When Sir Samuel Esson Jonah (Sam Jonah, erstwhile president of AngloGold Ashanti), regarded as one of the deepest thinkers in Ghana, speaks in public, people, especially those in power, would do well to listen. In April he was invited to address the Rotary Club of Accra. Baffour Ankomah discusses his talk and why what he had to say is so very vital to Ghana at this time.
Invited to address the Rotary Club in Accra, Sir Samuel Esson Jonah, the former president of AngloGold Ashanti and now the executive chairman of Jonah Capital and chancellor of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, titled his speech: “Down the Up Escalator: Reflections on Ghana’s Future by a Senior Citizen.”
The title was apt: Imagine the effort needed in trying to go down an escalator which is going up – you would do very well if you managed to even stand still.
Knighted in June 2003 by the British establishment, he commands huge respect among the Ghanaian masses. “He gave voice to what Ghanaians have been thinking about for some time,” said Dr Arthur Kennedy, a member of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP), whose government is led by President Nana Akufo-Addo.
Jonah began by saying: “It would be hugely unfair not to acknowledge the progress this country has made since independence, [but] we must guard against complacency and must be alert to any challenges that undermine the gains we have made. Given our endowment, both human and natural, we can and should do much better.”
Then he delved into the speech proper, saying: “Some of what I will talk about is things we mutter about at home and when we meet friends, but are reluctant to articulate publicly.
“As the saying goes, fear is the path to the dark side. We must find our voices, otherwise we become okay with the ills of society or that we become powerless. Either way, we are the worse for it.”
State of the economy
He then touched on the state of Ghana’s economy and its prospects going forward. “One of the most alarming aspects of our macroeconomic situation is the debt crisis. In 2018, the debt to GDP ratio was 59.1%, it increased to 62.4% in 2019 and to 76.1% in 2020. The domestic component of the debt is 51.4% while the external debt is 48.6%.
“Thus, we are borrowing to consume and to service existing debts rather than for productive investment.”
He then moved to mining, and to his favourite mineral, gold, a depleting and irreplaceable resource. In 1994, South Africa produced 20m ounces of the global production of 81m ounces.
However, “in 2020”, Jonah said, “South Africa’s share of global production was only 3%, and it has lost the top spot even in Africa. Ghana now enjoys the enviable position of being the biggest producer in Africa. But 40 years from now, who can say for sure that we will still be producing gold here?
“As for our newly found jewel, oil, a lot of countries are talking about green energy and alternatives to fossil fuels due to the phenomenon of climate change. Most countries are making plans to ban or phase out the use of fossil fuels in the near future. So 40 years from now, what would be the demand for oil? That is if we still have some,” he said.
The inevitable conclusion from all this, he said, was that the sustainability of Ghana’s current sources of revenue was under threat.
“I am afraid that unless there are clear plans to ensure that the economy creates jobs, reduces poverty, and improves upon the quality of life of the average Ghanaian, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness will be the lot of our children and grandchildren. The debt will suffocate them. This is what concerns me.”
Governance is the key
To avoid this situation, he recommended investment in all sectors of the economy; and one of the most important conditions that create a conducive environment for investment, he added, is effective governance. Here Jonah tore into all the elected governments in Ghana since 1992, telling the audience, “The very nature of our democratic set-up is our undoing.
“The 1992 Constitution is the basis for the current democratic dispensation. It created a monstrous executive which looms large over the other arms of the governance structure, and for 28 years, we have failed to make any meaningful changes to strengthen our democracy.
“Actually, what we have is an ‘executocracy’, not a democracy.
“The judiciary is no different. The President has a determining role in the appointment of all the judges of the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice.
“This fosters the perception that the situation compromises the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. Indeed, a large section of the citizenry believe that the judiciary is not impartial, with 85% of Ghanaians in a recent Afrobarometer survey perceiving the judiciary as corrupt and ineffective.”
Jonah then turned to corruption, which he said pervaded all aspects of Ghana’s governance system, including parliament. “A few years ago,” he said, “a prominent MP said publicly that parliamentarians take bribes to pass bills that favour their sponsors.”
What baffles him is that the Ghanaians who used to speak on these issues seem to have lost their voices. “Is our deafening silence suggesting that we are no longer concerned about issues that we complained about not too long ago, particularly when those issues persist?”
He talked about the December 2020 elections where some people lost their lives. “No election is as important as to warrant the loss of even one life,” Jonah said. “And the silence over it is numbing as it gives the impression that it is okay, and it is to be expected. No, it is not to be expected.”
His then turned on Ghana’s burgeoning but ineffective media. “Our media landscape is so polarised and partisan,” he said. “There is hardly any objectivity, because a lot of the media stations are owned by politicians whose interest is in swaying voters one way or the other.
“Independent media practice seems to have faded and journalism has become a conveyor belt for political propaganda, insults, and acrimony.”
Then came the turn of academia. “In the past,” Jonah said, “when all had failed, academia was the last vanguard. But it appears to me that in recent times, in our Fourth Republican dispensation, the courage to stand up for the truth and the determination to uphold the common good are lost. In our dark moments as a nation, it is concerning that the voices of the intellectuals are receding into oblivion.
“It appears to me that the culture of silence has returned. This time not enforced by legal and military power but through convenience, parochialism, hypocrisy and the lack of conviction.”
Sir Sam Jonah now turned to his solutions: He said the constitution had to change to foster real democracy and the major drivers of the economy had to be owned and controlled largely by the citizenry.
“Take a look at the major drivers of the Ghanaian economy in the financial sector, the mining sector, construction of major projects, telecoms, oil and gas, insurance etc. These are often predominantly foreign-owned, and Ghanaians own little in these sectors.
“Third, we need to develop our industrial base,” he said. “We cannot develop by importing almost everything from food to toothpicks.”
Jonah’s last beef was about education. “Our inordinate obsession with degrees and certificates has turned most of our graduates into ‘certificated unemployables’, hardly suited to the needs of industry. Are we preparing our graduates for the new skill-sets needed for the future?”