Fellow Nigerians, please permit me to take you on a trip to Ghana today. I’m sure a lot of my readers have been to that beautiful country at one time or the other. My romance with Ghana started about 21 years ago, July 25, 1995, to be precise. On that fateful day, I had managed to escape from my dear beloved country Nigeria days after my wife was tipped off about my impending arrest by the dreaded dictatorial regime of General Sani Abacha. That moment would forever remain one of my worst days on earth. I never planned to live outside Nigeria. I used to wonder, myopically with hindsight, why anyone would abscond from his own country to become a refugee in another man’s country where he would probably have to operate like a tramp, advertently or inadvertently. But man proposes and God disposes. Unknown to me, what was supposed to be a simple election on June 12 1993 was going to dislocate and scatter many lives to the winds and throw families into total commotion and frustration. I have told part of this story and the rest has to another story for some other day.
I had virtually crawled out of Nigeria through the notorious Seme border into Cotonou, in Benin Republic. I was too scared and agitated to stay next door to Nigeria. I therefore needed to dialogue with my feet and run as far and as fast as possible to far-flung territories. I decided to move from Cotonou to Lome, in Togo. But I could not imagine living in Togo. French is the lingual franca of Togo and this I failed to learn in school. I wasn’t prepared to undergo the ordeal of a deaf and dumb existence. Ghana became my only option since Nigeria, for some inexplicable reasons known only to our Colonial Emperors, is totally surrounded and suffocated by French-speaking countries. I arrived in Ghana late evening after navigating and meandering through a labyrinth of frustrating Immigration procedures and elaborate security conundrums. I could not understand why it was so difficult for Africans to travel through other African countries. I queried the essence and relevance of ECOWAS if West African citizens were being subjected to such indignities. Benin Republic was particularly hostile to us despite being our next door neighbours. Togo was bearable. But Ghana was welcoming. The drive from Aflao border to Accra was tolerable. My glimpse of Accra was remarkable. I saw a serious country at work despite many complaints about the jackboot regime of President Jerry John Rawlings at that time.
Rawlings was a big brand in Africa. Everyone had heard of his no-nonsense character and about the death verdict he pronounced on members of the privilegentsia in Ghana. He had killed many leaders including former Presidents and Heads of State who were believed to have looted and siphoned the Ghanaian treasury. He had zero tolerance for corruption and became synonymous with integrity and Nigerians to this day adore him for this reason. I was happy to be in Ghana. My first task was to locate a few Ghanaian friends, especially Mr Fritz Baffour, now a Member of Parliament and former Information Minister. Once I located him, the rest was simple. Our reunification was great. He took me on tour of Accra and we met every evening for dinner and/or drinks. His support lessoned the pain buried and carried within me. After spending three nights, it was time to move to England. I will never forget the contributions of my wonderful friends who made that arduous journey a lot easier for me. As I boarded my direct flight to London Gatwick, I wondered if and when I would ever return to this beautiful country. It was a case of love at first sight for me. I had savoured the simple elegance of Ghana and the hospitality of its people and I was converted.
Anyway, I took off that night of June 28, 1995, and landed on July 29, 1995, in London, with mixed feelings. Unknown to me, I was going to live in exile for a minimum of three years, whether I liked it or not. By the time exile ended for me after the sudden and controversial death of Chief Moshood Abiola on July 7, 1998, I still wasn’t sure it was safe to travel to Nigeria. This was how I became a regular visitor to Ghana. The Abiola family had a business in Accra that was being managed by a young gentleman, Dele Gbajumo, and he, in particular, escalated my interest in Ghana. One thing led to another and I decided to expand our media operations to Ghana. This materialised when we launched Ovation International at the beautiful La Palm Royal Beach Hotel in Accra. Before our coming to work in Ghana, Nigerians had been viewed with incredible suspicion so we decided to expose the good sides of Nigeria to Ghana and that of Ghana to Nigeria. On the part of Nigeria, we celebrated the Mike Adenugas, Aliko Dangotes, Hakeem Belo-Osagies, Tony Elumelus and others who were doing Nigeria and Africa proud. Ghana had its own Asoma Bandas, Joe Boatengs, Ozwald Boatengs, Kofi Ansas and company. Ovation acted as the quintessential matchmaker. We interviewed President John Agyekum Kufuor barely five days after becoming the President and he remained our close friend throughout the two terms he served and afterwards.
Many Nigerian businesses came into Ghana. Tony Elumelu was the first to break the barrier earlier erected against Nigerians when he got the Standard Trust Bank to be licensed. Others soon followed. Ghana has advanced a lot since then. Government after government came to accept and embrace Nigerians despite occasional skirmishes here and there. With the collapse of education in Nigeria, our students started flocking into Ghana in droves thus contributing billions of Naira into the Ghanaian economy. It is believed that many Nigerian families had migrated to Ghana many decades ago but the population of Nigerians has since soared. A source puts the population of Nigerians in Ghana to as huge as two million, making it one of the largest groups of Nigerians outside Nigeria. The good news is that since the coming of President John Dramani Mahama, the usual tension occasioned by the attempted annihilation of Nigerian businesses has abated. President Mahama has related warmly with Nigeria and Nigerians. Unknown to many, the President has his roots in Nigeria, including blood relations. Today, Ghana is benefitting from the daily arrival of Nigerian tourists on her soil. Most Nigerians go back home to rhapsodise about the awesome beauty and serenity of Ghana. And we certainly have a lot to learn from this much smaller country with even more limited resources.
