23.09.2021 Feature Article

White Elephants In Black Hands

White Elephants In Black Hands
LISTEN SEP 23, 2021

Beating Around The Bush for Elephants
I mean, what would you do in his position? What would you do if a country you had helped fight for, you, being a poster-boy for its independence, finally got that independence, and you found, to your dismay, right up in the air, many balls—loose balls… flying?

That’s the exact position Nkrumah found himself in. Ghana, being a newly independent nation in an Industrialised Age, could only reap the fruits of her freedom if she partook directly and effectively in the industrialisation game. So then, electricity. That was the only way around it. To fuel the nation’s industrialisation journey, Ghana had to be lighted.

Nkrumah had built the necessary infrastructure, more than a budding nation of over 6 million people could ask for. All he needed was power. To partake in industrialisation and create for itself an economically and socioeconomically advanced nation, Ghana had to have electricity driving its factories. That was the only way around it. In his own words, Ghana’s political independence was undoubtedly going to be rendered useless, “valueless” without her economic independence. A nation when politically free, is prone to bearing the tag ‘failed state’ more wholly if it fails at economic freedom—there is no imperial overlord to share the tag with.

This was not going to happen on Nkrumah’s watch. Having served as face of Ghana and Africa’s liberation, tofiakwa! Ghana (and Africa) was not going to fail on his watch. Ghana had to be internationally competitive, and so with Nkrumah’s trademark stubborn “now” approach, Ghana was to do so ‘now’, trade competitively in the then-global currency—industrialisation. Blessed with competitive natural resources, all the nation needed was a switch—something that could help transform these raw produces into highly-demanded—globally and locally—manufactured goods. Again, electricity was to make this possible.

Because, you see, the land had been tended—factories were built. Factories cutting across sectors, from food to machines, were built. More were to be built, agreements for their realisations were signed—agreements for oil refineries, steel, sugar, flour mills, cement, textile companies, etc. Give Ghana power—electricity, and she was set. Give Ghana electricity, and she could convert her large bauxite resources to aluminum—aluminum, the gold of the era.

It was right here, the attainment of this virtuous cycle of facts, that Nkrumah faced his most pressing challenge yet. The only way around it seemed to be through. Ghana had to lie at the mercies of past colonisers. That which would, ordinarily be called treaties existing between nations, for a past coloniser and their former territory, had different implications.

The Volta River scheme, the creation of the Akosombo Dam, to generate electricity to spur the nation’s industrial agenda, was having a sluggish time seeing the light of day. Because aside from the lump sum needed to ensure its realisation, as ‘bad’ luck would have it, the world had Kaiser. Then a multinational, independent producer of aluminum, the White Leviathan, having stations in Ghana, saw this newly-independent country as competitor.

The rest, they say, was history.
But now, the world having moved on to a new era, Information Age, we can’t help but find ourselves, as a nation and continent, in a sluggish journey. You have ever wondered about what the world would be like if Adam and Eve had been obedient, haven’t you? Well, let’s just say that it is with that same childlike wonder that I find myself pondering over what modern Ghana (and Africa) would be like had Nkrumah faced a much lenient electricity-fueled test. Had the West been at its best—been well-meaning in their dealing with this African country (and all other African countries, for that matter), their past abusees, how would Ghana have turned out?

Would we have climbed to positions of influence in that industrialised era, and remained so throughout the years? Would we now, be, too, a powerful nation (and continent) contributing an influential quota in this highly Industrialised and Information Age?

Alas, ‘well-meaning’ the West undoubtedly was not. The Caucasian, having tried their hands on slavery in the 15th to 18th centuries, then colonialism in the 19th to 20th centuries, having enjoyed freely the fruits of Black labour, were addicted to these free fruits, so much so that post-independence, they came back with another form of colonialism—veiled colonialism, but colonialism, nonetheless. It wasn’t nations enslaving African countries now, it was corporations, transnational companies within these nations doing the enslavement. We covered this in ‘The Scattering, The Gathering—The Diaspora’ series, so no need to revisit that topic fully. But let’s just say Ghana did find, arguably, her first corporate-colonial master in Kaiser.

Negotiations on getting Ghana electricity took longer than Nkrumah could have anticipated. Questionable friendships were struck, questionable negotiations were had, questionable agreements entered into. The tortuous journey saw many of the institutions built by the Nkrumah government sitting empty—white elephants they were. The West was laughing at us. They pointed out our white elephants as veiled reasons why the Black person could not manage their own affairs. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s liberator from White rule, had managed only to build white elephants—empty buildings. New, built with goals, yet devoid of life.

We need not have gone this far back into our nation’s history for today’s piece. But having written this on Tuesday, 21 September, having seen Nkrumah’s pictures and words flying about, I just couldn’t help it.

To The Matter At Hand
To rent or buy property, the Ghanaian must own a calculator. I quite remember a single bedroom apartment I saw some time back. The agent of the building said 1000 a month.

I thought that was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. So, “1000 Cedis for a single bedroom apartment?!” I yelled.

He responded, “Oh! No…”
“Whew! You nearly gave me a heart attack there!” I chimed in.

It was then that he matter-of-factly responded “No, not Cedis, Dollars.”

It was around this same time that a security man of another apartment complex quoted to me, 2000 ‘dorrars’ for a two-bedroom apartment.

