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General News of Saturday, 30 May 2020


Coronavirus: Weathering the pandemic and elections in Ghana

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Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to ease restrictions when it lifted lockdown measures on 20 April. The country’s Minister of Finance Ken Ofori-Atta argued the 21-day lockdown of Ghana’s biggest cities had become financially unbearable for most of the population, a concern that gave the government little choice but to lift the restriction.

The country, which identified its first COVID-19 cases on 12 March, has seen the numbers since then rise more than six-fold to 7,000-plus including those since the lockdown was lifted. The death toll, however, remains relatively low at 34.

The reality is Ghana ranks in the top five African countries for testing rate per citizen. And the lockdown clearly brought the economy to its knees with several years of economic growth of 6% or more being wiped out by people sitting at home, including, as Minister Ofori-Atta described it, a significant portion of the nearly 90% of the population that work in the informal part of the economy and go to work each day to earn wages.

Therefore lifting the lockdown and jump-starting the Ghanaian economy should be the end of this saga. But the saga extends beyond COVID-19 and a cooling economy…

Economic fallout

The International Monetary Fund provided $1bn in emergency funds to Ghana in April. The World Bank also agreed to a debt standstill with the country that is estimated to free up approximately $500m in the short term through deferred interest and principal payments.

These two measures, however, are not enough, to curb the growing chatter among creditors, multilaterals, and governments that Ghana is increasingly at risk of an unexpected (and big) economic fallout.

A group of private creditors to sub-Saharan African sovereigns recently created a platform to directly engage governments in dialogue on debt-related matters. The structure, called the Africa Private Creditor Working Group (AfricaPCWG), includes more than 25 members that are understood to hold between 30% and 75% of the more prominent African Eurobond issuers, including Angola, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria.

The backdrop to the working group is a narrative of uncontrollable debts during an unforeseen pandemic. Zambia has already requested proposals for potential debt restructuring with other countries, such as Rwanda, openly stating a need to defer debt payments or renegotiate terms.

A working group within the African Union is considering the creation of a special purpose vehicle to be guaranteed by member states to support and theoretically financially backstop some governments in the short term. This SPV or another form of credit enhancement is assumed crucial to circumventing future credit rating downgrades due to potential missed payments or requests to re-profile debt payments. Any downgrade or potential sell-off in African debt would also push up borrowing costs for African countries.

Such an outcome for Ghana, which would include other governments and/or multilateral parties guaranteeing its debt, would create both an economic and political catastrophe for the country. The deterioration of the country’s supply and distribution chains in the short term due to this pandemic is seemingly digestible or, at least, understandable for the Ghanaian public.

Elections this year

Ghanaians will go to the polls later this year where President Nana Akufo-Addo will battle his predecessor John Mahama. The election will create a theoretical ‘Battle of the Records’ where former President Mahama will be claiming his economic performance was underappreciated, particularly when pitted against the current economy of President Akufo-Addo.

The strategy, if employed, makes sense as lagging commodity prices drag down the economy coupled with the destabilzing effects of a global pandemic. That said, this version of the economic discussion unfairly distills recent economic effects based on simplified analysis of what are greater challenges in the country.

Firstly, the growth over the past few years has not necessarily changed the daily lives of many Ghanaians. As a significant portion of the country’s populace makes a living through daily informal work, the lack of a strong currency over the years has hit many locals in the pocket while fuel and food prices have floated up and the government has focused on tightening its public spending.

Secondly, the costs of governing Ghana remain an issue of contention with the public. Locals have grappled with the number of government ministers and their accompanying teams. Beyond those costs, the coordination of a national election has always drawn post-election scorn from the incoming party with allegation of flagrant spending for political gain and victory. Thirdly, economic growth has not necessarily changed the outlook for the country. A bigger economy does not magically generate more revenue, particularly considering spending related to various sectors. For example, government spending currently buoys the electricity sector through its period of transition as the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) and Volta River Authority (VRA) struggle to collect fees and the government tries to renegotiate contracts with independent power producers (IPPS) in order to right-size off-take and fees to today’s situation in the country. Furthermore, the improved oil sector in the country has been short-circuited by low oil prices – albeit nowhere at the same level as Nigeria.

Taxing the informal economy remains a daunting challenge for Ghana as with most other African governments. Efforts to broaden the tax base accordingly has generally been fruitless for recent administrations. According to the IMF, taxes account for a smaller share of GDP for Ghana compared to other developing countries with Ghana remaining at “high risk of debt distress” for another consecutive year. More distressing, interest payments eat into approximately one-third of the government revenues, which is more than education or healthcare.

Today and beyond for Ghana

The question for Ghana today should go beyond a pure comparison of economic performance between presidents. Ghana rightfully remains one of Africa’s most promising economies. It has benefited from oil discoveries in recent years yet still has worked hard to diversify the larger economy.

Elections have been fluid with successive transitions between administrations, making the country a beacon of political stability in Africa. That said, as any debtor will tell you: creditors love and respect you until you miss a payment (default) or others start saying you are not good for your payment (credit downgrade).

Ghana can (and should) avoid both scenarios. The first step may be simply changing debits and credits by changing lifestyle and spending habits. But as is often the case, that is easier said than done.