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Ghana glows in spotlight of Obama visit

It is the only sub-Saharan stop in President Obama's trip this week, a choice that analysts say acknowledges its democratic and economic gains.

July 10, 2009|Robyn Dixon

ACCRA, GHANA — The White House's choice of Ghana as President Obama's only port of call in sub-Saharan Africa this week has triggered envy across the continent.

The visit, his first to sub- Saharan Africa since becoming president, is also being interpreted as a snub to those African governments with records of corruption, poor administration and tainted elections.

"It makes sense that Obama would want to go to Ghana. Because Ghana is everything we are not," wrote journalist Ayisha Osori in the Nigerian daily This Day.

"Ghana is a shiny example of a West African country which has turned itself around and is doing well."

Was Ghana chosen because it has slashed its poverty rate nearly in half? Or for its successive democratic changes of government without a shot being fired? Or perhaps its yet-to-be exploited oil in a region where petroleum riches have encouraged the rise of corrupt, venal elites?

"It's a little bit of recognition of Ghana's progress in democratic growth, peaceful electoral turnover, especially in a region otherwise full of reversals and disappointments," said E. Gyimah-Boadi, head of the Accra-based Center for Democratic Development.

Politically stable, Ghana stands out in a chaotic neighborhood. Nigeria, the regional oil power, has been hit by frequent militant attacks, pipeline explosions and kidnappings. Kenya, the homeland of Obama's late father, was rocked by violence after a disputed presidential election in 2007; more than 1,000 people were killed.

Ghana, with a population of 23.8 million, has become a regional leader since its transition from military rule to a multiparty democracy in the early 1990s.

Its democratic advance contrasts with a history of coups and disputed elections elsewhere in Africa.

"People are coming to understand what democracy is," said Emmanuel Akli, editor of the independent Chronicle newspaper.

"We are in a volatile region, and it's only Ghana that is really practicing democracy," Akli said. "It's the only country which has changed government twice without a single incident."

Ghana's economic growth has averaged more than 5% since 2001, according to World Bank statistics, although the country has been hit hard recently by the global recession. Its poverty rate has been halved to 28% in 2006 from 52% in 1992, according to the World Bank.

Gyimah-Boadi argues that Ghana's democratic reforms and poverty reduction go hand in hand. Its democracy also may have helped put a brake on corruption: Successive incoming governments have been quick to expose the misdemeanors of the previous regime. Critics, however, say these prosecutions are often political, and that a culture of transparency hasn't really taken root.

There are other flaws. Ghana ranks No. 135 among 177 countries on the United Nations human development index, a comprehensive measurement of quality of life. Analysts say the collapse of remittances and exports because of the global economic crunch could reverse the country's progress.

Some analysts fear that revenue from Ghana's oil reserves could spawn the kind of corrupt elite seen in neighboring countries, potentially squandering years of democratic gains. They argue that the true test of Ghana's democracy lies ahead.

The global crunch has already hit Ghana's job creation plan. More than 300,000 jobs were created in the last three years, according to the government.

Accra, the capital, is full of people such as Abu Ayoma, 42, a father of three. He came to the city a decade ago looking for work and ended up as a laborer, carrying heavy loads. Three years ago, he began work for Zoomlion, a private waste management firm contracted by the government.

As part of the National Youth Employment Program, Zoomlion hires and trains jobless people. The government pays the workers allowances.

"It's better than going to steal," Abu Ayoma said, pausing as he shoveled dirt into a dumpster at a busy market. "I don't have any alternative to live on."

Accra's canals are green and grassy, with neat "Do Not Litter" signs posted by Zoomlion.

"People respect us. They always congratulate us on what we are doing. We clean up Ghana, so it's good for the people," Abu Ayoma said.

The National Youth Employment Program also trains unemployed people to patrol neighborhoods at night, direct traffic, or work as community nurses or teachers. They may also serve in the military, customs or in prisons.

"These programs do a tremendous amount in terms of poverty reduction. You have young people meaningfully engaged in work, young people who were doing nothing," said Seibik Bugri, a spokesman for the program.

These days, though the jobs program is in arrears, with payments running six weeks late.

"That's our biggest challenge -- how to fund it," Bugri said. "Even before the credit crunch, it was a problem, so now it's getting worse. We are dependent on the government, so we are always in arrears."

With the country aglow about playing host to Obama, Gyimah-Boadi fears the visit could make the people of Ghana complacent. He is afraid Ghana could face democratic setbacks -- particularly when the oil money begins to flow.

"There's a sense we should not be too hard on ourselves in terms of how we handle these new [oil] resources," he said. "That is where the danger lies."

Transparency is still weak, checks and balances ineffective, news media independence isn't well established and power is too centralized, he said.

"It would be good if the [Obama] visit was used to encourage the incumbent administration and opposition to appreciate that they're carrying a responsibility for themselves, for Ghana and for Africa," Gyimah-Boadi said.

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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