An Assignment in Accra

The British Government’s desire to help Ghana utilise its oil wealth to stimulate economic development has brought us back to West Africa, this time to the coastal city of Accra. As I was coming in through Kotoka airport last week, I had flashbacks of my first time in this region. My first port of entry on the continent was none other than Lagos Airport. Arriving at 10 PM at that airport was never going to be pleasant. Nothing else that happened that night was either.

Accra’s airport seemed more relaxed though. It was also a bit more organised – most of the security functionaries seemed to be in one uniform, no one was shouting. All good signs, I thought. The entry was smooth and soon I had stepped out into a warm but breezy evening. Nothing to worry about, just as colleagues had informed me.

Now at the airport again a week later, I am a short while away from the return flight. In Accra I found a relaxed, yet active city. The city is fairly compact, and one can get from one end to the other in about 45 minutes when the traffic is good. From what I have seen of it, it is obvious that Accra is enjoying capitalist boom. The last few years have brought in increased revenue through mining (gold and diamonds) and oil, as well as foreign investment into the banking and telecom sectors. One can see the evidence of this in flashy billboards around town, and in tall new buildings coming up.

Interruption: Announcement on the speakers sends the waiting area into frenzy as people start to rush towards the gate, even before the functionary has begun to speak! I observed with detached amusement. They rush only towards disappointment, as the announcement declares that boarding is delayed. Hooray, I think, indulging in a little schadenfraude, it is not just developing country flights that are not on time! Disappointed passengers shuffle back to their chairs, sigh, and settle down once more. Surely there must be a way to make airport waiting areas more interesting? In fact there is, Doha’s new airport is a great example in airport creativity and functionality – quiet reading areas, small duty free shops, TV lounges, internet kiosks, and beds to sleep on. The Qataris have waiting areas all figured out.

While I didn’t get to engage in any cultural activities in town, I did manage to sample a few of the restaurants. There seem to be new ones coming up regularly.  I had some great pizza and decent Turkish. One of the hip areas downtown is the Osu district, full of flashy neon signs and its very own ‘Oxford Street.’ When I was told one day’ if you haven’t been to Osu you haven’t been to Accra,’ of course I had to check it out. The places we went to were chock full with people, a healthy mix of foreigners and nationals, clearly with enough disposable income.

Beyond the neon signs and expectations of the upcoming oil boom though, what is really going on in Accra? Is the city witnessing the rise of so-called ‘Africapitalism?’ And if so, how, if at all, will the resulting pattern of growth be different from that seen elsewhere? A week-long consulting assignment was too short a time to find answers to these questions, but the years ahead will likely make them self-evident.

What was also noticeable was that a nouveau-riche class is now in place, with its own ecosystem of private basic services (schools, clinics, security services) around it. The fact that wealth is being generated is certainly positive, however it is also important to consider that if the societal elite opt out of the public system (where it concerns services such as education and healthcare) which everyone else is compelled to use, then it reduces pressure for reform. A balance should be found which translates Ghana’s growth into progressively better human development outcomes for the majority of its citizens.

Boarding is at last announced. This time I join the milieu with full gusto.

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