Friends in Many Places
In January 2017, 72-year old human rights lawyer Nana Akufo-Addo was sworn in as Ghana’s president in the country’s fifth peaceful transfer of power since 2000, one of Africa’s best records. Coming just a month after President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia brought his country to the brink of civil war after refusing to step down after a December 2016 election, it was yet another feather in Ghana’s electoral cap. It was also the beginning of a very active year for Ghanaian diplomacy in which strategic, cultural, and commercial ties with Nigeria, China, the US, Germany, the UK, and other European countries were strengthened.
As the two largest economies in West Africa, Ghana and Nigeria have much more to gain from closer economic collaboration than not. Yet as the Consul-General of Ghana in Lagos Isaac Essilfie has noted, while Nigerians have a huge foot in the Ghanaian market, particularly in banking and insurance, Ghanaian firms are constrained by Nigerian import restrictions on poultry, pork, beef, refined vegetable oils and fats, cane and beet sugar, cocoa butter, powder, cakes, noodles, fruit juice, mineral water, beer, sweet drinks, bagged cement, and a wide range of medicines.
Yet if Ghanaians have trouble accessing the Nigerian market, Nigerian students have been flocking by the thousands to study in Ghana’s secondary educational facilities in the past few years. When complaints arose in Nigeria that some of these institutions failed to pass muster, the Ghanaian government was quick to revoke the charters of lackluster institutions.
On a more positive note, the countries’ respective leaders met in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in June to hold talks on a number of key bilateral issues, including but not limited to the July 2017 African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa, ongoing negotiations regarding the Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), and how to renew the Ghana-Nigeria Permanent Joint Commission for Cooperation. In addition to extending his best wishes for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s swift recovery from an extended medical treatment in London, President Akufo-Addo expressed his gratitude to acting Nigerian President Yemi Osinbajo for receiving him during the holy month of Eid.
Though somewhat miffed at the trade imbalance with neighboring Nigeria, Ghana has still been pursuing an aggressive open-door policy vis-à-vis the rest of Africa in order to boost tourism, trade, and cultural ties alike. Already with a visa-free policy for members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in July 2016 it introduced 30-day visas on arrival for citizens of African Union (AU) countries, a club that includes all but Western Sahara. Ghana is one of 13 other states that have adopted this policy ahead of a broader future “AU-wide e-passport” agreement that hopes to bring about a “continent-wide zone of free movement.”
Bauxite for Beijing
Ghana has also been aggressively strengthening its ties with the more distant but ultimate continental hegemon, Beijing, one of the first states to recognize Ghanaian independence in 1957 and a longstanding friend of Accra. At the invitation of the Chinese government, in June Vice President Dr Mahamudu Bawumia set off on a four-day official visit to China, the first since the New Patriotic Party took power in January. Meeting with senior Chinese leaders such as Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, he was accompanied by a Ghanaian government delegation that included the ministers of trade, railways, transport, and roads and highways, a logical sampling of which sectors of the Ghanaian economy stand most to gain from Chinese investment.
But the bulk of this budding friendship centers first around bauxite. During the vice presidential mission, it was announced that Ghana had signed an agreement with China that could lead to a bauxite venture worth USD10 billion after the requisite railway infrastructure and alumina refineries are taken into account. Thought to possess some 960 million metric tons of bauxite deposits, economic advisor to the vice president Gideon Boako estimates Ghana possesses some USD460 billion worth of total bauxite reserves.
Whatever the reserves hold, Ghana already surpassed Australia as the world’s single-largest producer of bauxite with some 827,000 tons in 2013 alone. Bauxite is used to produce alumina, which is then smelted into aluminum, a metal with dozens of critical applications in everything from beer kegs to airplane parts. As Boako reiterated, Ghana is hoping to leverage the proceeds of bauxite to fund the construction of thousands of kilometers of roads and railways, bridges, dams, and irrigation facilities. As part of the June agreement, Vice President Bawumia confirmed, Chinese companies also agreed to assist in Ghana’s railway, agriculture, energy, industrialization, and transportation sectors.
Renewing old ties with Western powers
While UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson made a surprisingly gaffeless state visit to Accra in February 2017 to discuss trade and various bilateral initiatives to boost Ghanaian living standards with President Akufo-Addo, Germany also continued to boost its ties with Accra. Its third-largest trading partner in Africa after Nigeria and South Africa, Germany celebrated 60 years of good ties with Ghana in September through a series of film screenings and cultural and media workshops. As German ambassador Christoph Retzlaff told Deutsche Welle, “Ghana is one of our key partners… has great democratic credentials… and acts as a stabilizing factor for the whole region of West Africa.” Given the country’s economic potential, he reiterated, Germany’s biggest goal was for Ghana “to live up to its potential.”
According to the German Federal Foreign Office, Ghana does very well in terms of democratic principles, adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the maintenance of domestic stability, and respect for human rights. This is why it came as little surprise that the two countries’ bilateral trade grew from USD542 million in 2013 to USD633 million in 2015, about 51% of which emanated from Ghana. Building on its embassy’s efforts to boost an entrepreneurial culture in Ghana, Germany launched a program to support Ghanaian start-ups to expand on the vocational training program it already had. As one Ghanaian cultural analyst told Deutsche Welle, “What is interesting for Ghanaians is the concept of German punctuality and consistency.”
Though the US presence across Africa has been overshadowed by China in recent years, that did not stop the US Chamber of Commerce’s Vice President of African Affairs and President of the US-Africa Business Center Scott Eisner from leading a business mission to Accra to meet with President Akufo-Addo, among others, in March 2017. At its maiden Investor Confidence Indicator for Africa (ICIFA), the US-Africa Business Centre placed Ghana in the top quartile in Africa in terms of the ease of doing business. Factors taken into consideration were security, development, the rule of law and good governance, media freedom, and human development, among others.
To cap off the year, in late November Queen Magarethe II of Denmark visited the country to officially apologize for her country’s “shameful, dark” role in the international slave trade whilst Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, was a Danish crown colony from 1750-1814. Meeting with Ghana’s Foreign Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, the queen reiterated her country’s dedication not only to “stemming the tide of irregular migration,” but also to “tackling the root causes of mass migration” through technology and green growth.
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