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Opinion | Jul 14, 2018

Dammirifa Due! Dear JH

The late JH Mensah
The late JH Mensah

I often daydream about what Ghana could have been.
One of the best scenarios I come up with during these reveries is that when General Kutu Acheampong and his National Redemption Council (NRC) seized power on 13 January 1972, they kept J H Mensah on as Finance Minister.

What difference would that have made, you may well ask.

This: there would have been continuity in Ghana’s economic policy. But would J H have accepted an appointment in Acheampong’s Government?

I my dream, he would have done so. For, in fact, the debt repudiation policy that made Acheampong so popular was originated by J H Mensah [as Finance Minister under Prime Minister K A Busia], Dr Jones Ofori Atta [Deputy Finance Minister] and Dr S K B Asante [Solicitor-General].

Had these ‘Three Musketeers’ received adequate support from Dr Busia, Ghana would have repudiated those of her external debts found to be “tainted with corruption and malpractices” the moment the Paris Club countries rejected Ghana’s plea for debt relief at the ‘Debt Conference’ held between Ghana and her external creditors [from the Western countries] held in London in July 1970.

There would have been no need for a “devaluation” of the Cedi in December 1970, and without the devaluation, Acheampong and his fellow-conspirators would not have been able to acquire the focal, policy-failure instrument with which to strike at the Progress Party regime.

Indeed, if Acheampong had truly been interested in the economy of Ghana as such, and not as a means for achieving power, he would never have imprisoned J H Mensah and Jones Ofori Atta after the coup. He would have kept them on, listened to what they had to say about how to liberate the Ghana economy and advance it. Instead of which the Acheampong regime, basking in the glory of the show of defiance against the external creditors – symbolised by the extremely popular “Yenntua” [“We Won’t Pay”] slogan, soon fell the disaster of imposing economic controls, particularly import licensing.

Eventually, import licensing degenerated into a favouristic exercise, which pitted political carpet-baggers and “SWAGS” [“Soldiers’ Wives and Girl-friends”] against true industrialists and bona fide merchants.

I never asked J H Mensah whether he agreed to the devaluation of 1972 or not. I didn’t because I had no wish to embarrass him. For had he said he opposed it, he would have kind of ‘betrayed’ his good friend, Prof Busia. And yet, I couldn’t see him agreeing to the arguments advanced by the Western economic advisers Busia was relying upon, including the “Harvard Group” of economists and a guy called John Odling-Smee, whom Busia was relying upon as a “Kitchen Cabinet” of economic advisers.

I shouldn’t have allowed my unwillingness to embarrass J H to stop me finding out what he really thought about the devaluation, because it’s an important policy issue that Africans and people in developing countries need to settle. In short, if you devalue your currency, you make your imports dear and your exports cheap. And, theoretically, you conserve your foreign currency earnings.

But you must earn the foreign exchange before you can conserve it, and when you are the exporter of primary [unprocessed] commodities, you cannot take advantage of an increase in your export earnings that should accompany the fact that they are now cheaper for foreign companies that import your goods.

Ghana, which depends on cocoa for the bulk of its foreign exchange earnings, plus gold, timber, manganese and bauxite [all unprocessed] could neither increase the production of these commodities overnight (as an industrialised country, selling manufactured goods, could) nor cut down the volume of its imports and save money (because the volume is determined by demand, not price.)

Well, J H is gone and I cannot quiz him about this issue. Which is a great pity, for when he decided to talk to one, he was a most engaging conversationalist. He told the truth, and during the 10 months I spent as editor of the Daily Graphic, in 1970, he opened up to me on the economic policies he wanted to pursue in a manner I could never have expected from a Finance Minister. “Open General Licence” was his ultimate objective, for he wanted to open up the economy to “competition”, which would eliminate the corruption (attendant upon the issue of import licences) and shortages in one fell swoop. But he needed foreign exchange to support that, and when his Government –especially his Prime Minister – did not find it possible to defy the West over Ghana’s debts, his economic policy was left hanging in the air.

J H Mensah was a most resilient man, for although he had experienced disappointment at the hands of politicians (he was Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s principal economic planner, who oversaw the drawing-up of the Seven-Year Development Plan) he also served Nkrumah’s opponents – the National Liberation Council (NLC) and, of course, Dr Busia.

In other words, he was a technocrat par excellence – a quality no doubt acquired by his stints as an economist at the United Nations and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Born on October 31, 1928 at Sekondi, John Henry Mensah was the third of 10 children. Educated at St Peter’s Cathedral School, in Kumasi, where his father, a civil servant, was transferred from Mensah’s birthplace, Sekondi.

His mother was a cloth-seller at the Kumasi Central Market. Did he get his interest in economic matters from her? He certainly sold oranges for her when he was not at school. He also obtained practical experience in economics matters by working as an Assistant Inspector of Taxes in 1953.

After obtaining his secondary education at Achimota School, J H Mensah went to the University of Gold Coast to study economics. He was the first president of the Junior Common Room at Legon Hall. From Legon, he went to read economics in Britain and the US {where he became an alumnus of the famous Stanford University in California.).

In 1958, Mensah joined the United Nations Secretariat, working at the Centre for Development Planning, Projections and Policies, in New York.

He returned to Ghana in 1961 to become Head of Agency at the National Planning Commission. It was this Commission that drew up and implemented the country’s Seven-Year Development Plan (1962–1969). That was when Ghana grew at such a rapid pace that most people thought she would achieve economic independence in a a few decades time.

In 1969, he was elected to parliament and became the Finance minister until 1972, when he was replaced by future head of state Ignatius Kutu Acheampong after the military coup.

Post Coup
Beginning in 1974, Mensah worked in the private sector both in Ghana and abroad.

He was imprisoned by the National Redemption Council from 1975 to 1978. Although banned from political activity in 1979, he was active for the Popular Front Party in the 1979 elections. Exiled in England, in 1983 he headed a group opposing the PNDC.

In December 1996, Mr Mensah contested a parliamentary seat in Sunyani East District as a member of the New Patriotic Party, which he won. He was re-elected in 2000. Prior to Mr John Kufuor’s election in 2001, Mr Mensah was the Minority Leader in Parliament (1997 – 2001). He later became a Senior Minster in Mr Kufuor’s government.

Cameron Duodu
Cameron Duodu, © 2018

Martin Cameron Duodu is a United Kingdom-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a career as a journalist and editorialist.

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