Former President John Dramani Mahama on Friday, January 27, 2023, spoke at Chatham House in London on the topic “Africa’s Strategic Priorities and Global Role.”
Here is his full speech:
Thank you, Alex Vines, and Chatham House for the invitMahamation. I am happy to have been able to join you from Brussels where I had very productive discussions on the future perspectives in the framework of Africa- EU relations at the invitation of the European Strategic Initiative. It is gratifying to be back here at Chatham House, which through the Africa Programme events, has offered a wide array of African Leaders across various fields, a unique platform to discuss our continent in ways not seen elsewhere. The discussions here have helped shape international opinion on Africa and offered a useful focus on its most important subjects. I hope to continue in that tradition by sharing some thoughts on the continent’s present outlook and future while dwelling on the situation in my own country, Ghana.
Africa’s political and governance history is quite well known. However, on this occasion, it bears brief recollection to set the tone for an informed assessment of Africa’s prospects and future trajectory. It helps a bit that I have a bias towards history, which I majored in at the university in my formative years. And as the famous British statesman Winston Churchill opined, “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.” The African story is one that evokes immediate memories of colonial exploitation and domination with abundant cheap labour to be used for raw material production and export to build the magnificent metropolises of this world.
Centuries earlier, we were at the short end of the stick in the slave trade as our best and strongest found themselves bound in chains and bundled into overcrowded slave ships, never to return.
However, by the middle of the 20th century, there had emerged a young cadre of Pan Africanists, determined to free the continent from its colonial shackles, who worked, at the peril of their freedoms and very lives. They eventually launched a liberation struggle that reverberated across the continent.
Names like Kwame Nkrumah – under whom my father, E. A. Mahama, served diligently as a Minister of State, Nyerere, Kaunda, Sekou Touré easily roll off my tongue in this regard. Soon enough, after a spirited fight, colonialism fell in one country after another, culminating in the exhilarating liberation of South Africa from the worst form of colonial subjugation— apartheid. The result—freedom for Nelson Mandela after 27 years in jail.
Africa in the post-colonial independent era was awash with hope for a much brighter tomorrow. We were, however, soon to be enmeshed in a contestation over the most suitable development paradigm and ideology.
Some faced West and others faced East. We in Ghana, as famously declared by our first President, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, faced neither East nor West. We faced forward and experimented along the line with whatever paradigm we deemed exigent at a particular time. Not enough time was afforded for these experiments to yield sustainable fruits because a combination of disillusionment and adventurism ushered in military dictatorships and in many cases, wanton misrule.
By the mid-eighties to early nineties, it had become obvious that democratic governance and economic reform were imperative to overcome the suffering and stagnation that years of poor governance had spawned. Under the aegis of the Bretton Woods institutions and other multilateral partners, several African countries launched economic recovery programmes with varying degrees of success. In the case of Ghana, I can say, that through these reforms, we performed what could be likened to an economic miracle. From the throes of bankruptcy, hyperinflation, and years of negative growth in the mid-seventies and early eighties, the economy was restored to the path of growth. Measurable and impactful progress could be seen!
Thirty years ago, we were even able to seamlessly integrate up to one million of our compatriots who were unceremoniously deported from Nigeria back to Ghana without causing too much of an upset to our economic outcomes. Analysts have suggested the eviction was Nigeria’s retaliation – in 1983 – to the dastardly deportation of other Africans including Nigerians from Ghana under the Aliens Compliance Order of 1969.
In the decade that followed that period, millions of Ghanaians were lifted out of poverty through progressive policies and interventions. Similar success stories could be recounted for other African countries. Between those heady days and now, the story of Africa has been patchy even though progress has not completely eluded us.
Civil strife, famine, genocide, and a relapse into bad governance can all be squeezed into the narrative in the last few decades. At present, save for a few countries on the continent, our economies are largely still underdeveloped and underpinned by the colonial economic model of raw material export and little manufacturing or industrialization.