The first lesson starts from the airport where a beautiful ambience welcomes the visitor in the typical akwaaba tradition. President Mahama’s government has invested heavily in the aviation sector. The Kotoka International Airport may be smaller than our two flagship airports, Murtala Mohammed International, Ikeja and Nnamdi Azikwe International, Abuja, but it can hold its own as one of the most beautiful and functional in Africa. The health screening gadgets are world class. Not for Ghana, the unbearable queues one experiences at Nigerian airports due to almost manual screening of passengers. The Immigration cards, as insignificant as it seems, speak volumes about the finesse attached to tourism here. About 25 beautiful Immigration counters have been erected with iris cameras and finger-printing facilities. This makes it almost impossible for illegal immigrants and criminals to pass through that airport. There is no need for the equivalent of DSS or other State Security apparatus to screen incoming or departing passengers. It is remarkable and commendable to note that Ghana has now gone further and installed automated machines to screen and admit visitors to Ghana like it is in some airports in Europe, USA and The United Arab Emirates. This should make clearing immigration faster once it is commissioned. Brand new conveyor-belts have been installed. Same goes for escalators and elevators, two important facilities we lack in Nigerian airports. The new customs desk is beautiful. Trolleys are provided massively and totally free of charge. Outside the airport, there is a covered waiting area where those awaiting their families and friends can sit comfortably. As at the last count, there are as many as eight car parks scattered around and close-by.
The airport city conceived many years ago has become a virtual reality with many tall buildings, hotels, shopping malls, etc, standing in grand majesty. It is my hope and expectation that the Minister of Transport, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, and the Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Abubakar Sirika, will change the face of our aviation industry for the better in the not too distant future. My intimate association with these two capable gentlemen convinces me that we will begin to see positive change shortly. President Mahama has invested wisely in enduring infrastructure. Road construction is going on nationwide. Accra is wearing a new look with fly-overs and bridges littering many parts. The most ambitious construction I have seen in any part of Africa is in Kwame Nkramah Circle. When completed, it would definitely be a wonder to behold and certainly a tourist attraction. Education and healthcare have been given top priority, the reason many Nigerians now flock to Ghana. It is gratifying to note that Ghana has joined the comity of oil-producing nations and its affairs are well-managed. It has a working refinery and Nigeria brings its crude here for refining. Unlike in the past when Ghana depended totally on oil supplies from Nigerian companies, many Nigerian companies have been coming here to negotiate how they can buy refined products from Ghana. I know Dr. Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, the Minister of State for Petroleum and the President are working arduously to deliver on the change agenda in the petroleum sector despite the huge challenges that they are facing in the short term. Dr Kachikwu is a consummate professional who simply gets the job done.
Mahama is pursuing industrialisation of Ghana most aggressively. He has just launched the Komenda Sugar Factory which will produce 1,250 tonnes of sugar per day. It will produce ethanol and generate 3 megawatts of electricity as well as produce fertilizers for Ghanaian farmers. My biggest fascination for President Mahama is the way he has tackled the problem of power outages in a blistering fashion. About two years ago, Ghana suffered unprecedented power failure and his government was heavily criticised by a very politically-conscious nation. President Mahama promised to restore electricity at the speed of light. Many cynics and doubting Thomases told him to perish the fantasy. But, before our very eyes, Mahama has achieved the near-impossible and electricity has improved drastically. He has assured his country that he would not relent until Ghana is able to generate more power than it requires. Ghana has taught us that fixing power challenges is not rocket-science after-all and not even funding should stall the projects. By dint of hard work, clear-headed vision and raw determination Ghana is regaining its energy and things can only get better. In this regard, I must confess that President Buhari could not have appointed a better person to deliver on his promise of improving the power situation in Nigeria than Babatunde Raji Fashola SAN.
The beauty of Mahama’s accomplishments is his humility. He makes no noise and just performs quietly. His critics continue to call him a non-performer despite the obvious work he is doing but he remains focused and determined to excel despite lack of access to mega resources like Nigeria. He has been accused of running a corrupt government but has defended himself fiercely by elaborating on efforts made by him to curb corruption and punish erring public officers. As part of ensuring that government runs transparently, he is working on electronic payment platforms for transactions. He has sacked and prosecuted even some close allies. He says he is fighting the war against corruption without fear or favour and certainly without heating up the polity. President Buhari’s commendable fight against corruption is along the same lines although there is a need for the executive to be seen as impartial in its pursuit of those who have looted and stolen our country blind. Ghana is not perfect. It has its own challenges like every other nation. The beauty of Ghana is the firm entrenchment of Democracy. Ghanaians enjoy free expression and keep the leaders on their toes. The cool composure of Mahama helps to diffuse crisis when it occurs and for this Ghana is richly blessed. Other African countries would do well to study Ghana, learn a few useful lessons and emulate the leadership in critical areas.