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John Mahama: The highs and lows of the “accidental” president

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John Mahama: The highs and lows of the “accidental” president

This is an election year in Ghana, and the incumbent president, John Dramani Mahama – who many people say came into politics by accident – has from this month, 305 days to win over a rather disgruntled electorate. And come the polls, to also silence the opposition, which has been ruthless in tearing down claims by his ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) about spearheading Ghana’s transition from a lower middle-income country towards middle-income status. Hard at work as he might be, the past three years under the 57-year old have indeed not been easy sailing for the leader of the much-loved black-star nation. How, therefore, will he hold anchor? Our Editor-at-Large, Baffour Ankomah, reports from Accra.

When Vice President John Dramani Mahama became the president of Ghana by default on 24 July 2012, not many people considered him presidential material enough to lead Ghana’s quest for full middle-income status. Having attained the rank of lower middle income for some years, Ghana – with a large and rising middle class, currently estimated at over 47% of the population – was yearning to transit to full middle-income status. The country had shown progress in reducing poverty and it outranked its peers on most measures of human development. But a catalogue of challenges stood in its way. When President John Atta Mills suddenly died of throat cancer on 24 July 2012, Vice President Mahama was sworn in in four mere hours after Mills’ death as the new president of Ghana, in accordance with the country’s constitution.

Even former President Jerry Rawlings, the man who founded the National Democratic Congress (NDC) party that Mahama now leads, the man who gave Mahama his first government job as deputy minister and later full minister, publicly expressed a lack of faith in Mahama’s ability to steer the ship of state. But five months later, Mahama went on to win the presidential election of December 2012, thereby becoming a president in his own right. Since then, he has totally confounded his critics by firmly putting his imprint on the country by way of an extensive programme of tangible development in all sectors of the nation.

Today it is difficult to believe that Ghana’s first president to be born after the country’s independence, and the fourth of its Fourth Republic, is the one who is gradually moving Ghana from a lower middle-income, import-dependent nation to a proud and robust, self-sufficient middle-income country. In so doing, Mahama has become a symbol of hope for many Ghanaians, even though the main opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) likes to think otherwise.

 

Incompetence debate

The NPP was in power from 2000 to 2008 and has since lost two general elections to the NDC. The NPP hopes to regain power in November 2016 when another round of parliamentary and presidential elections is due. As such, as Election Year 2016 approaches, the NPP is finding it difficult to have just one good word for Mahama and his NDC government – not even for the impressive development projects embarked upon nationwide and in all sectors by Mahama.

The NPP sees the 2016 elections as very crucial to its future as a party, and even more critical for its presidential candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, who has narrowly lost two presidential elections to the NDC, in 2008 and 2012. As a result, the NPP has tried in the past few months to paint Mahama as “incompetent”. Although, from the evidence on the ground, incompetence is a great misnomer, the NPP yet wants the word to stick to Mahama willy-nilly – to the point where Ghanaian stand-up comedians have been laughing all the way to the bank on the back of “incompetence”.

In early December, the NPP took the sparring a level higher when its vice presidential candidate, Dr Mahamudu Bawumia, organised a massive media event in Accra at which he described Mahama’s government as “corrupt and only competent in many ways – including create, loot and share; mismanagement of the economy; stagnation in the agricultural sector; perpetuating an energy crisis; decline in manufacturing, maintaining an unstable exchange rate; and cancelling teacher and nursing trainee allowances”.

Bawumia said Ghana faced the multiple problems of a rising cost of living, collapsing businesses, an unsustainable national debt, a lack of inclusive economic growth to address unemployment, poor infrastructure, and rising fiscal and balance of payment deficits.

He criticised the two NDC governments headed by Presidents Atta Mills (2009-2012) and Mahama (2013 to date) for adding GHc91 billion more to the national debt stock over seven years, representing a staggering “957.9% over the 7-year period”.                

According to Bawumia: “The stagnation in agriculture found expression in the importation of US$1.5 billion of foodstuffs into the country in 2014, against a food import bill of US$600 million in 2008 [the last year when the NPP was in power].”

 

Schoolboy politics vs dumsor dumsor

Sometimes Ghanaian opposition parties, not just the NPP, tend to indulge in schoolboy politics. The NDC was equally guilty of it while in opposition. Yet, an opposition party is not just there to criticise the government even when and where commendation is deserving. It reduces the opposition’s effectiveness. And that is exactly what Bawumia and the NPP are trying to do as Election Year 2016 falls upon the country.

