helped the country grow.
But ultimately, things fell apart — and Ghana was soon a leader in failure. The country’s giant development projects sucked Ghana’s economy dry.
Cocoa rotted in the ill-advised silos Nkrumah built trying to develop a chocolate-export industry. The one-time charismatic leader grew harsh, stifled dissent — and started requiring people call him “Osagyefo,” the redeemer.
This pattern became all too familiar in Africa. In 1966, Nkrumah was ousted in one of Africa’s first coups. Chaos reigned as Ghana succumbed to coup after coup for a decade — and then it all seemed to hit a nadir.
In 1979, a flight lieutenant-turned-president named Jerry Rawlings lined up three of the preceding heads of state and shot them — an action shocking even by African standards.
But as many of Ghana’s neighbors would demonstrate — and some are still doing today — a nation can hit rock bottom but still be able to dig itself out.
By the early 1980s, Ghana was again on a conspicuous stage, emerging as one of the world’s first “failed states.”
As the economy plummeted, people starved on the streets — and the government lost so much credibility that villagers began stoning officials who showed up to do basic population registration.
Yet, unlike so many of its neighbors that fell into the chaotic abyss, Ghana recovered. It became the Western example for success for the World Bank structural adjustment.
As the economy rebounded in the early 1990s, it became a leader once again — holding a free and fair election in 2000, in which power actually transferred peacefully from one party to another.
Now Ghana is becoming a leader in perhaps the most promising way since Nkrumah announced his nation’s independence.
It is becoming Africa’s Silicon Valley. Accra is now the most wired place south of Cairo and north of Johannesburg.
And Ghana has turned into Sub-Saharan Africa’s technology center, just as it was its political center 40 years before — and its center of economic despair 20 years after that.
In 1998, there was one Internet café in Ghana’s capital of Accra — now, there are at least 200. Some are just local garages with really slow dial-up modems, others are state of the art — and booming.
One, appropriately called Busy Internet, hosts 100 flat-screen monitors routed online through a speedy satellite. Ghanaians pack the downstairs computers day and night.
Other people just surf the World Wide Web, while some manage businesses with South Korean partners.
Upstairs, companies take advantage of the satellite with offices set up to do everything from e-commerce to processing street tickets for the New York City Police Department.
In downtown Accra, another company called ACS grew from 20 employees to 850 in two years, processing American health insurance claims.
It is the largest such business on the continent and, appropriately enough, ACS’s offices overlook Ghana’s national theater, one of the last remnants of the glorious infrastructure built during Nkrumah’s reign.
Ghana, of course, still faces a wide digital divide. There are more Internet lines in Tokyo after all than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa.
But the trend coming out of Ghana is moving dramatically through the rest of Africa — and history teaches that Africa follows wherever Ghana leads.
And that is not just coincidence. As the Asian economies showed in the 1980s, nothing helps one country succeed like success in a neighboring economy.
It creates a market for goods, spurs competitive instincts — and allows skills, as well as knowledge to transfer. Asia famously set up its pattern of flying geese when Japan led South Korea and Singapore, which in turn led Thailand and the Philippines.
Although Africa has not been able to duplicate a global economy equal to the size of the rest of the world, there is some renewed hope coming from Ghana.
This West African country finds itself on a conspicuous stage, at Africa’s steering wheel once more. The rest of the world should be marking its demeanor.
Fellow at the New America Foundation As a Markle Fellow with the New America Foundation, Mr. Thompson focuses on the Internet’s impact on innovation, from open-source software to cancer research — to democratic reform in Africa. Mr. Thompson was previously an editor at The Washington Monthly and has also contributed to The Boston Globe, The […]