The Washington Diplomat / April 2006
AMBASSADOR PROFILE: GHANA'S FRITZ KWABENA POKU By Larry Luxner
In 1957, Ghana became black Africa's first colony to achieve independence. Next year, the country's 21 million people will mark the 50th anniversary of that historic achievement with parades, prayer meetings, parties and fireworks.
From all accounts, Ghana has plenty to celebrate — especially when compared to its West African neighbors.
"President John Kufour has four years of solid economic achievement behind him. World prices have been good for cocoa and gold, two of Ghana's main exports, and the country's growth rate has exceeded 5%," according to Freedom in the World 2005, an annual survey published by Washington-based Freedom House. "The reputation of the Kufuor government for good governance has won aid from Western donors."
Ghana's ambassador to the United States, Fritz Kwabena Poku, attributes much of his country's recent success to Kufuor, who was first elected in December 2000 and won re-election four years later with 52% of the vote.
"Things are really looking up for Ghana," Poku told the Washington Diplomat in a recent interview. "In the five years he's been in power, the president has been able to lift Ghana from the economic doldrums. The whole country has been turned into a workshop bustling with activity.
"There are two important measures the president will always be remembered for. The first is the national health insurance scheme, which replaces the current cash-and-carry system. This community-based scheme will cover almost all sectors of the population and is unheard of in our history.
"The second is the capitation grant, which allows all children between 4 and 17 years old to have a free basic education plus a free lunch every school day, so there's been an exponential increase in the number of children enrolled in school. This is unprecedented."
Poku, who's been at his current job since September 2004, is a career diplomat with more than 30 years of experience working in Africa, Europe and North America.
Poku, 60, studied at Ghana's Adisadel College as well as the University of Ghana, the University of Abidjan, the Ghana Institute of Public Administration and Management, and the Ghana School of Law. In 1970, he joined Ghana's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and held a variety of positions, including being Ghana's ambassador to Ethiopia and permanent representative to the Organization of African Unit and the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
Poku has also served as Ghana's ambassador to the United Nations and other world bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN Industrial Development Organization and the World Trade Organization. As ambassador, Poku supervises 18 diplomats and 30 local hires at one of Ghana's largest embassies overseas.
In its 2005 report, Freedom House singled out Ghana for praise "due to efforts to improve the rule of law, including the conclusion of hearings of the National Reconciliation Commission, and [efforts] to improve freedom of the press."
However, it wasn't always such smooth sailing for this poor West African country.
"Ghana was the first country south of the Sahara to achieve independence, so we had a head start," Poku explained. "We were socialist, then a one-party state, then followed military coups, and now we have constitutional rule. We've gone full circle and we've learned through these experiences that the absence of the rule of law not only breeds impunity and a culture of silence but also stifles the peoples' ingenuity. We have found out that the best form of government is democratic rule."
Yet poverty remains Ghana's biggest problem. According to Poku, Ghana's current per-capita GDP is around $550. With the exception of neighboring Côte d'Ivoire, this is more than all other West African countries including Nigeria.
"Our vision is to reach the middle-income group by 2020," Poku said. "We estimate that to be able to reach the target per-capita income of $1,000, we would need to post consistently, on a sustainable basis, 8% annual growth for the next 10 years or so."
Helping Ghana achieve that lofty goal is NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa's Development. The initiative is backed by both the World Bank and the UN Development Program, which both view NEPAD as the "main reference for technical assistance to Africa in the future."
The need for such a Marshall Plan-type initiative is fairly obvious. During the "lost decade" of the 1990s, foreign aid allocated for African development programs fell from $24 billion a year to $14 billion, while foreign investment in Africa tumbled by 40% and poverty increased — especially in countries where AIDS has taken the greatest toll.
"This is the strategy by which we hope to lift ourselves out of poverty," said Poku. "We expect the donor countries will match the efforts we make by giving us some assistance. We must be able to convince our partners that we will make judicious use of the funds and resources they pump into Africa. We will govern ourselves wisely and justly, and invest in our own people."