Bawumia accused Mahama’s government of “perpetuating an energy crisis”, when the NPP stalwart knows that the electricity crunch that has bedevilled Ghana since late 2013 is the result of the serial under-investment in the energy sector by past governments, including the NPP’s government of 2000-08.

Bawumia and the NPP also know that Mahama and his government have not just sat on their hands and watched the electricity crisis deteriorate. The NPP knows that electricity projects are not overnight ventures; they take time to come to fruition. So while trying to find a permanent solution to the electricity crisis, the Mahama government has tried to bring in emergency power to cover the national shortfall through independent power producers and also via the construction of a massive Ghana gas project at Atuabo in the Western Region that is now supplying gas from Ghana’s oil fields to produce 650MW of electricity daily. For Bawumia to accuse Mahama of “perpetuating an electricity crisis” is thus nothing more than schoolboy politics. As a revered economist and former deputy governor of Ghana’s central bank, Bawumia knows better than that.

Even more so, when in February 2014, President Mahama had felt compelled to use his State of the Nation Address to remind Ghanaians that “we have been here before”, referring to the electricity crisis. And he was right. There were similar electricity shortfalls in 1983, 1998, and 2006-07. And Mahama was not in power at the time. Those were the days of Presidents Rawlings and John Kufuor.

But Mahama told the nation: “In the past, what we have done has been to manage ourselves out of the situation. I do not intend to manage the situation as has been done in the past. I intend to fix it! I owe it to the Ghanaian people. I, John Dramani Mahama, will fix this energy challenge.”

And to his credit, he is seriously fixing it. He had said in 2014: “I don’t appreciate, as a president, presiding over a country in darkness. It is easy to have quick fixes, but what we need in Ghana today is a permanent fix that will not only ensure energy security for us but that will position the country as the hub of power supply in West Africa.”

Mahama then set himself the deadline of the end of 2015 to overcome the electricity crisis, and have a surplus to export to neighbouring countries. And he is on course for meeting the deadline. Ghana has enough installed generation capacity for 2,741.6MW but, because of low rainfall affecting the country’s four hydro-dams and other problems, the total dependable generation capacity of the existing power plants went below the national peak power demand of 2200MW.

Thus, when all the new electricity projects initiated by Mahama’s government in both the public and private sector come on stream by 2016-17, they will add over 7000 MW to the existing national grid, thereby making Ghana a major exporter of electricity.

At the moment, Ghana is the second most electrified country in Africa, only one step behind South Africa at number one. Mahama says: “Currently, we have 900 communities that we are extending electricity to in the country. By the time we finish the 900 communities, Ghana will be the country with the second-highest access to electricity in Africa, above 80 per cent of the population. And with the new investment we are making in power production, we expect that by 2020 we should come very close to universal access to power, using a combination of renewable, thermal, and hydro energy sources.”

Therefore Mahama is turning Ghana’s affliction of blackouts into an opportunity to take the country into a new era where it becomes a net electricity-exporter and “the hub of power supply in West Africa”, as Mahama himself puts it while emphasising the point that “hydropower will now become a backup power; thermal will be the main source”. And yet the opposition NPP seriously wants the people of Ghana to believe that this president is “incompetent”.

Instead of going along that route, the NPP would earn a lot of political credit if it focused on the legitimate concern of over-pricing of Mahama’s development projects by government officials who, the NPP claims, are inflating the cost of the projects and lining their pockets at the expense of the nation.

 

Mahama’s record

But putting over-pricing aside, the evidence on the ground affirms that Mahama’s tangible – and the emphasis is on tangible – development achievements in only three years in power have been phenomenal. Not since President Kwame Nkrumah’s first four years in office, when he built 62 huge factories across the country by 1961, has any Ghanaian government been able to achieve what Mahama and his government have done in his first three years in office, in terms of sheer physical development.

How the NPP can sniff at such achievements and claim, as Bawumia does, that Mahama is superintending over “poor infrastructure” – when the man has embarked on a whirlwind programme in the past three years to renew or build afresh Ghana’s infrastructure in all sectors – beggars belief.

“We are now on the verge of fulfilling the promises our forefathers and foremothers made to us, and to the world, about the destiny of our country and the determination of our people,” Mahama says, his eyes full of pride.

For example, in education, Mahama’s government has made the biggest intervention in secondary education in the history of Ghana by starting the construction of 200 new community-day schools (123 of which are due for completion in 2016). “Before this,” Mahama recounts, “the biggest intervention [in education] had been the one by President Nkrumah, with the Ghana Education Trust Schools, and even then there were 47 new secondary schools. Ours are 200 new secondary schools, and 50 of them are almost at the point of completion.”