During both instances, I did not have my calculator with me. And I must say that that was the ONLY reason why I didn’t get those apartments.

A Recap
We have discussed how urgent it is for our government to partake directly in the journey towards reducing the 2 million housing deficit presently existing in the country. We have shown how vital these public housing initiatives are for helping put an end to these instances where 1000 Cedis or Dollars for that matter, are casually quoted to the average Ghanaian in their respective apartment searches. We have shown how Singapore, years Ghana’s junior, has successfully done this—housing its poorest (in apartments fit for Ghana’s ‘rich’, we might add).

Now let’s take a look at the institutions set up by our country to ensure that public housing initiatives, legislatively provided for, actually see the light of day. Because if there is anything countries like Singapore have taught us, it is that no matter how destructive our past has been, irrespective of the miles the Caucasian has ahead of us in their national development journeys, no matter how advantaged the Caucasian is (having pillaged from us to fuel their development journeys), catching up is possible.

SHC, an SIT?
Last week, we took a crash course on the Singaporean state-championed housing sector. We saw how the nation transformed its colonial, ill-intending, defunct public housing institution, Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) into an independent-era, proactive institution—the Housing and Development Board (HDB). We saw how the country, in so doing transformed its squalid, slum-dense nation into an ultra-modern, developed nation with even its poorest given the wherewithal to be home-owners. ‘Housing and Development’ indeed, because ‘housing’ the HDB did, and consequent ‘development’ it brought to the nation as a whole. Need we show the correlation between a child born into a house—a home, and the enabling effect that has on his/her development? Need we show the contrast between the life of such a child, and that of another born in the streets, slums, kiosks, etc.? Need we show how easier it is for the former to succeed over the latter, for us to see the direct correlation between Singapore’s successful housing sector and the fact that one in every Singaporean is a millionaire, while the Ghanaian—well, there’s no such nifty statistics existing on the Ghanaian. And I know, sometimes a house is not a home, and sometimes scoundrels are brought up in homes, and sometimes, the street does wonders. But…come on!

When talking of Singapore’s SIT and HDB, we can’t help—being in fact Ghanaians, and not fake-Singaporeans, as our little selves claimed some years past—but be reminded of Ghana’s SHC. State Housing Corporation (now Company).

The SHC was, itself, once quite the colonial entity. Having been founded in 1956 as the Gold Coast Housing Corporation, it aptly changed names to the Ghana Housing Corporation right after independence. In 1965 ‘corporation’ was dropped for ‘company’. The institution did not need a total change of names, for us to know that it had by so doing—just as SIT became HDB—transformed into a different institution all together.

Still Avoiding ‘Part 1, 2, & 3!’

This article is an introduction to a new chapter of our housing sector series. This new series will almost seem to be about elephants. And what is it that they say about elephants…? Elephants don’t forget. Neither do people. So don’t be shocked if the people remember that there is in fact something called the State Housing Company. No matter how insufficiently this institution has performed selling itself over the years, the people still remember its existence. So, when talk of an NHA—National Housing Authority is made, the people being typically, elephants (or elephants, typically, people—I don’t know which is which) are quick to remember the SHC and ask, “Why an NHA?”

They begin to ask, “Is the NHA to be a facelift of the SHC?” Facelift?—more like two faces, no? A person does not need two faces, do they? Maybe institutions do? So, a conversation ought to be had on the SHC and the NHA. Or maybe it’s not a facelift but some form of ‘colonial cleansing.’ Just as Singapore transformed its SIT to HDB, Ghana has transformed its Gold Coast Housing Corporation into a State Housing Corporation, then once again into a State Housing Company, then now into a National Housing Authority. There are a lot of balls flying in the air at this point. What’s the point? What’s our ultimate aim. Because I believe we too are a nation with a plan. Someone give us the blueprint of the overarching plan, maybe it will help give us all, we meagre citizens, a better understanding of our national journey.

Or is the citizen right, at this point, in concluding that modern Ghana is living by its history of white elephants? A history unintentionally started by Nkrumah (yes, let’s just blame this on Nkrumah for no sound reason at all). That would be unfair to the great man, wouldn’t it? Because his hands were very much tied, weren’t they? Or maybe modern Ghana’s hands are, too, tied. Someone tell us what the issues are.

Why are we always enacting new laws, setting up what seems to be duplicate institutions, in our effort at development? Maybe, a deeper inquisition into the SHC’s history, and the upcoming NHA’s mandate will provide reasonable answers to our questions. We will attempt to do both—the inquisition into the SHC and the NHA—in this new series.

But before we do this, I will recommend that we take a look back at the piece ‘Genesis: The Basis Of All To Come’ published right here in the B&FT, November 2020. It is very necessary we take a look back at that article before we proceed with the ones to come, because I fear that this constructive criticism we are about to undertake on our own selves, might just end up adding to our glossary of attacks on ourselves—our complexion, our race. Let it never be said these words, “Well, that’s the Black man/woman for you…” Because those words actually make no sense. I don’t care what you say, this sentence makes perfect sense.

That is never the right attitude to have, not especially on a day such as this. So, Happy Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Day, you proud Ghanaian!

[Published in the Business & Financial Times (B&FT) - 23rd September, 2021]

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