Explaining the Ghanaian Economic Miracle: It’s the radio, stupid!


2011 was a turbulent year. The Arab spring brought formidable military despots down in the Middle East. Japan was devastated by a triple whamy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. The United States narrowly dodged a geopolitical own goal by a last minute deal to avoid defaulting on its debt. The eurozone area staggered from one crisis to the next. Even almighty China, the engine of growth of the global economy over the last few years spluttered whiles the likes of India, Brazil and Russia flattered to deceive. However, in the stormy waters of the Atlantic Gulf of Guinea, it was business as usual. As a matter of fact, Ghana posted a year-on-year GDP growth rate of 13.5 %, the highest in the world (bar Qatar) to power its way into becoming sub-Saharan Africa’s only fourth middle-income country.

That was not supposed to be the case. As recent as the early eighties, the nation was on the precipice of despair. The political space had been hijacked by jokers, petty thieves and armed bandits.  Ghana’s notoriously corrupt military dictator, I.G. Acheampong, for example, was known to hand out import licenses and scarce foreign exchange to cronies and girlfriends (the joke at that time was that the most “important qualification was a beautiful body and coiffured wig”). Finally, the day of reckoning had come. Years of plundering the state with impunity, falling prices of cocoa and increased cost of financing sovereign debt had left a gaping hole in the nation’s financing. Worse, a debilitating famine had left a trail of despair in its aftermath. The nation had run out of money to service its debts. To complicate matters, over a million Ghanaian economic migrants were chased out of Nigeria in their infamous “Ghana must go” bags. The nation was at the crossroads. To quote the words of the late John Hagan, who was put in charge of relief supplies, “God had forgotten us”.

So how did Ghana, which had championed military dictatorship and made a public spectacle of mocking the institution of presidency, manage to achieve political stability while its neighbors crashed and burned? (see fig. 1) Explanations have varied, ranging from the legacy of marginally better colonial-era institutions, natural endowments (gold) or perhaps the lack of it (huge deposits of hydro carbons), some element of luck or as some Ghanaians would have it, “by the grace of God”.

Advocates of “benevolent dictator” doctrine argue that in era where military dictators ruled the roost in Africa, Ghana was fortunate to have a less-than-malevolent dictator in the mold of Flt. Lte. JJ Rawlings who held the reins of the failed state from falling apart, while using a carrots and sticks approach to force painful, yet necessary economic reforms that set the stage for the progress that has been witnessed in the last few years.

However, American-based Ghanaian economist, Professor Ayittey would have none of it. In a November, 2010 speech to Star100, a network of Ghanaian professionals in London, while promoting his new book, Defeating Dictators, he argued that there is no such thing as a benevolent dictator. The only good dictator, he said “is a dead one”. Rawlings, he indicated was as brute a dictator as his peers and would never had relinquished power had he not been felled by his own devices. He attributes Ghana’s success to political stability the defeat of Rawlings engendered.

In Defeating Dictators, Dr. Ayittey indicates that dictators are all of the same ilk. They keep a tight grip on power by controlling six key state institutions – the media, judiciary, electoral commission, central bank, security forces and civil service. To defeat them, one would have to pry one or more of these institutions open.

In Ghana’s case, it was the media. Dr. Ayittey credits Alliance for Change, a non-partisan group of 10 technocratic, concerned citizens (of which he was party) for using nifty ways to hit the administration of Rawlings with his own constitution. Rawlings had grudgingly allowed for freedom of expression under pressure from international financial institutions, on whose largesse he had built his administration. The pivotal moment occurred on December 4th, 1994 when police raided and shut down pirate radio station, Radio Eye, the brain child of Ghanaian business-man-cum politician, Dr. Wereko-Brobbey. Alliance for Change and other like minded organizations took the case to court and won. This led to a proliferation of independent radio stations which whose scrutiny thwarted every attempt Rawlings used to try to rig elections, leading to his party’s defeat in 2000, according to Dr. Ayittey.