The new schools will allow many children access to secondary education – and for free if they are day students. Mahama’s government started a free secondary education programme in September 2015.

The expansion in education has been all-encompassing, affecting all levels of education, from primary to university. Today, Ghana, which used to have only four universities, now has 88 in both the public and private sectors.

In health, Mahama’s government has again built more hospitals in the history of Ghana than any other government. “In fact, over the last five years we [the NDC government] have built more hospitals than any other previous government,” Mahama affirms. 

In roads, once again, no government in Ghana since independence in 1957 has built or rehabilitated more roads in so short a time as Mahama’s government. This indeed, as Mahama himself puts it, is “the single largest intervention in the road sector in this country.” No part of the country has been left out as Mahama hopes to use the roads to open up the country for economic development.

In transport, Mahama’s government is also expanding the nation’s ports at Tema and Takoradi, and the airports in Accra and other regional capitals, and building new ones to facilitate the country’s transition from a lower middle income to a full middle income status. 

In water delivery, Mahama’s National Water Policy has totally transformed the chronic water problems in Accra and elsewhere in the country by providing 76% of the entire country, both urban and rural areas, with good drinking water.

In agriculture, Mahama’s government has set itself the target of 2019 for Ghana to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production and consumption, thereby saving the country the annual rice import bill of $467m. Rice has become one of the major staples of Ghana, and in 2014, the Mahama government’s initiatives and encouragement to rice farmers saw local cultivation increasing over 60%. In the past, Ghana produced a lot of rice itself and ate what it produced, but in recent decades (because of a sharp decline in local production), the nation has been importing rice to the tune of a staggering $467.2 million a year. That was the 2013 import bill. 

But thanks to the policies of the Mahama government, which has been pushing a lot of resources into local rice production (including irrigation), Ghana’s rice import bill fell by a massive 41% from the 2013 figure to S275.1 million in 2014.

According to Mahama: “It is expected that as the government’s Transformation Agenda gains traction, we will be able to reduce our import bill on other commodities, indeed be able to export some of the surplus.” Available figures show that Ghana became “food secured” in 2014 in the production of most food staples, namely: cassava, yam, cocoyam, plantain, maize, sorghum, groundnut, cowpea, and soybean. However, there were production deficits for rice and millet.

In the midst of the successes, Mahama’s major headache has been on the economic front where “imbalance” has led to the government going for an IMF shore-up programme, which began in 2015.

According to Mahama: “Life is a learning process and I think that everyday I become wiser and I learn more. Probably one of the things I should have realised and done earlier was to implement the IMF programme earlier than we did. Probably we should have done it from 2013 … I did not scale the economic imbalance that we were suffering and so I thought that, on our own, we could turn things around ourselves, but apparently the effects of the wage spillover and also the reduction in international commodity prices were much more serious than we had anticipated.

“So in 2013 we saw that the deficit widened. In 2014 we still couldn’t bring the deficit down under control, and so it wasn’t until August 2014 that I took a decision that we should go back to the IMF. It took a period of six months to negotiate the programme, and so finally the programme started in 2015. I guess that if it had started earlier, we probably would have brought things under control faster than we did.”

The NPP’s Bawumia included “the lack of inclusive economic growth to address unemployment” as one of the sins committed by Mahama and his government. But nobody should really be surprised that Ghana’s economy has not been buoyant, as an economy – whose ordinary definition is “the state of a country or region in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services and the supply of money” – cannot be divorced from the general state of things in any country.

If there is no electricity, production across the board will naturally decline and the economy will suffer. If there are no good roads to transport products to market, the economy will suffer. If the workforce is not sufficiently educated or in poor health, the economy will suffer. If the ports and airports and the general transport infrastructure are bad, the economy will suffer.

Fortunately for Ghana, these are the sectors that Mahama’s government has put a lot of investment into. Until those investments mature, which, thankfully the government says they will in 2016-17, the economy cannot be as buoyant as people expect.

Mahama himself acknowledges this fact when he says: “We shall continue to build a resilient energy sector to expand the manufacturing sector, enhance industrialisation, and transform the structure of the economy as the energy sector continues to grow. Accordingly, my government will continue to work in the second term [if he wins a second term at the November 2016 elections] to guarantee the required generation capacity, using a mix of generation sources, including renewable energy and supply from independent power producers.” NA

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Written by Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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