It always amazes me how just how different the same thing can look depending on your point of view. I have been having these fascinating telephone conversations with my mother since I moved back to Ghana three years ago. Travelling to London to study in the Sixties, my mother has since spent most of her time abroad - first in London, then Geneva, Cape Town and back to London – in a lifetime dedicated to improving the lives and health of women and children, for which she has won awards galore. She leads too busy a life to come home as often as she would like to and so when I moved here, it was inevitable that we would begin comparing notes.
My mother’s viewpoint on the state of Ghana is considerably more pessimistic than mine. She cannot see past the pot bellies she sees protruding before corrupt African politicians doing the rounds in the British press. Corruption and stagnancy no doubt remain rife in this little country of ours, but I interact with too many good people dedicated to improving things here to be completely pessimistic. Even if it moves at a snail’s pace, progress still lives here.
Judging by the media coverage we receive abroad, our friends abroad are even more optimistic than I am about Ghana’s prospects. We started out pretty well with our early escape from colonialism. After Nkrumah though, we descended into what I call ‘the Lost Years’. Coup. Republic. Coup. Coup. Coup. Republic. Coup… You get the picture. To the international eye, we were indistinguishable from all the other countries going up in smoke across the continent. I remember the exact moment when our fortunes changed though and Ghana stood apart from its neighbours again. It was after Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari put two goals at the back of World Cup net.
I am not the biggest football fan in the world, but I was in a Ghanaian-owned bar in Britain at the time and, before the match, I and a room full of fellow Diasporeans listened with annoyance as the commentators kept on referring to our boys as “the Africans”, barely wasting their breath on explaining the impossibility of an African win over the Czechs. They ate humble pie that day and thereafter, even the most uninformed Brit knew where Ghana was on the map.
After the World Cup came Ghana@50 and we found ourselves on the cover of magazines from Focus on Africa to The Economist and even Time. We hosted every conference imaginable, discovered oil off our shoreline, came close to winning the African Cup of Nations, had former President Bush visit us (and apparently not give a damn about our oil) and then came the high drama of our recent elections. With that much to report on, the foreign press feted us. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of its Zimbabwe coverage they gave up to cover the election and its aftermath. Fellow Ghanaians rejoice, for we became that rare thing: a positive African story. To be exact, we were an island in a region of instability, led by our soon-to-be former ‘Gentle Giant’, John Agyekum Kufuor.
Oh, how they loved our John.
To many a Ghanaian today, Kufuor’s name evokes mixed feelings but, even after an African Union chairmanship that failed to bring about Nkrumah’s dream of African unity and his failure to bring peace to post-election Kenya (where I am reliably informed he is revered as something close to a saint), Kufuor was the belle of the international ball and the suitors duly swarmed. In an article by their West Africa correspondent last week, Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk described Kufuor as having “halved the level of poverty and increased the number of children by almost a quarter… a rare African leader who fought corruption in his government and retired without challenging his country’s constitutional two-term limit”. My internet connection is so slow that, before his picture loaded up on my screen, I am sure I read something like ‘a Good Man in Africa’ written in the picture’s space. With awards from Liberia and Chatham House under his belt - in addition to being Time’s 41st most influential man in the world - a highly lucrative post-Presidential career seemed a shoo-in.
While some were pretty peeved with the Presidential Awards last year – not least Kufuor’s own – and it raised a few international eyebrows, scoring a story on the BBC World News website for example, those very same brows fell as soon as it became clear that he would indeed step down as President at the end of his second term, something sadly rare on our continent. He carried himself quite well through the elections but the first sign of trouble was the controversy surrounding the extravagant scale and cost of renovating the-House-formerly-known-as-Flagstaff. I realized that the story had escaped our borders when, after watching the BBC news that morning, my Nigerian friend in London felt compelled to send me a text to say that he “thought that Ghanaians were better than that”. Internationally speaking, Kufuor’s reputation remained close to Clinton-like non-stick Teflon though and thereafter, Ghana stayed off the international news wires until the extensive attention given to our successful elections, from the heated run-offs all the way through to Kufuor’s last day and his controversial pardons and pay raises. Tsatsu, it seems, was not that internationally important but Kufuor’s pardon of former First Lady Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings made a couple of international headlines.
Then came last week.
A colleague of mine suspects that the Chinery-Hesse Committee were anticipating some haggling and so they came up with what they knew was an unreasonable list of gratia demands. Unfortunately - according to the theory - our Parliamentarians were in so much haste to safeguard their own packages that they dropped the ball, letting both the Committee and the people of Ghana down. Minus points, Parliamentarians.
Whether or not he played a role in it (and I am playing Devil’s Advocate here), internationally speaking the egg seems to have landed in the former President’s face. I was (again) surprised when I saw the story pop up on both the BBC and VOA websites, but when it made BBC World’s television news the following morning, I knew there was trouble. Ghana is still doing fine. Kufuor, for the first time though, is not and having surrogates ask for a few less cars is probably not going to wash. Not at home anyway.
Whatever the outcome, to the international community, it is only another disappointing African story. It did not even register on the Guardian or Independent websites, usually relatively good at reporting on Africa. If Kufuor’s post-Presidential employability dries up then we will know that the international community sees things through the same lens that most Ghanaians probably do right now. Somehow I doubt it though. If Obasanjo can get a UN job after his shambles-of-an-outgoing-election, then I doubt that Kufuor will lose much sleep over this. The story will become little more than fodder for conversations with my mother.
Except, this time, the foreign press she follows will describe a Good Man in Africa, while I am the one joining my fellow Ghanaians in scrutinizing the ex-Presidential belt size.