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Opinions of Tuesday, 25 February 2003

Columnist: Cameron Duodo

President Kufuor At Broadwater Farm, London

THE way the President, Mr J A Kufuor, told it, he was "in a way tricked" by his "very competent" High Commissioner in London, Mr Isaac Osei, into appearing at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, North London, on Saturday the 22nd of February, to address a "Forum" of Ghanaians resident in the UK.

Mr Kufuor said the High Commissioner told him the Ghanaians knew the President was transiting London on his way home from the French-African summit meeting in Paris. As luck would have it, he the High Commissioner had been due to address a Forum of the Ghanaians on the 22nd. Could the President drop in to say "hello" to them, please?

The President laughed: "On arriving here, however, I find that there is a banner on the wall in which I am billed as one of the principal speakers! The man had pre-programmed me without informing me!" Everyone joined in the laughter. Mr Isaac Osei sat there with a stony face, as if he was either the most discomfited person on earth, or the President was talking about someone else.

Na lie oh! When your President describes you in public as "very competent", and playfully cracks a joke at your expense, you can hold your head high: it’s a way of making you know that you are held in the highest esteem in the corridors of power.

Having paid his friend this supreme compliment, the President then revealed that he would return to London in the third week of March, and that it was then that he had planned to take part in one of the "People’s Parliaments" that he had been holding in Ghana, in which the government and the public interact with each other. Nevertheless he was only too happy to be with his people. Their presence in the hall had brought together in one place, all the properties that make up that special Ghanaian spirit; properties that indicated how proud they were of themselves and their country, and which inspired them to be well-behaved wherever they were." (CROWD CHEERS)

The President then gave a panoramic exposition of his government’s efforts to improve life for its people. He started with CRIME. In trying to re-establish law and order, the government had discovered that the entire police force of Ghana had "no more than 100 vehicles"

To carry out their operations all over the country. No wonder then that -- as happened in some cases – if a person reported that there was a burglary going on in his house, the police would ask him to come over and "hire a taxi for them to go and chase the burglars"! The government was determined to rebuild the police force and had already secured a six-fold increase in the number of vehicles available for the force to use: they now had 600 vehicles. "People are now able to walk the streets freely," the President said.

The same attention was being paid to other law enforcement agencies and to the law courts. Because cases had been lingering in the courts for up to one year, people had lost confidence in the judicial system. But the government was restoring their confidence by establishing Fast Track Courts in every region. The government’s aim was to instil a respect for the rule of law in everyone. "No-one is above the law – including this President," Mr Kufuor said. (WILD CHEERS). "We respect the Constitution. If any of us is caught violating the Constitution, we shall submit ourselves to the due process of the law." Good governance, in the eyes of o his government, was not mere lip service but an "article of faith."

With regards to the freedom of the individual, it was the media who were dictating the pace in all counts of life. There were, for instance, no less than 80 FM radio stations, all criticising the government in whatever it did. Everything was being called into account – so much so that sometimes, people even thought there was "too much freedom of speech". And indeed, some of the media did go to extremes and needed to restore some balance.

THE MILITARY: The bad image which our soldiers had cultivated, because of coups, was fast giving way to one of professionalism and honour. They are serving the properly constituted government by playing their constitutional role, and have stopped being "debt collectors who hire themselves out to landlords to throw out tenants". So good governance is really happening. Wherever our soldiers go on peace-keeping duties – be it the Middle East or Central Africa – they comport themselves well and win good praise for Ghana.

THE ECONOMY: In the year 2000, the Cedi dropped tremendously in value, due largely to an inflation rate of 42% and a bank lending rate of 52%. Last year, the inflation rate was reduced to 15%, whilst the bank lending rate went down from 52% to 25%. This meant that investors who brought in their money could carry on doing business under more tolerable conditions. The Cedi’s value had recorded a "slight" depreciation this year, but there had been "no free fall".

The private sector now had a chance to grow because "the stable basics draw you to invest your money in that country."

HIPC had enabled the government to save $250 million that would have gone into servicing the interest on Ghana’s external debt alone. Last year, out of 400 billion Cedis that became available to the treasury through debt forgiveness, 118 billion Cedis had been dished out to the districts to provide social services such as feeder roads, water, health and educational services t their people. Accra, for example, got 3.5 billion Cedis whilst Kumasi got 2.5 billion Cedis. This year, there would be even bigger savings from debt forgiveness and again, the bulk of the money would go into local government spending.

