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Opinions of Sunday, 12 August 2018

Columnist: Dr. Nii Moi Thompson

A tribute to J. H. Mensah

 Joseph Henry Mensah, perhaps the last of the post-independence Ghanaian technocrats who worked directly with Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in the 1960s, died in Accra on 12th July, 2018. He was 89. 
 
A brilliant economist, a shrewd politician, and an opinionated yet accommodating administrator, he deserved far more than the scrappy error-filled obituaries that greeted his death in the Ghanaian media.  The Seven-Year Development Plan, for example, whose preparation Mr. Mensah led in his capacity as the Executive Secretary of the National Planning Commission under the chairmanship of Dr. Nkrumah, spanned the period 1963/64-1969/70, and not 1962-1969 as contained in Wikipedia and blindly circulated by the local media.
 
I will let the media redeem themselves later with a more fitting obit, but for now I’d like to share a little-known slice of Mr. Mensah's professional life as an economist who, besides the Seven-Year Development Plan, played a pivotal role in one of the most tumultuous periods in Ghana's contemporary history: 1969 to 1972, when the Progress Party of Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia governed the country.  
 
As minister of Finance and Economic Planning, Mr. Mensah was at the forefront of restoring stability to an economy dislocated by the coup of 1966 and weakened by the mismanagement of the military-police junta, the National Liberation Council (NLC), that staged the coup. After three years of NLC rule, the leadership of the country passed to the Progress Party, with Mr. Mensah, an MP from Sunyani, taking on the onerous task of managing the country’s finances and economy.  He had gotten a head start earlier, when the UN Economic Commission for Africa seconded him to the NLC as an adviser to the Commissioner of Finance Gen. A. A. Afrifa and indeed assumed the position of Commissioner of Finance himself in the last six months of the NLC.  He was therefore familiar with the terrain in which he was now about to work under a democratic government.         
 
He worked with a team of advisers from Harvard University’s Development Advisory Services (DAS), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as a coterie of Ghanaian technocrats, many of whom, like Mr. Mensah, had previously worked abroad with international organisations like the UN.   The Ghanaians included the Governor of the Bank of Ghana, Dr. J. H. Frimpong-Ansah, and economist Dr. Jones Ofori-Atta (father of the current minister of finance) as deputy to Mr. Mensah in charge of planning.  The overall mandate of the team, which was mainly a hold-over from the NLC period, was to assist with development planning and project preparation for external funding. 
 
For the most part, they got along well, occasional disagreements notwithstanding, and managed to bring some sanity to the economy.  In his book, Development Economics in Action: A Study of Economic Policies in Ghana, Tony Killick, an alum of the DAS, observed that Mr. Mensah was a self-described “pragmatic socialist” who was “preoccupied with three main problems:  growth, employment, and equity”. 
 
By August 1971, however, disagreements over policies and strategies had hardened into entrenched positions over the best way to navigate the vortex of politics and economics in national development, with the indomitable Mr. Mensah arrayed against everybody else, including the prime minister, who by now was under the spell of the advisers and often at loggerheads with his own finance minister. 
 
The biggest bone of contention between Mr. Mensah and what the political scientist Ronald T. Libby called the “coalition” was how best to resolve Ghana’s debt overhang amidst a worsening balance of payments position.  Cocoa prices had tanked, leading to a depletion of the country’s international reserves and difficulties in servicing its external debt and financing imports. 
 
Something had to be done, but what?  And how?
 
Among other things, the IMF proposed a devaluation of the cedi against the dollar, but Mr. Mensah would have none of that, arguing in his usual methodical way that it was politically unwise and ultimately “self-defeating”.   He insisted, instead, on a combination of debt rescheduling and some write-offs as an interim measure, pointing out that the situation was only cyclical and would improve with a rebound in cocoa prices in 1972. 
 
When his counterparts in the British Treasury proved pig-headed in acceding to his request, he reminded them of the £200 million “loan” that the British helped themselves to at the end of the Second World War, when Ghana was still their colony and they were in charge of her finances.  That “loan” was used to rebuild a British economy decimated by war and a society gutted by grief and despair.  At the very least, so went Mr. Mensah’s thinking, they owed us some flexibility, if not outright concessions, in our own hour of need. 
 
