Foreign affairs are usually of little concern to Ghanaian citizens. But relations between Ghana and the US have become a hot topic, reports Cameron Duodo.
President John Dramani Mahama’s administration has succeeded in doing what few politicians are able in conflating internal and external politics. It follows a decision to please a foreign “friend” – the US – that has had such an effect internally that it risks alienating a huge segment of Ghana’s population.
The president and his ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) announced that at the request of the US, Ghana had approved the resettlement in Ghana of two ex-inmates of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, the US base in Cuba. The men had been approved for release but could not be sent to their country of origin – Yemen – because of the ongoing instability and conflict.
The men had been incarcerated, without trial, in Guantanamo for nearly 14 years. They were named as Khalid Mohammed Salih Al-Dhuby (37) and Mahmmoud Omar Mohammed Bin Atef (35). Both were born in Saudi Arabia but are citizens of Yemen.
The US, Ghanaians were told, had done an assessment of the men’s security status and had come to the determination that they were “low risk”. Ghana was taking them in, an official statement in Accra said, because of its humanitarian approach to international affairs. This policy had led to people who could not, for example, safely
return to Rwanda being offered residence.
In a statement, the US said it was “grateful to the government of Ghana for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support on-going US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.”
But the resettlement idea ran into trouble almost as soon as it was announced. First, Ghanaian bloggers and other internet users discovered that both the US and the Ghana government had been “economical with the truth” in describing the two ex-detainees. An article in The Wall Street Journal online, by Stephen F. Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn, entitled “The Terrorists Freed by Obama”, said that in its desire to close Guantanamo, “the Obama administration has deceived recipient countries about the threats posed by the possible jihadists they have accepted.
“And President Obama has repeatedly misled the American people about Guantanamo, the detainees held there, and the consequences of releasing them.”
The article described as untrue, the description given by the Ghanaian government, based on information provided by the US about the two men. The government had claimed that they had been “cleared of any involvement in terrorist activities, and [so were] being released.”
But “that description isn’t true for either of the men. Bin Atef, in particular, is a cause for concern. Long before his transfer, the intelligence analysts at Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) assessed him as a ‘high risk’ and ‘likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.’ ”
The article continued: “It is easy to understand the analysts’ worry about Bin Atef. He was, they said, ‘a fighter in Osama bin Laden’s former 55th Arab Brigade and is an admitted member of the Taliban’. He trained at Al Farouq, the infamous al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, ‘participated in hostilities against US and coalition forces, and continues to demonstrate his support of … extremism.’ ”
“More ominously,” the article stated, “the report warns that he ‘has threatened to kill US citizens on multiple occasions including a specific threat to cut their throats if released’ ”.
The article went on to ask: “The obvious question is: Why did officials in Ghana claim that Atef had been ‘cleared’? Perhaps because that is what the Obama administration led them to believe,” it surmised.
Both the information provided by this article and snippets published from Wikileaks suggested that the US had not been candid with the Ghanaian government, creating a great deal of anger in Ghana. The two most relevant questions were: If the two Yemenis were still a danger to the public, why had the Ghana government accepted them? And if they were not a danger to anyone, then why had not the US resettled them? Did not the US possess the requisite surveillance personnel and equipment. It seems most unlikely that Ghana’s resources surpassed what could be deployed by the US. Finally, Ghanaians wanted to know if the Ghanaian government was too dumb to realise that if a country’s government aligned itself too closely with the US, it opened itself as a target for murderous attacks by al-Qaeda and its various branches, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab, Ansar Dine, Ansar al-Sharia and Boko Haram?
The backlash led to Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hanna Tetteh admitting publicly to a radio station that she had not been “privy” to all the discussions that took place before the men were accepted for resettlement.
Tetteh also revealed that at some points in the discussions, she was “excused” from the discussion, or sent out of the room! How could she be excluded from talks between her country and another?
As if that was not enough, the Minister of the Interior, Mark Woyongo, in charge of the police and immigration services, said publicly that he had not been “privy” to all aspects of the negotiations. Yet another bombshell was to follow. The Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Marietta Brew Appiah-Oppong, was quoted by a radio station as telling a member of its staff that she too had not “privy” to some of the negotiations!
This allegation was so serious that the attorney-general wrote to the radio station to request a copy of the tape of the alleged conversation where she claimed not to have been privy to the discussions between Ghana and the US.
But it was noted that she had not, apparently, made a forthright denial, and given the fact that two other ministers had said much the same thing, some members of the public believed that the attorney-general was just embarking on a face-saving exercise on behalf of her president.
Whatever the outcome of her enquiry, there cannot be any doubt that President John Mahama has slipped on several banana skins since the new year began.
There is now a widespread impression that he and his security apparatchiks have done a deal with the US behind the backs of his senior ministers. All sorts of speculation has been generated surrounding the “Gitmo 2” question, so that President Mahama has found it impossible to ignore and in a nationwide TV and radio broadcast, he singled out the accusation that the US had paid him $300m to accept the ex-detainees.
But just as it looked as if the president would ride out the storm, the whole issue of whether he had acted in a manner that would prejudice the security of Ghana was blown wide open again by a horrific attack, on 16 January 2016, by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on a restaurant and a hotel in Ouagadougou, capital of Ghana’s immediate neighbour to the north, Burkina Faso.
The initial target of the attack was the Cappucino Café, a bar and restaurant frequented by well-heeled expatriates and Burkinabe. From this bar, the attackers moved to the Hotel Splendid. The toll was 29 people killed and four score or so injured. 176 people suffered the trauma of being kept hostage in the hotel for several hours.
Now the questions are rife in Ghana: if Burkina Faso, why not Ghana? After all, AQIM seem to be methodical: they first attacked Mali and Niger, before moving south to Burkina Faso. If Ghana was co-operating with the US in their anti-jihadist campaign, then what would differentiate Ghana from Burkina Faso and save Ghana from an attack?
For the moment then, the question of Ghana’s security in the immediate future is even obscuring the fact that Ghana is due to hold an election in November 2016.
Mahama is already in trouble with the failure of what a shrewd observer of the Ghanaian scene calls “Mahanomics” – a failure characterised by a systematic and regular shortage of power (which has, predictably, reduced the volume of industrial production) and which Ghanaians refer to derisively as “Dumsor” (literally, “on-and-off”).
The balance of payments is in such a parlous state that the government keeps borrowing money by issuing Eurobonds that attract relatively high interest rates, because Ghana’s credit rating has been drastically revised downwards by the credit-rating agencies. Meanwhile there is unrest among workers, because the prices of utilities and fuel have risen by between 30 and 40%, whereas wages have remained stagnant in real terms, when juxtaposed against the rate of inflation and the devaluation of the cedi.
Could the US come to the aid of Mahama? They could, of course, pour in a lot of dollars as a balance of payments support, to shore him up for the rest of the year.
For the moment, it looks as if Mahama is on his own – deserted in all but name by important elements in his own Cabinet, and probably also facing resentment within the party ranks for endangering the chances of re-election in November.
Truly, uneasy lies the head…