Fragile governance institutions and corruption remain major bottlenecks. Insecurity, terrorism, and insurgency have all reared their heads across some countries. In the last few years, we have seen a resurrection of what we had believed to be the extinct specter of military takeovers in some West African countries. Mammoth unemployment and limited economic opportunities continue to confront Africa. This has been exacerbated by the youth bulge; and projected to worsen by 2030 if not addressed. Obviously, a threat to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals and Africa’s Agenda 2063.
Africa being demographically the most youthful continent, should have been an opportunity to be harnessed. However, the limited opportunities available to Africa’s youth has created a distressing scenario and culminated in the biggest threat facing the continent and the world now.
Africa has always been an opportunity. That has never been in contention. What is in debate, is the extent to which Africa has been an opportunity for itself and exploited its advantage for the benefit of itself. The story of the contribution of Africa has always been one of fascination. From its origin as the cradle of humankind, the continent has through the ages left an indelible mark on the pages of history.
The echoes of the Arab spring, which took place barely a decade ago, still ring in our ears and serve as too clear a reminder of what possible and probable danger the continent faces if the situation does not improve – and quickly so. The prevalence of cybercrimes including internet- based fraud (‘Sakawa’) and other offences spill beyond Africa and affects the rest of the world. This must be addressed head-on! The foregoing by no means suggests that there is no positive news from Africa.
There is a lot to celebrate on the continent. There are many thriving democracies in Africa with some well governed countries and strong economies. Information Communication Technology (ICT) uptake is one area where strong growth has been recorded.
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa was recording the fastest rate of new broadband connections, and mobile data traffic was projected to rise astronomically between 2017 and 2020 – growing by a CAGR of about 46% according to Statista. The E-commerce sector was also experiencing exponential growth as our population attained more awareness and became more reliant on online retailing. That said, there is still much to worry about.
It is a fact that Africa has suffered historical injustices like slavery, colonialism, and an unjust world economic order – which have held us back for centuries and deprived us of a level playing field to develop rapidly compared to other continents. But it is no longer tenable to continue to blame these events predominantly for our present state. That will be absolving corrupt African leaders of blame for mismanaging the resources of the continent. We have had sufficient time and opportunities over the last few decades to change our story and narrative while crafting and implementing visions that would transform the lives of the over a billion people who dwell on the continent.
Yes, globalization has inherent disadvantages for Africa. But Africa can and must rise to the occasion by building and working towards continental unity as we strengthen partnerships with the rest of the world. To achieve Africa’s Agenda 2063 goals, we must let the world buy into Africa’s priorities and global role. In most cases, we have simply squandered opportunities. Ghana also comes to mind here. In a little under six weeks from today, Ghana will mark sixty- six (66) years of nationhood. Far from being an occasion to celebrate independence and the successes and achievements of nationhood, we will mark this day under the yoke of the worst economic situation in decades.
We are currently bankrupt and burdened with a national debt we are simply not able to pay. You may have learnt over the past few weeks that the Ghanaian government has defaulted on the servicing of both external and domestic debt. There is currently, a huge uproar over a controversial debt restructuring programme under which the middle-class of Ghana could be wiped out if plans to have them forfeit proceeds of government bonds on which they rely for investment and sustenance, are followed through. In absolute terms, up to about six (6) million people could be deprived of their life savings and investments.
Ghana’s banking and financial sector could also be under threat of insolvency if no suitable adjustments are made to the debt restructuring plans. Our present economic situation, underscored by our bankrupt status, sharply contrasts with our fortunes a little over a decade ago.
At the time, our economy posted some of the highest growth rates in the world with a robust and fast-growing non-oil sector. Today, many of our economic indicators are pointing south. We have in the last month entered the hyperinflation era with an inflation rate of 54%. Our currency has in the past few months been counted among the worst-performing in the world, plummeting by as much as 54% in value within the first ten months of 2022. Widening budget deficits have characterized economic performance since 2018.
