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Opinions of Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

Is cocoa a curse or a blessing to Ghana ? (1)

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Once upon a time, it would have been unimaginable for any Ghanaian to ask whether cocoa had been a blessing or a curse to his country.

For when I was growing up in the green forest area of the Eastern Region, where a good percentage of Ghana's cocoa is grown, it was generally assumed that cocoa was an unmitigated blessing unto us.

This facile acceptance of cocoa as the gift of Mother Nature to Ghana, is one of the travesties in our national life. For the existence of a cocoa industry in Ghana is entirely due to the diligent work of men and women!

Cocoa is not even native to Ghana, but was brought to us from another West African country – Equatorial Guinea – by a Ghanaian called Tetteh Quarshie. He was a blacksmith, who had gone there to practice his trade, which, then as now, knew no international boundaries.

Spanish explorers had come across – or as the now discredited Eurocentric view of history would have us believe, “discovered” – cocoa in Central America and had brought some to their then colony, Equatorial Guinea, to cultivate. They used the beans for making a beverage and also, for creating chocolate.

This was how the Aztecs and other Latin American peoples had used cocoa for thousands of years before they were conquered by the Spaniards. (At the time Tetteh Quarshie went there, however, Equatorial Guinea had passed from Spanish to Portuguese rule.)

Tetteh Quarshie had to smuggle his cocoa from the Equatorial Guinea island of Fernando Po, because the Portuguese had commercialised the crop and didn't want any competitors in its production. He took his cocoa to Mampong-Akwapim, where he planted the first beans in 1879.

Tetteh Quarshie's experiment was successful, and when the people of the area heard that cocoa was being purchased by Europeans, they went to him to buy seeds to go and plant. In just two decades, cocoa had spread through Ghana's forest regions. The first exports were shipped to Europe around 1908.

Volumes exported were 20,000 metric tonnes in 1908;41,000 metric tonnes by 1911. Exports peaked at 213,000 metric tonnes in the 1930s.

The Government of the Gold Coast regarded cocoa as a godsend, because the farmers could not export it direct to Europe but needed the intervention of European firms, who organised the crop's purchase from the farmers and then shipped it abroad.

To be permitted to do this, the foreign companies had to surrender part of their receipts from the crop as “export duty” to the Government. Very soon, cocoa export duty was fetching the Government no less than 60% of national revenue, and nearly 75% of foreign exchange earnings.

In global terms, Ghana's production hovered around 40% of total world output until about 1980, when Ghana was overtaken as the largest producer in the world by her neighbor, the-Ivory Coast.

So, if Ghana had been benefiting so handsomely from cocoa production, how could cocoa ever be considered as a “curse” to her?

The answer is that cocoa has created an almost permanent tension between the cocoa farmers of Ghana and their successive Governments. From the beginning of the industry, Governmental intervention has prevented the farmers from maximising their earnings from the crop they produce.

Under colonial rule, foreign merchants were the only people allowed to buy farmers' produce and transport it to chocolate factories in Europe and America. None of the value added that accrued to cocoa as it was manufactured into expensive chocolates, reached the farmers.

Additionally (as noted above) a sizable export duty was creamed off the purchase price by the Government. The farmer just became a sitting duck, or – to mix metaphors – a “goose” that laid golden eggs.

The farmers were obliged to accept whatever price the overseas merchants decided that raw cocoa was worth.

And no matter how tint that was, the Government creamed off a chunk of it. The farmers regarded this situation as so unsatisfactory bad that as early as 1924, they embarked on the first of several cocoa “holdups”, during which they refused to sell any cocoa to the cocoa merchants.

Many farmers underwent the traumatic experience of having to burn their cocoa beans because they had been stored for so long – unsold – that they had become mouldy and thereby unsalable.

Despite the futility – and humiliation – that characterised the 1924 boycott, the farmers felt so cheated that they again embarked on another boycott in the crop season of 1930-1931. And once more in 1937-38!

But all these boycotts failed to move the cocoa merchants. That was when the idea that cocoa might be a “curse” to Ghana began to gain ground. Why a curse? A curse because you used your labour and your land to cultivate the cocoa crop.

You also used labour to harvest the crop, dry it in the sun without allowing rainfall to ever wet the beans, as they would be ruined if they got wet. And yet you never knew exactly how much you would get for the crop! Until the “cocoa-purchase price” was announced in Accra!

The maintenance of this system whereby the Government and the foreign cocoa merchants held all the cards was certainly was one of the planks that antagonised the farmers against Ghana's first African Government.

Ghana formed by Dr Kwame Nkrumah, as Leader of government Business, in 1951. Dr Nkrumah was obliged to use a British Minister of Finance, and he soon found out that the country's budget was so intricately dependent on the price paid to cocoa farmers that he could not drastically alter the price – even if he wanted to.

He had been making anti-colonial speeches during the political rallies he held before being imprisoned, and the cocoa farmers had assumed that he would dismantle the system – akin to economic slavery – under which they operated. But even after K. A Gbedemah had become the Minister of Finance, the system was not dismantled.

Indeed, the Government began to raid, to finance development projects, the funds accumulated by the “Cocoa Marketing Board” as reserves that were ostensibly meant to augment the price paid to farmers, if and when the world price of cocoa fell too low!

Instead, Dr Nkrumah resorted to the use of words to solve the problem. For instance, he “fixed” the cocoa price at a certain level, and promised that he would not change the price even if the world price went down.

Unfortunately for him, the world price actually went up after he had fixed the price! The farmers thereupon demanded that he pay them the difference between the fixed price and the new world price. He did not.

So, eventually, Dr Nkrumah, who had been regarded as a hero by the farmers whilst he was leading the national political campaign against the British, became as guilty – in the eyes of the cocoa farmers – of cheating them just as the British did.

By 1954, Dr Nkrumah was facing a widespread revolt by cocoa farmers in Ashanti and the Eastern Region, which was seized upon by his political opponents as the main plank of the party they formed to oppose the CPP: the National Liberation Movement (NLM). So, cocoa was largely the cause of the first major split in the Ghanaian nationalist front.

It is easy to see that Ghana has never quite recovered from that initial political schism, if truth be told. Therefore “cocoa curse number one” is the division of our nationalist front that once submerged, to a very large extent.

The ethnic and class divisions that dogged Ghanaian society.

You only have to read some of the rants on the “Say It Loud” section of Ghanaweb to realise how deep and nasty these social divisions have become.

Unconsciously the ranters are railing against the perceived cheating carried out by those charged with administering our nation's resources. And since cocoa money forms a large part of the Government revenue that's being filched, cocoa has to be placed at the centre of the issues that threaten our national unity.

(To be continued)