New Internationalist

Gold Coast

Issue 281

Gold coast
Daniel Mensah Brande describes the structural adjustments in Ghana
that have kept the suffering masses from dancing in the corridors of power.

The first European colony south of the Sahara to crow the dawn of political independence, Ghana is a symbol of post-independence Africa’s pride and prejudice. Known in the dictionary of colonialism as the ‘Gold Coast’ for its riches in gold, it also has on sale the relics of the authentic African traditional system of government, discoloured by the bleaching agents of colonialism. Here – and for that matter anywhere else in contemporary Black Africa – class interacts with ethnicity, flirts with gender, interferes with geography, collides with time and space. But one thing remains certain. Ghana has never been classless.
The modern state of Ghana, like many others in Africa, is an artwork of colonialism. Before the European economic adventure into Africa the geographical area presently called Ghana was filled with traditional African states, the most powerful of which was the Ashanti kingdom. These traditional political entities had well-organized systems of government. They also had well-defined class systems which supervised their daily activities and differentiated the leader from the led, the possessors from the dispossessed.

The advent of Western colonialism led to the emergence of a new class system. Even though European colonialism used traditional chiefs to pursue its goals, it presided over the decline of their political power. The new privileged class was made up of what could be called the foreign bourgeoisie and the African petit-bourgeoisie.

Independence in 1957 brought another new class system. This – indeed, like the colonial system before it – should really best be divided into two: the oppressors and the oppressed. Soul-searching segmentation of the social structure does, however, give three well-delineated classes: the upper class, the fast-diminishing middle class and the rapidly-increasing suffering masses. Each of these classes can be further sub-divided, for there are the highest among the high as well as the lowest among the low.

Looting sprees
The upper classes are the operators of the state apparatus and their local and foreign entourage. This group of people – government officials and their kin and cronies, members of the ruling political party/military junta, senior military and police officials and local and foreign entrepreneurs closely associated with the establishment – controls the economic and political destiny of the country. Together, they appropriate the resources of the State. Many of them loot state money, deposit it in their bank accounts abroad and import luxury consumer goods. Members of this class seem to hold the belief that what belongs to the State belongs to no-one. Public goods belong to the public: therefore one can help oneself as much as one’s position permits. So they embark on state-coffer looting-sprees, stripping the economy naked. Those who use their positions within the state apparatus to become rich are, in fact, criticized only when they fail to distribute their gains to their families, entourage and network. For them, stealing state money is not a crime – but one may be punished for letting oneself be seen while stealing it.

The middle classes enjoyed a degree of respectability and comfort in the embryonic years of Ghana’s independence. But as national politics and the economy fell into the gutter, members of this class voiced their resentment at the undemocratic way the nation was being driven, and the gap between them and the rulers began to widen. They were labelled ‘saboteurs of state security’ and were watched constantly, carefully and nervously. This, coupled with the sentence of death on the national economy pronounced by the IMF/World Bank Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), reduced the middle class to near-paupers.

The intellectual community felt the shock more than any other. The SAP turned educational institutions into a marketplace of chaos. Teaching facilities were stretched to the point of collapse and denied repairs, let alone replacement. Laboratories became ill-equipped and libraries starved of publications. Some university lecturers converted their cars into taxi cabs to earn extra income. Others tried to endear themselves to the State to get appointments to parastatal boardrooms as directors or managers. A series of strikes closed universities on several occasions.

The lowest class, the suffering masses, is increasing fast. Members of the middle class are demoted into it at an amazing rate. This class – workers, farmers, school teachers, most of the operators in the informal sector, the under-employed and the unemployed – contains the most marginalized people in Ghana. But the degree of marginalization varies. The rural poor are more marginalized than their urban counterparts; women bear the brunt more than men. The SAP has, for example, removed the subsidy on kerosene for poor farmers, while an incredible tax system takes 65 per cent of their potential income from cocoa. The economic reforms drastically reduced real wages, while many fell victim to ‘retrenchment’ programmes designed to cut employment.

Child labour
Some women who are denied other employment have taken to prostitution, while men engage in armed robbery and drug pushing. The Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Ghana’s capital, Accra, is gradually becoming a red-light district comparable to those in European cities like Amsterdam and Hamburg. It is not uncommon for women in their thirties in Ghana to have grandchildren, for little girls as young as 13 are mothers.

The situation is so alarming that there appears to be an acute shortage of young men prepared to carry the economic responsibility of marriage. Because parents are not able to fend for their children, child labour is becoming an established feature of Ghanaian society. The population of street children grows. Economically displaced youth from the rural areas floods the urban centres, putting more pressure on already choked social facilities.

To survive, most members of the suffering masses must enter the fast-expanding underground economy. Even here Government officials use their positions to gain a disproportionate share of the wealth the ‘second economy’ generates, reflecting and accentuating the inequality of power still further. But at least here the deprived class gains some access to resources.

Traditional security systems which provided economic insurance for the poor have been eroded. The extended family, which imposed upon its economically able members a duty to help the others, has disappeared. Regarded once as the fountain of wisdom and the link between the living and the dead, and held in high esteem as an indispensable asset of society, the aged in Ghana today are the most miserable of people. They have been rejected and left to their own devices. Research by HelpAge Ghana shows that a good number of the elderly are malnourished and suffering from hunger- and stress-induced diseases.

Class differentials in terms of economic power have often led to collision between workers and the middle class on the one hand and the ruling class on the other. Workers, school teachers, university lecturers, doctors, nurses and other professionals have embarked on strikes and demonstrations aimed at registering their protest against the yawning economic gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The military usually exploit the discontent of the people to launch revolutions with high hopes and promises to perform economic miracles, only to fall victim to the corruption and economic mismanagement they have come to expose, thus pushing the people into further hardships. In 1980, Jerry John Rawlings launched a popular revolution with the slogan ‘Power to the People’. But as the revolution began dancing through the corridors of power, the soldiers began to enjoy its fruits, and power quickly slipped through the hands of the people back into the waiting arms of its former owners – the few among the many.

The suffering masses who toil to keep the economy of the country moving have never seen the colour of political power.

Daniel Mensah Brande is a journalist and broadcaster based in Accra.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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