New Internationalist


April 2009
Photo by Sven Torfinn / PANOS
Photo by Sven Torfinn / PANOS

If you travel the sun-drenched coast of Ghana along the Gulf of Guinea from the capital Accra to the border with Côte d’Ivoire, you will see the most impressive display of European military architecture outside of that continent. These forts, mostly British and Dutch, mark the country as a centre of Africa’s notorious slave trade. From the glories of the medieval Ashanti kingdom to the heady days of the continent’s first successful independence struggle, Ghana, despite its relatively small size, has been at the centre of things African.

The people of Ghana went to the polls in December 2008 and elected a new government. It was a lively affair, and resulted in a virtual dead heat between the two main candidates. In January, however, the 64-year-old John Evans Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress took the oath of office before cheering crowds in Accra’s Independence Square after topping his opponent by less than one per cent of the vote. Despite misgivings, a reluctant opposition accepted the popular verdict.

This is not exactly a shocking turn of events, as it now happens on 7 December every four years. But on an African continent marred by civil wars, military coups and undernutrition, Ghana is remarkably normal in its conduct of politics. Ghanaians are enthusiastic about their democracy, and between 70 and 80 per cent of registered voters regularly turn out at the polls. Not that there haven’t been military coups in the past. But since the election of Jerry Rawlings in 1993 there has been a peaceful succession of elected governments. Ghana is blessed with being relatively free of the ethnic tensions that have scarred politics in countries like Kenya and Nigeria.

Ghana was the first African country to achieve independence (from Britain) – in 1957, when the Pan-African visionary Kwame Nkrumah led a largely peaceful movement of decolonization. His regime was overthrown in a 1966 military coup by those fearful of his radical inclinations. To this day Nkrumah holds a special place in the Ghanaian political pantheon, along with that other flawed idealist, Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings (President from 1981 to 2001).

Ghanaians are generally horrified by political violence, all too common in West African neighbours such as Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. Rawlings, credited with saving the country from corruption and chaos in the 1980s, is still widely criticized for the summary execution in 1979 of eight senior military officers after his seizure of power; he himself says he much regrets the killings. While capital punishment is still on the books, it has not been used since July 1993.

Although Ghana possesses great mineral wealth, most people still survive through subsistence agriculture. Cocoa remains the main export crop, with a smallholder pattern untypical of the large commercial plantations that dominate production elsewhere. Despite many co-operatives and a cocoa marketing board, many cocoa farmers are still at the mercy of private traders and international markets. It is among subsistence farmers, however, that poverty takes its greatest toll – particularly in the north, where there is only one crop a year and the dry harmattan winds from the Sahara play havoc with soil fertility.

The recent discoveries of offshore oil raise the issue of who benefits from such export developments. Very few of the economic benefits from gold mining have stayed in the country – the industry is marked by low wages, arbitrary land grabs, and environmental damage by foreign mining companies (many from Canada and Australia). Similarly, as a poster child of African ‘normality’, Ghana has been a major recipient of foreign aid and loans. But Government compliance with IMF- and World Bank-designed austerity programmes has entailed the embrace of market solutions that always tend to enrich a few at the expense of the majority. The poor are still waiting for their share.

Richard Swift

Ghana Fact File
Leader President John Evans Atta Mills
Economy GNI per capita $590 (Côte d’Ivoire $910, UK $42,740)
Monetary unit Cedi.
Main exports Gold, cocoa, timber, tuna, bauxite, aluminium, manganese ore, diamonds, horticulture. Ghana has one of the stronger economies of sub-Sahara Africa due to its array of natural resources. As one of the countries most prepared to jump through IMF hoops, Ghana qualified for debt relief under the HIPC Initiative from 2003 and also under the Multilateral Debt Initiative from 2006. It has been hit by falling cocoa prices and the weakening of its currency has been another factor pushing inflation to a five-year high of 20%. Imports have consistently increased in recent years, despite the global economic downturn.
People 23.5 million. Annual population growth rate 2.4%. People per square kilometre 88 (UK 250)
Health Infant mortality 73 per 1,000 live births (Côte d’Ivoire 89, UK 5). HIV prevalence rate 1.9%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 45 (Ireland 1 in 47,600).
Environment In less than 50 years, Ghana’s primary rainforest has been reduced by 90%. On the positive side, environmental groups are active and Ghana has some of the best-run national parks on the continent.
Culture Akan 44%, Mossi-Dagomba 16%, Ewe 13%, Ga-Adangbe 8%, Guan 4%, Gurma 3%.
Religion Christian 50%, traditional religions 32%, Muslim 13%.
Language English (official), though Ga is the main local language.
Human Development Index: 1990 0.517; 2005 0.553 (Côte d’Ivoire 0.432, UK 0.946).
Sources UNICEF; UNDP;;
Last profiled link July 1999
Ghana ratings in detail
Income distribution
Ghana, with a GINI equality rating of 41 (100 being perfect inequality), is about mid-table amongst African countries. But with 78% of the population living on $2 a day or less there is much room for improvement. Who benefits from oil revenues coming onstream will be crucial. 1999 ★★ 
Life expectancy
60 years (Côte d’Ivoire 48, UK 79). National health insurance, introduced in 2004, should provide a boost. 1999 ★★
The overall rate is a poor 65% – the same as in the last profile 10 years ago. There is much regional variation, ranging from nearly 90% in Accra to less than 30% in parts of eastern Ghana. The removal of all school fees should help. 1999 ★★
Position of women
Women have the same legal rights as men. There is still significant resistance to the education of girls. Women make up just 11% of sitting MPs. Maternal health and domestic violence remain serious problems. 1999 ★★★
Press freedom ensures a wide range of opinions. Elections are generally considered to be fair. Ghanaians tend to react very negatively to abuses of authority. Forced evictions of marginalized people who stand in the way of mining and other projects remain a problem. 1999 ★★★★
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is illegal and gay life remains largely hidden. In 2006 the Government banned a gay rights conference. Gay rights organizations nevertheless exist and work for acceptance.
NI Assessment (Politics)
For Ghanaians to retain their hard-fought political freedom, democracy will have to deliver a degree of economic prosperity and equality. The country enjoys a healthy political culture with criticism of those in power an everyday occurrence. But danger lurks in the grinding poverty still experienced by many. The benefits from oil and gold revenues in particular need to be shared with the poor majority. Inequality and democracy remain reluctant bedfellows.

This column was published in the April 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Life expectancy3
Position of women2
Sexual minorities2
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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