“I am very optimistic that things are going to change in Zimbabwe. Nothing lasts forever, nothing.â€ — Oliver Mtukudzi
Archive for September, 2008
Yesterday morning, I flew from Tamale to Accra on a 45-seat prop plane. The flight took barely more than an hour, and spared me a ten-hour car ride. Tamale is the most important city in Ghana’s largely-Muslim north, and the air service is relatively new. Antrak flies daily; it is one of two commercial carriers. The opening of Ghana’s north through the skies does not resolve the continuing troubles with basic roads between Accra and points north. The very same awful road that links Accra to Kumasi continues further north to Tamale. If Tamale is to become the breadbasket for more-urbanized southern Ghana, the Kumasi road must be greatly improved. But air service provides an important boost — and not only for people. Fresh mangoes are making the plane trip from Tamale to Accra as well. Some of the mangoes get eaten by prosperous urban elites, while the remainder move onto another airplane — this one traveling to Europe.
Air service from Accra to Tamale remains an experiment. All seats were filled when I flew on Monday to Tamale. Only one seat was empty on my return trip. At 175 dollars per flight (or $350 roundtrip), air travel to Tamale is well beyond the means of ordinary Ghanaians. Yet the service needs an elite clientele to survive and thrive. These are early days but over time, regional air travel could solve one of Africa’s most vexing problems: how to move people and goods, quickly and effeciently, over vast distances.
â€œThe worst thing isnâ€™t the evil of bad people, but the silence of good people.â€ â€“ Norbert Zongo
â€œI am a white man born in Africa, and all else flows from there.â€ â€“ Rian Malan
The road from Accra to Kumasi is a reminder of how far Ghana has come under the democratic rule of the New Patriotic Party â€“ and how far the west African country must still travel to reach the level of a middle-income society.
Eight years into the administration of John Kuffour, the road to Kumasi remains unfinished, a frustrating work in progress, marred by long stretches of dirt road where the traffic hardly moves. The distance between Ghanaâ€™s two largest cities exceeds 220 kilometers, so the journey by automobile or bus consumes five to six hours. With a proper road, the distance could be covered in half that time.
The other day my wife Chizo and I made the roundtrip by a bus, and the journey was predictably awful. I later asked a well-connected friend how Kuffour could experience his final days as president â€“ he is ineligible to run again under the countryâ€™s two-term limit â€“ while Ghanaâ€™s citizens experiences the follies and frustrations of traveling to his hometown.
Iâ€™ve long considered Kuffourâ€™s failure to finish the building a proper road to Kumasi as a real test of his leadership and presidency. Widely considered lethargic and â€œold school,â€ Kuffour seems to lack the dynamism even to galvanize public support for the most important commercial transportation project in his country.
When I told my elite Ghanaian friend my theory of why the Kumasi road â€“ the road connecting the presidentâ€™s core constituency to the Ashanti ethnic group, which is his own â€“ she told me that ethnicity was the reason why this crucial road hasnâ€™t been finished. â€œKuffour doesnâ€™t want to be seen to be catering to the needs of his own group,â€ she told me.
The Ashanti are theÂ largest ethnic group in Ghana, so their crucial road comes last.
I doubt the theory, actually, if only because my own seems more poetic.
My wife, Chizo, left Accra for Lagos this morning just as rebels in her native Niger Delta region declared an â€œoil warâ€ against the federal government of Nigeria. Some days ago, I decided against joining her on a visit to her parents and siblings, most of whom live in Port Harcourt. Chizo plans to stop briefly in Port Harcourt later tonight and then head to a town a few hours away where her mother has been staying with one of her sisters. Fortunately, the bus company she is traveling with held a prayer vigil before take-off. A well-dressed man with a red-covered bible entered the companyâ€™s 12-seat van and led the passengers in a spirited prayer. The man, it turned out, is the official prayer-master for the bus company, which runs two vehicles daily between Lagos and Accra. The premium service, which costs about $125 (RT), includes the guarantee that the passenger need not leave the vehicle at any of the three international borders traversed on the way to Lagos.
I witnessed a fascinating encounter between soldiers and scribes today at the Ghana Press Association’s attractive conference center. Soldiers complained of national security threats from media expression, while journalists countered that media coverage would be kinder if government performed better.
The biggest surprise to me in Accra, where I am visiting for the first time since 2003, is that one dollar is worth the equivalent of one Ghanaian cedi. When I changed a 50 dollar bill at the airport, I was startled to receive 50 cedis in return — not the 50,000 I expected.
After I caught my breath, I learned that not long ago the Ghana government lopped four zeroes off all of its currency notes.
The new currency makes calculations much easier — and one cedi much more valuable. But inflation has leaped and there is a natural inclination to for consumers to think things are less expensive than they really are.
Most significantly, there is a mixture of pride and bewilderment of the new equivalence of the dollar and the cedi.