So what can other African countries learn from Ghana’s experience? New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman summed it up best at the time of Rawlings’ defeat. He pointed out that the four most democratic West African countries at that time – Benin, Ghana, Mali and Senegal – all had a vibrant and independent radio stations. He beckoned the international community to stop sending Africa lectures on democracy. “Lets instead make all aid…all loans…all debt relief conditional on African governments’ permitting free FM radio stations. African will do the rest,” he wrote.

The jury is out on whether the dividends from political stability will stand the test of time. That however should not prevent the long-suffering people of Ghana from reveling in this rare positive spotlight. So pardon the people if they so wish to uncork champagne bottles, grill some suya khebabs and dance to the tune of azonto music with reckless abandon. For this time, it may be different!

Copyright 2012 (January) Neo-African Consensus

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8 Responses to Explaining the Ghanaian Economic Miracle: It’s the radio, stupid!

  1. Jimmy says:

    Great writing, Kwame. Some would argue that S. Korea used the benevolent dictator model to grow under General Park Chung-hee and that set the foundations for the development of its modern economy. The term “dictator” has a negative connotation and is usually associated with things like corruption, bribery, tyranny, etc. A euphemism or more palatable term for “benevolent dictator” could be “strong goal-driven leader” a la Steve Jobs, someone with a clear vision of the future and the unbending will to see it realized.

  2. Jimmy,
    “Benevolent dictatorship” or “strong goal-driven leader” has been a boon for East Asia and explains why it has been the only region in the world which has reduced economy disparity with the west over the last three odd decades. East Asia’s institutional frameworks allowed “benevolent dictatorship” to thrive. In Africa, the elaborate systems of checks and balances embedded in traditional African societies (that would have curbed the dark impulses of dictators) were systematically destroyed by the extractive hands of colonial masters (pre-independence) or were blindly replaced with foreign institutions which followed a different evolutionary trajectory (post independence). What was left was an alphabet soup of incoherent systems and institutions that accentuated faultlines and or worst contradicted each other, paving the way for jokers, thieves and armed bandits, masquerading as liberators, to hijack the system and run it into the abyss.

  3. gotchere says:

    Kwame interesting article. I lived through the era when the radio waves were opened up and I remember it led to strong engagement and a palpable sense of possibility amongst the public. Joe plumber could call in to a talk show and question a visiting govt minister etc etc. Opening up the radio space is definitely a key aspect of toppling dictators.

  4. Jen says:

    A good read Kwame.
    I was fortunate enough to begin the annual visits home just after Rawlings was ousted in 2000 and can remember my confusion as my dad and uncles remonstrated on the positives but mostly negative Rawlings leadership never fully grasping how it impacted the Ghana I would enjoy and watch grow for the next decade and beyond. Thanks for clearing some of the mist for me that a little reading on my part could have done a lot sooner.

    • Jen,

      Glad you enjoyed it. We have some serious momentum (growth as you described it) going on right now. Unfortunately, there have been many false dawns before. Hopefully that powers that be would capitalize on this opportunity, get out of the way and focus on building infrastructure, infrastructure and more infrastructure to create the enabling environment that will unleash the creative impulses of the people. There are healthy signs but don’t rule out the possibility of the ruling elite snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But lets be hopeful.

  5. Kwesi Atta Sakyi says:

    You did a thorough analysis. I remember Rawlings’ defeat in 2000. I was in Accra and saw the jubilation which was unprecedented.It was the power of the media which defeated him. But right now we have media riot and rot. See my article on ghanaweb of 6th October entitled Democracy in Ghana and our Radio Stations. South Korea’s miracle was partially driven by the ruling elite or Chaebol, humongous kickbacks and huge FDI from the USA aand Japan to srem the tide of communism. These are facts.

    • Kwesi,

      I could not agree with you more. We do have a habit of creating a mess out of even benign instruments of change. You are right, our airwaves have been hijacked by bandits who hide behind the freedom of speech banner. Rwanda’s unfortunate example of how radio could be use to incite hate serves as a cautionary tale. While I agree our radio stations need to be tamed, I am more distrustful of politicians who propose curbs on radio broadcasting to pursue their own nefarious agendas. We need an independent, apolitical body of people who can be trusted with policing the airwaves. Until that happens, the status quo may unfortunately be a lesser of two evils.

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