Now under all but the complete influence of the “coalition”, the prime minister sided with the advisers in key policy debates and began marginalising his finance minister, attending important international meetings on Ghana’s debt without him, and turning to the governor of the central bank for advice that he had previously sought from Mr. Mensah.  Earlier, the prime minister had taken direct control of the planning functions of the ministry, leaving J. H. with only finance.  But ever head-strong and determined, J. H. soldiered on, confronting his adversaries with meticulously argued alternatives to their draconian policy proposals.
 
But one person, no matter how brilliant, no matter how determined, could only do so much, and in the end, with the full support of the prime minister behind them, the “coalition” won the day:  On 27th December, 1971, just as Ghanaians were unwinding from the mirth and stupor of Christmas, the government announced a 44.0% devaluation of the cedi against the dollar, sending prices sky-rocketing almost overnight and creating social and economic panic.  Even airlines suspended operations, pending a realignment of their fares, and a reported increase in the minimum wage as a “sweetener” to the devaluation did little to placate embittered workers.  
 
But history would vindicate J. H. Mensah yet.  On 13th January, 1972, just as he had feared, the government lost whatever was left of its “political capital” to a military coup by Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, who set up the National Redemption Council (NRC), revalued the cedi by 42.2%, and, with considerable bluster, repudiated Ghana’s debt through his famous declaration, “y? ntua” (“We won’t pay”).
 
Contrary to fears by the advisers that a repudiation would lead to a freeze on supplier’s credit to Ghana, creditors had no choice but to accept the new reality, absorb some of the debt, reschedule others, and continue to finance imports.  Even more satisfying, world cocoa prices recovered dramatically, in line with Mr. Mensah’s prediction, jumping from US$583 per tonne in the 1971/72 season to US$1,014 in the 1972/73 season, which translated into US$408.3 million in export earnings, compared to US$274 million the previous season. 
 
I was a primary school pupil in Agona Swedru during these heady days, and, as to be expected, blissfully unaware of the high drama that was unfolding in faraway Accra with implications for my wellbeing.  The little I knew of the mythical J.H. Mensah was from the occasional news bulletin on Radio Ghana.  I had not a clue what he actually did, except once when I heard him on radio explaining why the government was giving us free bars of Golden Tree chocolate, along with Apex pens and exercise books, at the beginning of every term.  
 
Decades later (in the early 2000s), when I was working as an economist, I found myself sitting next to the legendary (and now no longer mythical!) J. H. Mensah at Joy FM studios in Accra discussing, what else, economics. He was then an MP from Sunyani East and senior minister in the government of the New Patriotic Party. 
 
He was still sharp of mind, rattling off statistics like he was singing a song, and making the most cogent arguments on the issues of the day, including the need to link budgets to plans.  At one point, I suggested on air that he should write a book, to which he responded by placing his fore finger vertically over his mouth, and, leaning away from the microphone, whispered with a grin to me, “I am working on it”.
 
In the years that followed, after he became the chairman of the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC), our paths crossed occasionally during the various workshops that the Commission organised, including an attempt to revive long-term planning to provide strategic direction for short- and medium-term policies.  His reputation as a workaholic, who treasured his red wine in late afternoons as he settled down to work deep into the night, was well-known within and outside the walls of the Commission.  With a heart of gold, he was also said to have paid the school fees for the children of some of the Commission’s staff whose salaries proved inadequate to the task.
 
Much later, when I became the Director-General of NDPC (a comparable position to what he had held under Nkrumah), I led a delegation from the Commission to visit him at his residence at East Legon, Accra.  That was July 2016, and time, it seemed, had taken a toll on him physically, although he walked, with only minimum difficulty, into his living room to welcome us.    
 
He had lost much of his voice, but whatever he whispered was audible enough to make for some light conversation between us.  After the customary pleasantries, he shared snippets of his life’s story with us, including the challenges he faced in raising awareness over the importance of planning.   “I give you my blessings and wish you luck”, he concluded, as we flocked around him for a group picture. 
 
It was the ultimate word of encouragement from the Father of Development Planning in Ghana, the man who single-handedly took on a team of international experts and won, with history firmly on his side – one of the most brilliant economists Ghana has ever produced. 
 
We felt a sense of gratification and validation for our work as we took leave of him.   
 
 Attaa Mensah, ob? m?d??.  Yaa ni oya w? odzo gbaa?!