Anti-Graft Fight Helps Ghana's President Win Over Skeptics

(Bloomberg) -- Few Ghanaians were surprised when President Nana Akufo-Addo pledged that he would fulfill his campaign promise to fight graft. But what’s caught their attention was his appointment this year of an opposition stalwart to the newly created role of Special Prosecutor of corruption cases.

The establishment of the anti-graft office headed by former Attorney General Martin Amidu is among a string of measures that Akufo-Addo, 74, has taken to bolster the cocoa- and gold-rich West African nation that was weighed down for years by power outages, state bureaucracy and pervasive corruption. Since he assumed office last year, Ghana has become one of Africa’s star economic performers, recording 8.5 percent growth in 2017 after hovering around 4 percent in the three preceding years.

While that success is partly tied to a surge in oil and agricultural output, Akufo-Addo, a lawyer, has earned widespread praise for his energetic approach and bold political statements.

“The Ghanaian electorate used to be quite cynical about government -- promises are made but when they get to office they won’t do anything,” said Kwasi Prempeh, executive director of the Center for Democratic Development, a policy think tank in the capital, Accra. “There’s a clear effort and commitment from this president to follow through on promises.”

Corruption Probes

So far, the highest-profile investigation has been of the former chief executive officer of the nation’s cocoa regulator, Stephen Opuni, who’s alleged to have influenced the award of contracts worth $65.8 million to supply fertilizer. In March, he was charged with causing financial losses to the state, an accusation he denies.

Other cases include the former CEO of a state-run microfinance fund and at least five ex-ministers who may have received a double salary under the previous government. Last week, Akufo-Addo suspended four High Court judges in connection with bribery allegations.

“It’s in all our interest that corruption does not thrive, and we police each other’s behavior,” Akufo-Addo said in a speech as the nation celebrated independence day in March. “It will mean we all pay our taxes, and it will mean we all help to take care of government property as though it were our own.”

Bloated Government

Some of Akufo-Addo’s decisions misfired. He appointed an administration of 110 ministers and deputies, rewarding loyalists with all the top jobs. The government is the largest in the nation’s history and almost three times the size of the ministerial team in Nigeria, whose population is more than six times bigger.

“So far we can’t see any signs that the government is about austerity or about trying to be very disciplined in the way it spends money,” Prempeh said.

An agreement for closer military cooperation with the U.S. triggered street protests earlier this year. And few analysts expect him to be able to deliver on a promise to create a factory in each of Ghana’s 216 districts -- a plan Maja Bovcon, Africa analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, considers “overly ambitious.”

While Akufo-Addo “has got off to a promising start,” she said, some of his success may be down to good fortune.

“It’s definitely too soon to praise Nana as a game changer,” Bovcon said. “To a great extent, Nana is in the right place at the right moment, as higher oil prices and hydrocarbon output are revitalizing the economy.”

Power Shortages

To make the administration more efficient, the government has introduced a nationwide digital-address system and a compulsory tax identification number for Ghanaian citizens.

It’s also planning to sell stakes in Ghana’s power-generation utility following almost three years of planned power outages that left homes and businesses with as little as 48 hours of electricity a week -- a dearth so acute it became the object of songs and comedy.

Yet it’s the president’s political views that have resonated most, especially with social-media users across Africa. Once derided by opponents for his polished British accent and privileged upbringing, Akufo-Addo told an audience that included French President Emmanuel Macron that Africa should stop relying on “handouts” and aspire to become a continent that can give aid to other places. The speech has attracted more than 2.7 million views on YouTube.

Akufo-Addo is a scion of Ghana’s political aristocracy. His father Edward was a member of a group of political activists who led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957, and his portrait is printed on the national currency.

Time will tell whether his government can maintain the momentum, said Prempeh.

“The honeymoon will soon be over and people will begin to expect real deliverables on some of the key flagship promises -- job creation is still a huge one,” he said. “If at the end of the second year there are no clear signs that there’s action in that direction, some of that goodwill might evaporate.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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