Dr. Kwasi Boahene, a Ghanaian development economist and an ardent African traditionalist, visited Nigeria last week as a consultant of the international development agency, Oxfam to help strengthen the capacities of development agencies in this country in their effort to develop programmes in trade, investment and extractives industry. Oxfam supports poor people in various West African nations to improve upon their living standards.
Ghana, unlike Nigeria, has many prominent scholars, who still take pride in their local traditions and religion. The wave of Christian evangelism sweeping uncontrollably across Nigeria seems to be a bit critically assessed in Ghana. Ghana has had people like Dr. Ephraim Amu and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (the country's first President) and some noted Christians such as Catholic Archbishop Sarpong who have even promoted indigenous traditions. Dr. Boahene, a product of Oxford University and a recipient of Beckit Prize adds to the list of Ghanaian scholars, who dare tell Africans to put their faith in their own traditional culture and religion.
For the past 4 years, Dr. Boahene has visited about 25 countries advising on economic development and public health. In Nigeria, he consulted for Oxfam and other agencies. He also visited the University of Lagos, where a seminar he facilitated drew a large crowd, including senior university staff and international development agencies. Vanguard (a leading Nigerian newspaper) had an exclusive interview with Dr. Boahene during his recent visit to Nigeria, where he offered insightful perspectives of African development.
Vanguard: Dr. Boahene, there has been a lot of public interest in your work in Nigeria. Do you think Nigeria with all her huge oil money and resources needs the support of Oxfam? Dr. Boahene: Nigeria is a paradox. It is the sixth world's oil producer but poverty is still on the rise. As we speak now, about 50% of Nigerians and 75% of all Africans live on $1 a day. In my view, Nigeria is an underdeveloped country. It is vital for development agencies to engage African governments to make them develop policies meant to improve living standards of the poor. Oxfam supports development agencies to engage effectively with their governments. It also provides assistance to communities to improve upon their livelihoods.
Vanguard: What do you mean when you say Africa or Nigeria is underdeveloped? Dr. Boahene: Certainly, Africa is developed as far as culture and religion is concerned. Our music is among the best in the world, for example, the juju music in Nigeria, highlife songs in Ghana, the drumming of Senegal and the gospel songs of South Africa. The art and craft of Africa match the best in Europe and USA. There is also wide array of social relations in Africa, which is the envy of most developed countries. But economically, we are underdeveloped. About 70% of the people depend on rain- fed agriculture. We are all too familiar with the rising hunger and malnutrition in most parts of Africa. It is pathetic that a cow in Europe or the US is fed better than a human being in Africa, who as we know is created in the image of God. Africa contributes to only 1% of global trade. Also, industrial activity and incomes are the lowest in the whole world. Illiteracy rate is higher than 50% and even in places the Sahel parents do not want and cannot send their children to school. With the exception of Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Benin, we know that political insecurity is the order of the day in most West African states.
Vanguard: What about corruption? Don't you see it as a cause of poverty? Dr. Boahene: Corruption is both a cause and an effect of poverty. The economic mismanagement which has bedevilled Africa can be attributed to decades of corrupt practices by government officials and policy makers. Corruption has also deepened as poverty worsens. At this moment, corruption has become part and parcel of the society such that it can not be simply eradicated by political slogans. There must be a fundamental change in attitudes supported by civic and political education, which I am afraid, can only be possible with the younger generation who are now in school. Increased salaries can, of course, help reduce the incidence of corruption among poor people. But for the people, who are accustomed to urban lifestyles, it will be difficult to quench their appetite for corrupt practices by paying them more. As for the politicians, the only way to uproot corruption among them is to promote democracy. As politicians become aware that they can be voted out of office, they will think twice of their practices. Let me say that corruption is a universal phenomenon, except that in Africa, people demand money whilst in the US and Europe, people tend to demand influence.
Vanguard: Since independence, there has been a catalogue of failed development plans and economic strategies. Is there hope for Africa? Dr. Kwasi Boahene: Of course, there is hope for Africa because we are hard working people! In our villages, farmers go to work almost everyday. In the cities, private businesses and their workers do their best. To be frank, I have never seen any group of Africans who works as hard as the youth selling on the scorching streets of Ikeja, Kwame Nkrumah Circle (Accra) and other African cities. In schools, most pupils and students do not joke with their books. As a young man, I studied at Oxford, and some of the bright students were Africans. There are many intelligent and hardworking Africans both in Africa and around the world. Think about the achievements of Kofi Annan, Wole Sonyinka and our sportsmen such as Azumah Nelson and Mathematical Odegbame of the Green Eagles in the 1980s. So as individuals we have done well but as a continent we are struggling because our politicians have failed us. Think about all the wealth they have siphoned into bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere. In Ghana, Flt. Lt Rawlings came in the 1980s and seized houses, where the owners had more than one WC toilet because he thought those owners were greedy. When he retired from active politics in 2001, he could boast of at least 10 WC toilets in one of his known house and his children were studying abroad. I heard that Mobutu Sese Seko once had lunch in a Paris restaurant which cost him $85,000 when, in fact, 90% of the people of Zaire did not earn $1 a day. That amount could have been enough to pay for the salaries of 240 workers for a whole year. Africa is the only continent in the world where a political career is the guaranteed way to becoming rich. I am sure you can see the hypocrisy of the majority of our leaders. If we get our politicians seriously working for the people, the greater part of our problems is solved.
Vanguard: How long do you think it will take Africa to reach the economic status of the industrial countries? Dr. Boahene: I am quite an optimistic person and I believe that within the next 500 years, Africa as a continent will develop to the level that Europe has reached now. Of course, by the time we reach there, Europe will be at a different level. I think that some African countries will get there first and faster. Mauritius is doing very well. Further, I am pleased with the developments in Senegal and Ghana. South Africa is, of course, a different case. Nigeria has also chosen the path of democracy, but I think that, given her huge size, her problems are bigger but it will still make progress. But if you think of countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, Angola, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique, which have been affected by decades of wars and conflicts, then 500 years is quite optimistic. Economic history tells us that development is a long process. There is no quick fix. For example, the people of New England (Canada) fished for over 200 years. Things have, however, changed but in Africa we do not have the facilities to take advantage of the prospects of new technologies.
Vanguard: I will not call someone who says Africa needs 500 years to develop as an optimistic person. Don't you think so? Dr. Boahene: Sir, I am speaking of real economic development. I am not talking about situations, where few individuals are able to acquire the tastes for European lifestyles, buy huge houses and expensive cars, send their children abroad for education or speak European languages fluently. In my view, real development meant the following: (i) Everyone has a secure access to food and income. This also means that all the youth selling on the streets are gone either by finding themselves jobs or pursuing training and education. (ii) High quality social services, particularly healthcare, education and water are affordable both in the urban and rural areas. (iii) Infrastructure such as communication, roads and electricity are developed everywhere, not only in the rich suburbs where our politicians, business people and diplomats live. (v) Industrial activities have increased to the extent that the majority of the population does not depend on rain-fed agriculture. (v) Environmental management is a priority in development strategies. People do not litter as you see even in national capitals and pollution is severely controlled (vi) Democracy is entrenched in every country and coup détats are relegated to the dustbin of history. (vii) Human rights, including the rights of women are observed and courts administer justice fairly. (viii) Corruption is gone, at least, politics is no more the arena which is used to amass wealth. Also attitudes have changed such that people do not expect money from you when they do their normal job and workers really care about the work they do. (ix) The rights of the disable are upheld and they are provided with social security and facilities. (x) People are not ambushed by religion, but have developed tolerant views of other people's faith. I tell you in order to achieve these things as a continent, we need time and resources.