Ghana looks to wealthy technocrat to deliver on promises

New president Nana Akufo-Addo must make good on a potpourri of ambitious pledges

Nana Akufo-Addo

Nana Akufo-Addo will finally be sworn in as Ghana’s president on January 7 after emerging victorious in his third bid to reach Flagstaff house, the leader’s official residence.

The triumph of the centre-right Mr Akufo-Addo triggered celebrations across the country after eight years of rule by John Mahama and his left-leaning National Democratic Congress, during which the country heaped up significant debt despite its oil wealth. But now the president-elect has to make good on a potpourri of ambitious promises he scattered before voters along the way.

Mr Akufo-Addo has pledged to revive the economy — west Africa’s second largest — create jobs for its armies of unemployed youth, put a factory in every district and tackle worsening corruption. While he is at it, he says, he will strengthen the judiciary and enact constitutional reform to decentralise power and dilute his own presidential authority.

To revive growth, he plans to encourage private business through tax cuts, diversify agriculture and mine untapped reserves of bauxite.

Ahead of a victory in which he polled nearly 54 per cent of the vote, Mr Akufo-Addo said in an interview with the FT that his strategy would be “to put in place measures to grow the economy as quickly as possible”.

Ghana has for years been crippled by rolling power cuts and in 2016 the economy — though flush with new oil money — grew at barely 3 per cent, its slowest rate in two decades.

Mr Akufo-Addo delivered his growth-not-austerity message in a plummy English accent, a product of his education at top Ghanaian schools and membership of one of Ghana’s most celebrated families. Both his father, Edward Akufo-Addo, and uncle, William Ofori Atta, were members of the so-called Big Six — the political activists who pushed Ghana towards independence from Britain in 1957, making it the first sub-Saharan African country to free itself from colonialism.

A former attorney-general and foreign minister, Mr Akufo-Addo’s grand family connections proved an impediment to winning office when he ran in 2012, after an unsuccessful bid in 2008. Accused of being out of touch with ordinary Ghanaians, he lost to the more charismatic Mr Mahama.

This time round, just as anti-establishment figures are sweeping to power around the globe, Ghanaians have put their trust in a technocrat who many say is too well-off to bother stealingand who supporters see as a safe pair of hands.

Mr Akufo-Addo identifies public debt — now 70 per cent of gross domestic product — as the country’s biggest challenge. Seth Terkper, the outgoing finance minister, recently acknowledged the government would miss its budget deficit target for 2016 because of disappointing oil output and the high cost of the presidential elections. The shortfall would creep towards 7 per cent of GDP or more rather than the targeted 5.3 per cent, he said.

In 2015, after running persistent deficits as high as 10 per cent of GDP, Ghana was forced to seek an IMF bailout of more than $900m.

“We’ve just gone on a borrowing spree. Borrowing and borrowing and borrowing,” said Mr Akufo-Addo. “We’re going to do whatever we can to improve the business atmosphere. Because we think that as soon as we can get the Ghanaian economy growing again, that is the weapon we will have for managing the debt.”

Mr Akufo-Addo said he would concentrate on implementing corporate tax cuts, eliminating tax on the raw materials and machinery needed by industry and helping farmers to diversify. While neighbouring Ivory Coast earned $11bn-$12bn from a variety of crops, including cotton, coffee and palm oil, Ghana earned only about $2bn from cocoa, he said, adding: “We want that kind of diversification.”

Observers complain that slow-burning corruption in Ghana has got out of hand. Mr Mahama’s government built a wide array of infrastructure largely on the back of higher oil revenue and stepped up spending in the run-up to the election. But critics say this only enlarged the pot from which money could be stolen.

“They’ve made all this money but what has been done with it,” Mr Akufo-Addo said, referring to oil revenues. “Corruption has been massive.”

A public prosecutor would be appointed to look into alleged suspicious dealings by the last government, he said, but he suggested he would not mount a full-scale assault on his predecessor. “Prosecutions of politicians in Ghana have given rise to a lot of controversy,” he said. “There’s a sense the minute you begin that it’s political witch-hunting.” “There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Mr Mahama.

At 72, it is unclear whether Mr Akufo-Addo will run again in 2020 or whether, as some party officials say, he will start to groom a successor. Asked whether he saw himself as a two-term president, he guffawed loudly. He would, he said, worry about the next four years first.

Source: Financial Times