Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:33 am

Twelve days in west Africa: Accra-Volta River

Whatever the frustrations in Ghana, the region is at a tipping point

 Accra-Volta River

Monday-Wednesday

Still no word from President Mills’s office. More promising news from former president Rawlings. He is agreeable to a meeting but only in Accra. The time is left vague. We proceed with an interview with Nana Akufo-Addo, former lawyer, foreign minister and now leader of the opposition. Nana’s office is in a house in a leafy Accra suburb. Two photographs show him next to George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. An even bigger picture shows him beaming alongside the slogan “I believe in Ghana”.

National elections are due in December and Ghana’s airwaves – there are more than 200 radio stations in the country – are thick with accusations of deliberate delays in the new biometric voter registration and other shenanigans. Nana says he is confident his party will regain power, but concedes it could be close. His campaign will revolve around jobs and a promise to introduce free secondary education. How this will be funded is unclear but he sees it as a trump card in a country with 50 per cent illiteracy. “If I spent all the oil money in education, that would be a perfectly reasonable exchange.” Critics say he has not done his sums.

Nana is a slightly prickly character inclined to stray into verbosity. Instead of his trademark three-piece suit, he is wearing an open-necked pale yellow shirt – a gesture to those who blamed his formal style for narrowly losing the 2008 election. His ambition is palpable – a contrast with Samia Nkrumah, leader of the CCP party and daughter of the father of independence, Kwame Nkrumah.

Tall and elegant in an olive green and ochre dress, Nkrumah speaks English in a French accent inflected by years in exile in Egypt after her father was deposed in a coup in 1966. She is fascinated to hear my father interviewed her father after independence. On policy, she is also keen on free secondary education but equally vague on financing. Her best hope in the election is 20 seats to hold the balance in parliament. Samia Nkrumah is delightful but I am left wondering if she has the killer instinct to make it to the top.

An early start next morning for breakfast TV. Eric Don-Arthur, the host, introduces me as the most important financial journalist in the world. An absurd exaggeration but if it helps secure the interview with President Mills, that’s fine.

Later, we visit former President John Kufuor, a thickset man in his early seventies with huge watchful eyes. He orders beer for his guests and asks about my impressions of Ghana. “Slower than Nigeria,” I reply. He corrects me. “Ghana is more measured.”

Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor©Jane Hanh

Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor

Kufuor steers clear of controversies such as Chinese and US rivalry in Ghana, Nana’s expensive education pledges and Ivory Coast’s newly laid territorial claim. He speaks in a soporific tone, emphasising how Ghana is the most orderly country in Africa. I glance at his giant TV screen showing two rabbits mating, a surreal counterpoint. Kufuor, the elder statesman, rises to wish us well. He has been utterly charming and given away nothing.

Our next stop is 120km north, a new and potentially highly significant rice-farm project co-run by a Nigerian former investment banker called Toks Abimbola on the banks of the Volta river. This is Jerry Rawlings country. But the former president is as elusive as a proverbial leopard in the bush. Our cell phone calls are mysteriously cut off; texts remain unanswered. That night, as rain sheets down over the Volta, a huge explosion erupts on the other side of the river. That’s probably Rawlings firing off one of his garden cannons, jokes the FT’s Africa editor. Given Rawlings’ taste for weaponry (I am told on very reliable authority that he once brought revolutionary colleagues into line by pulling the pin from a grenade and threatening to blow up everyone in the room), this does not sound entirely implausible.

Toks Abimbola©Jane Hahn

Toks Abimbola

Abimbola’s project epitomises the spirit of the new frontier. Inside 14 months, using US venture capital and Brazilian agricultural expertise, he has transformed part of a 5,000-hectare triangle of land into a giant rice paddy. This is impressive because Ghana is still a net food importer despite its fertile soil and favourable climate. Rice is also key to feeding a growing population. “I am a Nigerian living in London who got Seattle investors to put money into West Africa.” He says he already has a contract to sell 10,000 tonnes of rice and is looking to expand his model to the rest of the continent.

Crucially, the project involves leasing land from the local community rather than an outright purchase and a conscious effort to employ local labour. A portion of the revenues are given to local farmers. Abimbola is clear his margins allow him to be generous. “People talk about the Green African revolution but government is doing nothing. It’s the private sector which is getting things done.”

. . .

A rice farm project in Ghana©Jane Hahn

A rice farm project in Ghana – the country is still a net food importer

Abimbola’s story epitomises the promise of West Africa – and the pitfalls. Despite his best efforts and the creation of almost 100 jobs – with more likely to come – he’s still fighting a war with bureaucracy. I feel like a fellow victim: on my return to Accra, news comes through that President Mills is too busy this week but his brother – the economic adviser – will see me on Friday, the day after my departure. As for Jerry Rawlings, an aide calls to say the former president is ready to take questions – but only by email.

Whatever the frustrations in Ghana, my broader impression is that the region is at a tipping point. The macro-picture is positive: a commodity boom fuelled by Chinese demand; strong economic growth relative to stagnant Europe; and the gradual spread of democracy, however flawed. But the micro-picture remains troubling: a chronic incapacity at the heart of government summed up by daily power cuts; a lack of jobs for a growing population, especially the young; and a weak education system where new school buildings cannot compensate for a dearth of decent teachers.

The optimists – and I met many during my trip – respond that a rejuvenated private sector will drive change. But for every energetic Abimbola, there is still a customs official or a police officer whose income depends on extracting petty bribes and a politician whose primary concern is channelling state funds to his patronage network. Nigeria’s history of oil-fuelled dysfunction are a lesson to Ghana, one that it is trying to heed.

Yet to visit Nigeria and Ghana is to see the liberating power of democracy and technology. People are becoming much more aware of their rights and making their votes count. The ubiquitous mobile phone and the text message have transformed communications. The stifling state is not exactly being rendered obsolete but it is becoming less relevant. There are signs of a reverse diaspora as young Nigerians and Ghanaians raised abroad return to lands of opportunity. My father witnessed the false euphoria of post-colonial independence and a succession of discredited political leaders, military coups and civil war. Half a century on, I have glimpsed a better future for Africa.

Lionel Barber is editor of the FT. Final instalment: Sierra Leone

Read a Q&A on the future of west Africa with Lionel Barber

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