The President gave an account of one area of potential export growth which, if he personally follows up and see to the realisation of the anticipated objective, could be a crowning accomplishment for his government. He said the government had observed that Nigeria imports about $1 billion’s worth of salt from far-away Brazil every year. Yet Ghana could produce this salt, and being closer to Nigeria by geographical location, could sell it cheaper to that country. So it has sourced $40m which it will make available to private investors as loans to help them produce salt for export to Nigeria.

I say the President should monitor this project personally because I have heard too often about schemes in Ghana that on paper, sound wonderful but which one never sees implemented to the full in actual practice. If you ask, you will be told that it was started, but this or that obstacle cropped up, and that brought other handicaps and the project was first stalled, then abandoned, and hopefully it would be restated some time. Bunkum. It’s just that our state/bureaucratic machinery does not lend itself readily to co-operating with the private sector, inasmuch as private sector success does not bring dividends to the officials involved, by way of board appointments or other privileges. To say nothing of sheer indifference. Yet this is a project where if the idea is given realisation, Ghana could so easily be a major winner. The Nigerian market is truly huge and I am so glad that no less a person than the current Chair of ECOWAS is himself so intensely interested in bringing Ghana and Nigeria together at least on this salt business. I throw a challenge to His Excellency the President to fulfil this salt dream before he gives up the chair of ECOWAS next year! It can be done.

ROADS: The President was loudly cheered when he announced that the sod had been cut for the construction of a six-lane road from the Circle in Accra to Achimota, and that the Achimota-Kumasi road would also be a dual carriage-way. I pray the President to make sure, personally, that there are no bottlenecks at the entrances and exits of these magnificent roads. One of the amazing aspects of the Accra-Tema Motorway is the shoddy manner the Motorway is connected to the roads that used to feed it. One could even get lost going from Tema Harbour to the Motorway. And we all vividly know what dangers lurk on the Motorway as a result of the unauthorised entrances and exits carved into it by people who don’t find the official escape routes convenient. As they say, Nature abhors a vacuum. If the planners fail to do their work efficiently, by forcing side entrances to be created, they will be created by road-users.

The President also talked about the Accra-Yamoransa road (to be financed by Japan with a grant of $83 million); Accra-Aflao (Ghana’s contribution to making itself the gateway to West Africa); Asankragwa-Enchi; Wa-Bamboi and Bamboi-Bole.

All these signs of progress were, of course, greatly cheered by the Ghanaians. But their greatest cheer came when the President announced that "last year, the Bank of Ghana identified $1.3 billion as remittances from Ghanaians overseas into the banking system in Ghana. Two years ago, the total of such remittances was 4400 million".

The President pointed out that the size of the remittances, $1.3 billion, was almost equal to the proceeds from cocoa, and slightly above the $1 billion we receive a year from gold. "So you are a very very major force in the economy of Ghana," the President declared. He added that it was his hope that conditions would allow Ghanaians abroad to do even more. He had noticed that there was a "building boom" going on and no doubt Ghanaians abroad had a lot to do with that."

After his presentation, the President took questions from a long queue of Ghanaians who wanted to find out more about his government’s policies, He took four questions at a time. He was very frank and good-humoured, even though some of the questioners appeared more interested in making speeches than asking questions. One of the most interesting questions was about why ex-President

Rawlings had not been prosecuted when he went to Tamale and broke the curfew there, in the company of thousands of NDC supporters. The President: " The Government has not condoned lawlessness. The ex-President is not above the law. He is probing to see whether someone will call his bluff. In due course, the law will catch up with him, if he persists."

JAK came alive on Saturday night better than usual. His voice was animated and so lost the ‘heaviness’ that comes across when he gives interviews. Perhaps his handlers will take a hint and make sure that when he is giving interviews, or talking extempore, he usually begins with subjects that interest him a lot. Some of the statistics and facts conjured up by bureaucrats in speeches can be boring to a deadly degree, and no-one can make them come alive. But give a politician something he’s interested in talking about, and half the job is done.

So, Kudos, then, JAK. And also to the long-suffering Ghana High Commission staff, particularly to Fritz Andoh. But next time JAK is in London, please don’t take him to Broadwater Farm. The venue is too difficult to get to, and parking, once there, is a nightmare. There are places in Central London that can much better be used. And on Saturday’s showing, it is obvious that even without sponsorship, any expenditure in such a cause will be worth every penny to the Government and the people it serves.