His Excellency John Agyekum Kufuor
(Continued from last week)
Fact number 1: President John Agyekum Kufuor, former president of the Republic of Ghana loves Nigeria. Indeed, the former two-term Ghanaian president so loves the most populous Black nation on earth that he sees it as his second home. Consequently, he has never shunned any invitation from Nigeria unless it clashes with a national assignment back home.
Fact number 2: President Kufuor also loves former President Olusegun Obasanjo so much that he could do anything lawful for him. And as he told me in Accra during my encounter with him, his love for Obasanjo arose from one unforgettable act of goodness, he said, the former Nigerian leader did Ghana, Kufuor’s fatherland. At a time when creditors and multilateral agencies in the West were avoiding Ghana like a plague because of its perceived bankruptcy, the then Nigerian president approved a lifeline, crude oil, for the former Gold Coast. And that marked the genesis of a relationship between the two leaders whose flame President Kufuor says only death could extinguish.
The taste of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. Please sit back, relax and enjoy this last stanza of the interview.
Another major hurdle to our evolution as a continent in Africa is also the problem of strife-religious and political strife everywhere, which is part of the plank of our 10th anniversary lecture that Your Excellency is delivering on Tuesday, February 19.
To some extent, we can understand some of these challenges as teething problems. Take Nigeria as an example. A hundred years or more ago, Nigeria was not like it is today, one entity. People with a bit of history would know that prior to that (the amalgamation), there was Hausa Empire, there was Yoruba Empire and the Ibos were there. Nobody had an idea that a day was coming when all these powerful and populous tribal groups would fuse to become what it is today. So, Nigeria is the product is British colonization. These powerful entities were put together; they became Nigeria without finding what define them in terms of culture, mindset, attitudes, and so on. They were more or less imposed, and this created frictions, which often degenerated into conflicts. Fortunately, with modernity, and the spread of knowledge and ICT, we are all beginning to see the things we share in common. So, we are in the process of becoming nations. But the realization of nationhood for people to see themselves as Nigerians first before they look at whether they are from Hausaland or Iboland, is a huge challenge. It’s not easy.
Going to the religious aspect, the reality is that even among the Islamic world, there is division. In Asia, it is there. Even in China, Tibet and the rest, there is division. Go to Europe, even if they do not admit to it, but look at the Irish and the British division, the Scottish. Go to America, it is there. It’s like we are all like in a boiling pot; we are being blended to come out with something. The underlying common bond, as far as I see it, is humanity. And for all of us to accept one another as common humanity, we need an expansion of knowledge. With that, perhaps, our rough edges might begin to be removed, and we begin to tolerate each other. This is where we are headed.
Now, we have civil society organizations, international organisations, the United Nations, and so on, talking about this common humanity; talking about the need to live and let live; talking about respect for individual human being and so on. And looking ahead, perhaps, within the next century or so, we would find that we were far better off then than we are now. We are getting to understand each other more. We have travelled more. We have intermarried. Just 50 years ago, a white man marrying a black girl or a black man marrying a white girl was big news. But now, is it news at all? This is where we are heading.
Africa has all these divisions-tribe, religion and even gender, how women used to be treated. That one in Ghana here now is not news. You go to our campuses, which used to be predominated by males, what do you find? The women are outnumbering the men! And they are not just outnumbering, they are also outperforming us in some of the more difficult courses-Engineering, Mathematics, Law, Medicine. Now, the women beat us in the professions. So, the world is really changing and changing very fast and Africa is part of the world. So, I believe Africa will get on top.
Your Excellency, please permit me to ask this double-barrel question. One: I want to know the most difficult decision you took as president. Second, looking back at your tenure as president, and looking back at the whole of the 74 years you have spent so far on earth, what would you pinpoint as your points of regret?
That’s very difficult. Regrets? Of course, when your very dear ones pass on, let say the death of your father or mother or siblings, the sort of shock you suffer may not be likened to any other shocks. That’s for me personally. When we lost our father, we suffered serious setbacks. If my father were around now, I am sure he would have been more than 110 years old. My mother, too, would be definitely over 100. But we will all go. It’s a fact of life. But when it happens, when you lose loved ones like that, you suffer serious shocks.
Okay, now to the most difficult decision you took as president…
When we were in government, in 2001, we took a decision in my first year as president-the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative. It wasn’t popular at all. It was not in the country nor within the government itself, because many people thought it was too demeaning for us to admit that we couldn’t manage the debt overhead; and that admitting it was admitting to insolvency. But we found that without admitting to it and submitting to the disciplines demanded of us by the multilaterals and our creditors, there was no way we could attract the resources with which to really tackle the challenges of governance and development. So, it was a very difficult decision to take. It was like taking a step in the dark. We felt it was the necessary thing to do but we were not sure if our partners would rally around and gave us the support…
What was the focus of that policy? I need to be educated.
For a country to impose on itself the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative, that amounts to admitting to bankruptcy; and when you are bankrupt, who would give you money to do anything? Your roads are broken down, you need to repair them. Public utilities-water supply, energy, health, schools are down and need urgent fixing. And the democratic politician would come to office, talking to people: ‘allow me, I will fix these things for you. I will do this, I will do that.’ Only for you to get in there and find that you don’t even have the resources to do anything. And you go to the creditors and they remind you ‘but if we give any money to you, how would you guarantee that we would get our money back?’ And for a proud country to admit to that, it was very serious.
