“Oh, my brother, these African leaders are killing us, all of them, including Mahama [Ghana’s President John Mahama].”
This is what Isaac, a taxi driver in Accra, told me last Friday as we both cursed the heavy traffic between the old airport residential area and the University of Ghana, Legon. I had asked him why the traffic was so bad in spite of Accra’s fairly well-developed and maintained road network.
As a student of politics, interested in Ghana’s contemporary political development, I quickly realised I had a treasure trove of a research respondent in my cab driver. His comments were articulate and crisp. So, I pressed on.
“Why should Accra’s horrible traffic be blamed on President Mahama?” I asked Isaac.
“Let me tell you,” he started. “Mahama is lucky that Ghanaians are very patient people. Otherwise, we could have marched to the Flagstaff House [State House] and thrown him out. He has messed up the economy… ”
But what exactly, I pressed on, has the president and his government done that is causing us this heavy traffic jam?
“They have not worked on the many possible alternative routes around the city. Instead, Mahama and his people allot to themselves plots in road reserves,” he answered.
I soon got to my destination and my conversation with Isaac had to end, as I rushed for an appointment. However, during our short exchange, Isaac had spiritedly defended his thesis, placing the blame for Accra’s choking traffic squarely on the government. Lately, I have become a bit sceptical of always blaming African rulers and their governments. I think there is a much bigger social problem in Africa than just the failure of leadership.
It seems that leaders are, perhaps, as clueless as the led. But the chat with Isaac pushed me back to my old thinking: the buck ultimately stops with the politicians who manage, and mostly mismanage, public resources. The Ghanaian economy is in a tailspin. The local currency, the Cede, has been getting a battering from the US dollar.
Between February, when I left Ghana, and early September, when I returned, the Cede had depreciated more than 50 per cent against the dollar. The rate of inflation has grown non-stop, monthly, from about 12 per cent in January to 16 per cent this month.
The economic distress has put President Mahama and his National Democratic Congress party on the chopping board. Reelection in 2016 is highly unlikely. With mounting economic distress, some government actions simply add insult to injury. For example, several million dollars are being spent on building a new official residence for the vice-president, Paa Kwesi Amissah-Arthur.
Yet there is a house for the ‘Veep’ but is still occupied by Mahama since when he was number two to the late Professor John Atta Mills!
Mahama has kept the ‘Veep’s’ official residence in addition to the plush Flagstaff House. Such needless overspending has taken a toll on the Ghanaian economy. But the political class appears unfazed. The current economic crisis is connected to the spending overdrive during the 2012 election year, spurred on by the rather poisoned chalice of oil money. The Ghanaian political class has a knack for opulence and the discovery of oil has pushed matters a notch higher.
Now the economy is reeling. Ghana needs a loan bailout from the International Monetary Fund, which will inevitably come with attendant austerity measures. And this is the same country whose debts were forgiven in the early 2000s under the Heavily- Indebted Poor Countries initiative. It is back to square one. Uganda, too, benefited from HIPC. But the public debt is surging again.
As I left my cab driver, Isaac, I went about reflecting on his basic, yet sensible, argument: the actions and inactions of African leaders tend to hurt the majority, even as rulers reap politically-expedient results. The ongoing political feud between President Museveni and his former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, is instructive. The big news since last Friday has been Mbabazi’s sacking. But that shouldn’t be a big deal. Museveni appoints his prime minister and should sack himher any time he deems necessary.
The real issue at stake that should concern all Ugandans is the cost the taxpayer must pay to help General Museveni stop Mbabazi from pursuing a legitimate presidential ambition. Recall that the raid on the national treasury in 2011, which enabled Museveni to literary buy each vote he got, plunged the economy and sparked massive inflation and runaway depreciation of the shilling.
It is more than a year to the next election, but General Museveni is already splashing money around to secure his continued stay in State House. Youth groups are receiving heifers, with some reportedly sold off as soon as they’re handed out women groups are getting big cash in sacks, purportedly to start savings and credit schemes, etc.
Such quick fixes will do little to transform Uganda, but a lot to hurt our economy. Taking kneejerk and short-term actions to fend off supposed political opponents disrupts and distorts long-term economic planning. This is how ‘African leaders are killing us!’ They place political expedience above economic prudence, and sacrifice long-term investment at the altar of short-term manoeuvres.
The author is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, EvanstonChicago-USA.
Source : The Observer