Likewise, he said, "the African Peer Review is the mechanism by which all countries offer themselves for scrutiny by their peers. Ghana was the first country to do that. At the last summit in Khartoum, Ghana was grilled by 26 heads of state. We feel confident enough that we have good credentials."
Through another program, the World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, Ghana hopes to eliminate billions of dollars in external debt.
"It is thanks to the good and wise leadership of President Kufuor that we were able to benefit from the 100% debt cancellation by the G8. It started with HIPC and when our president took that decision, there was all sorts of opposition and outcries from various sectors of the population," said Poku.
"But the fact remains that we had run down the economy and we needed some economic discipline. HIPIC, with all its restrictions, enabled us to achieve this macroeconomic stablity. Interest rates have come down, inflation has dropped and if it weren't for the escalation of crude oil prices which have hurt the economy, we'd be heading toward single-digit inflation, which is currently 14-15%."
To ease Ghana's dependence on imported petroleum, a 620-mile West African Gas Pipeline is now being built from Nigeria to Ghana by a consortium made up of ChevronTexaco (36.7%); Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. (25%); Shell (18%); Ghanas Volta River Authority (16.3%), Benin's SoBeGaz (2%) and Togo's SoToGaz (2%).
The $1 billion project, being financed by the World Bank, will also deliver Nigerian gas to Benin and Togo. The World Bank estimates that the three West African nations will save a combined $500 million a year in energy costs over a 20-year period once the pipeline comes into operation.
Poku pointed out that while Ghana isn't blessed with oil or gas, it does have an abundance of other resources like diamonds, gold, bauxite, coffee, manganese and cocoa.
"At the time of independence, we were the world's No.1 exporter of cocoa. We lost that position to Brazil and Côte d'Ivoire, but now, Côte d'Ivoire is No. 1 and we are No. 2," he said. "Part of our development strategy is to add value to our natural products. So if we produce cocoa, we want to be able to produce chocolate."
To that end, he said, the government runs two cocoa-processing plants, one in Takoradi and the other in Tema. In addition, Nestlé operates in the country, and the government is in final negotiations with Cargill to build a processing plant as well.
Besides cocoa, other important earners of foreign exchange are gold, remittances from Ghanians living abroad, and tourism.
On that note, tourism is expected to boom next year, when Ghana will celebrate its Golden Jubilee.
"The Ministry of Tourism has launched a program called the Joseph Project, built on the Biblical story of Joseph being sold into slavery," the ambassador explained. "Having gone to Egypt and made a name for himself, Joseph came back to his own people to serve them. The whole idea is for African-Americans to get the opportunity to reconnect with their ancestors, come back home and use Ghana as a gateway to other parts of Africa."
Poku agreed that while other African countries like Gambia, Senegal and South Africa are also trying to lure black Americans to their shores, only Ghana has 40 castles and forts built by the colonialists for the slave trade. Some of these structures are now being preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
"All this advertising and publicity is to entice the African-American community to come home and make some investments in Ghana," he said. "We also want them to be our best advocate, like the Jews do for Israel. We want African-Americans to open doors and corridors of power in the United States for Africa."
In 2008, Ghana will host the African National Cup. The same year, the country will also host the UN Conference on Trade and Development. To prepare for such world-class events, said Poku, "we have struck a deal with the Chinese to build two new stadiums."
At present, Ghana has around 10 four- and five-star hotels; Hilton is supposed to make its first appearance in Accra soon.
Getting to Ghana will soon become much easier. Beginning Jun. 3, North American Airlines will add a second weekly nonstop flight from New York's JFK to Accra. It's also considering direct flights from BWI, according to Poku.
Some 100,000 Ghanian nationals live in the United States, a relatively small number compared to the much larger communities of Africans from Cameroon, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.
All of them take pride in the fact that one of the world's most respected statesmen, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, hails from Ghana.
"He is very well-regarded and respected, and has certainly put Ghana on the map," says Poku. "Kofi Annan has made a very good impression. Even when he's angry, he doesn't raise his voice."