Was that policy homegrown or did the multilaterals influence it?
It was homegrown in the sense that the reality of the collapsed economy starred us in the face. For instance, we needed crude oil from Nigeria, our own brothers, but they said NNPC had blacklisted Ghana, because Ghana was in arrears. Ghana couldn’t pay for its crude oil supplies. And we were not oil-producing, then. So, I had to write to President Obasanjo, within the first month or so, to plead with him. I said, ‘my brother, please allow us to take the crude,’ and he obliged us. This was how we became very tight friends.
He called his ministers at the (Presidential) Villa, and laid our plea before them. Then, after hearing our pleadings, he said ‘Alright, our policy really is not to assist people who are not paying debts. But if you give us a letter and you promise that you would pay us the arrears, we would oblige you.’ Of course, we gave the undertaking. And true to his words, for the eight years that I was president, we got our supplies. Of course, we fulfilled our undertakings. We paid. That is one of the implications of admitting to bankruptcy. Britain, America, Japan, everybody was holding back because they didn’t think we are a viable concern.
Your Excellency, there is one question I’ve always wanted to ask you any time the opportunity arises. And that is, all these accolades that Ghana receives as a country that is well governed, that is comparatively above board, talking about the corruption perception index, are they not because of that catalyst called Jerry John Rawlings? Are they not as a result of what he did during his first coming as military Head of State in 1979 when he executed the Generals after taking power in a bloody coup? Many people believe that bloody act drove the fear of God into whoever aspires to leadership in Ghana.
Please, I don’t want to discuss personalities. I don’t want to discuss him or any personality, whosoever. All I can say is that I took office from him; after he left, I came in and I did my best. The rest is left for history to judge. But I can tell you this: I believe Ghana is a country put together by destiny. God, of course, is destiny, because destiny is in God. Because it is made up of people I would describe as naturally God-fearing. At all times, Ghanaians are law-abiding. They hardly want to go on the wrong side of authority, unless you push Ghanaians. No matter where they are from in the country, unless you push them, they would want to live and allow you to live. That is the nature of Ghanaians. Sweet people. Some people take this nature as docility. They say they are docile. Consequently, a lot of politicians take undue advantage of the reasonableness of the people. So, you don’t give credit to anybody as that singular human being who shaped Ghana into anything. …Many people have compared Ghana of the 1950s with then South Korea and Malaysia. We were in the same bracket.
Just like Nigeria…
Ghana was richer than Nigeria that time. That time, Nigeria lived on tin, groundnut, cocoa and palm oil. Ghana was a leading producer of cocoa and gold. Though a smaller country, our per capita was bigger than Nigeria’s. But within a space of five, six years, we had exhausted our reserves of about $400 million. We had fallen into indebtedness, and somehow the polity was polarized into left and right. That nearly destroyed us, and we were, then, pushed into a one-party state because we didn’t find solution. The then government didn’t allow people to talk. They said one party-state.
That, really, was the cause of the removal of Kwame Nkrumah. The soldiers came in thinking, perhaps, the solution needed military discipline. But they couldn’t do it. When you look back at the 55 years of Ghana as an independent nation, the tenure of the soldiers pulled themselves and the country back. Governing wasn’t their function. Their economic policies were mislaid; social policies were reduced to high-handedness and so-called military discipline. Along the way, successive governments didn’t allow the private sector, where we really generate the wealth and grow the economy, to function. And this thing continued till the 1990s when the structural adjustment programme was introduced as solution. Again, because the private sector was not in position to absorb the people being thrown out of the public sector, the structural adjustment didn’t come up to much.
So, if you want the truth, that is where the truth comes from. It is not the doing of any person knocking the fear of God into politicians. This is part of the reason I said they should watch the use of the word ‘corruption’. Our company, The Sun Publishing Limited, is 10. And I know you read The Sun whenever you come to Nigeria. How do you assess us?
If we are talking about democracy, then, information is critical. The media is critical. That is why the first law my government repealed when we assumed office was the criminal libel law that had been in existence from the colonial times. My government believed in the freedom of expression. And because of our commitment to this fundamental freedom, we removed this law to make way for the establishment of FM stations and diverse newspapers.
We see a pillar within the media world in Nigeria. That pillar is The Sun. The Sun, from inception, has proven to be a very necessary instrument for democratization of the people. It is also well respected for its informed criticism without which governance or the government tends to run away with the show. So, 10 is good. After a decade, The Sun is maturing well. The Sun is well resourced. The Sun is a big mouthpiece for Nigeria, for West Africa, for Africa.
Are African journalists doing enough in trying to make government accountable to the people?
Going by the stage of our development, I believe African journalists are trying. They need training, of course; and they need to know the world more. They need to be remunerated well so they have job pride. They need to be remunerated well to engender the confidence in them so they don’t go writing for people, or even cover up for miscreants. So, African journalists, like the society in which they live, are also evolving, maturing. But we need to push them up before they can be an effective voice of the people, before they can help to hold government to account even as they also should teach the government to be responsible.
I pray God should give you many more years and keep you in good health. When you hit 100 and over, and God decides to call you home, how would you want to be remembered?
That, I had been useful to humanity; and that I had lived as a good human being. Humanity, generally, we all have hopes. We start from somewhere; and the adage is: charity should begin at home. So, when I am good to humanity, I must have started from home. I served my country well. I was useful to mankind. I saw mankind as universal.