A severe cost of living crisis fueled by ever-rising prices of basic goods has imposed extreme hardship on Ghanaians as the government struggles to meet some of its most basic commitments in areas like education and health. Unemployment stood at a staggering 13%, the highest in recent memory. It would be no hyperbole to assert that our present state bears an uncanny resemblance to the late seventies and eighties.
How was a country with such bright prospects, only a decade ago, brought to its knees so quickly when it should have made far more progress? The present trouble with our economy stems from gross mismanagement and in some instances sheer recklessness. Government failed to sustain the gains made after our last IMF programme, which brought stability to the management of the Ghanaian economy. Corruption has also contributed significantly to bringing us to this distressing juncture.
Government has been quick to pass off the COVID pandemic as a reason for this poor economic record. Yet, available data shows that many of our neighbours in West Africa and further afield, posted much better economic performances than we did during and after the pandemic. The World Bank through its Ghana Country Director has also stated unequivocally that Ghana’s economy was in distress before the pandemic occurred.
The purpose of recounting these failures, driven my mismanagement and corruption, in Ghana is to demonstrate how Africa depletes scarce resources generated from both the continent and development partners. Instead of thinking innovatively to address the fundamental economic problem, many leaders worsen it. Using management of the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study my own country Ghana once a beacon of Africa has come up for mention for dissipating domestic and donor funds.
A recently published audit report by the Auditor General of Ghana into receipts and expenditures on COVID-19 exposes staggering instances of corruption running into billions of Ghana cedis.
Over GH¢21.8 billion was mobilised to mitigate the impact of the pandemic from the World Bank, IMF, the European Union (EU), the African Development Bank (AfDB), Ghana’s Contingency Fund, and from the sale of Bank of Ghana COVID-19 Bonds.
Hiding under the “emergency situation”, government jettisoned our financial and procurement laws and refused to use the GIFMIS system, which is the agreed budget and accounting digital platform to avoid thorough scrutiny. Such financial malpractices discourage delivery of grants and concessionary loans to Africa. I have indicated that we need a forensic audit into the receipts and expenditure of the COVID- 19 funds in Ghana. The forensic audit may be extended to other countries in Africa to restore investor confidence as we build the Africa we want.
Let me add that, Africa needs to build stronger institutions to address institutional and political decay. In building stronger institutions, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Africa must also be prioritized. On this note, let me commend many CSOs on our Continent that is holding governments accountable.
Compounding the socio-economic malaise on the continent, is the erosion of public confidence in state institutions. Many of these state institutions set up to be independent arbiters and offer appropriate checks and balance on the executive arms of government, have in recent years served more as extensions of the government.
In many cases, as it is the case in Ghana, there has been overt efforts by government to weaken these institutions and bend them to its will. A case in point was the ouster of the then Chairperson of Ghana’s Electoral Commission and two other senior officials by the President of Ghana over clearly flimsy and contrived reasons. They were then replaced with persons with noticeable leanings towards the incumbent party and whose actions have served to undermine public confidence in their independence and neutrality, two ingredients which are vital prerequisites for the sustenance of Ghana’s acclaimed democracy.
Relatedly, Ghana’s Judiciary has also come under public scrutiny in recent years for what is widely perceived as bias towards the government.
Until the advent of this government, our judiciary had commanded tremendous public respect and confidence for their firmly independent posture. This is arguably no longer the case.
This is a worry to investors because one of the factors that boosts confidence of investors to place their money in a country, is the faith they have that in event of a business dispute, they can expect the justice system to be a fair and neutral arbiter. For Africa to succeed in achieving her strategic priorities, we must strengthen institutions including the judiciary and grant them their deserved independence and freedoms as prescribed by law. I encourage you not to lose hope in Ghana and Africa because it is far more useful to look forward to the future with hope than to brood over the present with despair. I am an eternal believer in the potential and positive energies of Africa and her youth.
In December, next year, what I consider to be the most important elections in Ghana’s history will be held. The electioneering period will offer a scope for deeper discussions about Ghana’s future and what needs to be done to get us out of the current economic quagmire and to avoid a recurrence. We in the opposition in Ghana are very clear on our vision for the country and how to build the Ghana that we all want.
The first order of business for a new NDC administration is to restore macro-economic stability and ensure fiscal prudence while generating employment for many of our young people who are unsure of what the future holds.
Though the current economic distress is largely self-inflicted, it is very clear that unless we act to insulate ourselves from these factors, whatever gains that are made going forward will unravel because of structural weaknesses.
The National Democratic Congress, therefore, commits itself to immediate structural reforms based on national dialogue and forging a broad national consensus that will lead to the diversification of our economy and its production base; and the attraction of investment into industry, farming, agribusiness, the digital sector, and tourism.
We are determined to process our natural resources like cocoa, gold, bauxite, oil, copper while we build a more robust capacity to respond to global energy shocks. I invite you to look favourably at Ghana again because there is hope ahead! I also urge you to partner Africa as we confront the challenges posed by climate change, emerging diseases, terrorism, and cybercrimes to build a safer world. Our borders are borderless because of globalization. Therefore, we must stand in support of one another.
As we look into the near future with optimism, there are instant solutions that must be found to the crippling economic crisis, which has left a dark pall hanging over Ghana now. At a continental level, I want to reiterate my international advocacy for a reinstitution and extension of the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to afford our countries some limited fiscal respite. I would similarly call for the expansion of the Common Framework for Debt Treatment Beyond the DSSI to help African countries access debt restructuring tools and mechanisms.
I have had cause to also state elsewhere, and I would repeat that the time has come for an African version of a Marshal Plan. I note and applaud the Global Gateway Programme of the EU that seeks to mobilize 300 billion Euros over the next seven years for infrastructure in Africa and the rest of the developing world. If Africa is to survive and be a source of hope for the rest of the world, then Africa as an imperative must speedily harness the advantages it has to ensure inclusive growth for its people. With the continent boasting the world’s largest free trade area along with an over 1- billion-person market, Africa is prime, as reported by the World Bank, to carve out a new developmental pathway.
Under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, 55 countries with a combined GDP of over US$3.4 trillion will work together to present major opportunities for shared growth and prosperity for Africa and the rest of the world. I expect AfCFTA not to de-emphasize the prospects of SMEs as we promote new markets and encourage foreign investments. SMEs have sustained Africa and will continue to do so for a long while. I also urge AfCFTA to secure intellectual property rights of Africans as we partner already mature businesses. AFCTA will also need the support of the African Union for greater integration to allow for greater labour mobility across Africa to support countries in need of critical human resource.
And AFCTA must not allow businesses with political connections to be prioritized over real captains or champions of industry. Neither must innovations from the youth suffer because of lack of political connections. All hope is not lost for Africa.
Africa, including my country Ghana, has strategic priorities and is ready and willing to play its role in the global community.
To conclude, it is also of critical importance that regional bodies like the ECOWAS, SADC, EAC, CEMAC, the Arab Maghreb Union and African Union must be empowered to have a firmer grip on their member nations to address regional/ continental/ global challenges. Other international bodies like the European Union and the TANA High-Level Forum for Security in Africa, which I chair, must provide the needed support, including oversight and scrutiny of activities likely to lead to serious consequences.
I stress on this point of oversight because we observe that the laxity in supervision and oversight has given free reins to some leaders on the continent to wreak constitutional tyranny on their people with some changing their country’s constitution so they could run for extended terms.
No single country in Africa can on its own attain the highest level of development when it is surrounded by neighbouring countries engaging in full scale-conflict. It is therefore important that there is stability and sustainable development in Africa, which will help lead to global security and prosperity. With the right steps and visionary leadership as well as a willingness to dig deep and find innovative solutions to decades-old challenges, we must emerge a stronger force to reckon with. I thank you for your kind attention.