Humbling lessons from Ghana

Ghana was once in terrible shape, so terrible that its citizens deserted their country en masse. But less than three decades after, Nigeria, the supposed ‘giant’ of the sub-region, has a few lessons to learn from that country, lessons that are humbling enough to draw tears. Our reporter, KUNLE OWOLABI, visited the country two weeks ago, spent five days there and reported that life in Ghana is such a marvellous study in discipline, orderliness and infrastructural efficiency that are all in short supply back home. His report:

Nigeria and Nigerians pride themselves as the Goliath of Africa. But like the biblical David, there are smaller countries in West Africa sub-region that have one or two things to teach the self-acclaimed African Goliath.

A visit to Ghana will disprove the claims - except perhaps political - that Nigeria may hold as regards her giant status. A first-time visitor to Ghana will notice a pervading atmosphere of orderliness in all spheres of the nation’s life, an almost absolute security system, uninterrupted power supply, free flow of vehicular and human traffic as well as constant road maintenance.

A work around the capital city of Ghana reveals so many things to a man coming with the background or orientation of Lagos and some other major cities in Nigeria, with the exception of perhaps, Abuja, Nigeria. One first comes to grasp with the yearning gulf between the serene and clean ambiance of Accra, the Ghanaian capital and the dirty and stifling milieu of Lagos.

Lagos is, without a doubt, the antithesis of Accra. Unlike the anarchy and chaos that characterise Lagos life, in Accra, people comport themselves everywhere you find them - at the bus stop or motor park, on the road, at work or in the restaurant. You see people queuing on a straight line waiting for their turns. If you attempt to jump a queue, the Ghanaian will look at you as an alien from Outer Mongolia and you will beat a retreat without anybody telling you to do so. Queue is a culture among the people.

Respect for traffic regulation is incredible. Drivers obey the traffic rule any time of the day and the traffic flow is superb. No bus or car driver drives recklessly or jumps the traffic light when it stops him; no vehicle will drive on the wrong side of the road. There is no torture of any kind on the road. And in any case, you won't find the popular people’s bus (Molue) or the notorious motorcycles (Okada) on the roads.

An elderly Ghanaian driver told this correspondent that people are well behaved in this city and that they respect the law, hence, they work assiduously within the framework of what the laws of the land permit.

We arrived Accra around 1am about two weeks ago, from Nigeria, and the driver waited as the traffic light flashed red. When we (all Nigerians) in the vehicle asked him to move on because there was no oncoming vehicle at the other side, the driver declined. His response was a confirmation of the Ghanaian spirit of respect for the law always.

The driver retorted: "Here, people obey the law, no matter who you are. And it does not matter what time of the day. If I jump the traffic light now, believe me, I will be caught, if not now, then, the next day. You won't know who is watching you and who will give your number to the police. A street onlooker or another taxi driver will just call the police or a radio station and promptly, your taxi colour and number will be broadcast on the air. Soon, the police will arrest you. And if you are caught, you will be fined or jailed for six months!"

Apart from the absence of chaos on the roads, the type of cars used as cab and their conditions are marvellous to behold. Cars like Opel, Hyundai Excel, Carina and other Toyota products ply the capital city, all in the same colour of blue and light green and in very good conditions. You could hardly find a car with smoking exhaust pipe. In Accra, the air you breathe in is pure, unadulterated, unlike Lagos, where you will be trapped in traffic and exhale a sizeable dose of carbon monoxide exuding from the underbelly of automobile carcass called Molue.

The drivers conduct themselves in the most dignified ways in Accra. They almost err on the side of civility. When they make a minor mistake, they apologise profusely to you.

There was the case of an elderly driver. We were four in number and so, we told him to take us to a particular place. As we commenced the journey, the man suddenly pulled away from the highway. We taught that was the normal route for a taxi to take because here is a different terrain entirely. We wanted to know more. So, we asked him why he took that side of the highway. Lo and behold, he was apologising for his mistake. He turned briefly to us at the back and said, “Please, I am sorry. I am supposed to tell you that I want to buy fuel. Sorry for that."

Instead of accepting the elderly man's apology, we stared at ourselves in utter disbelief. We did not know what the elderly man did wrong to necessitate admission of guilt or request for forgiveness. Where we come from (Lagos of course), no Molue or Danfo driver will apologise for pulling out of the road into a petrol station. Even if they do anything wrong, do they admit it? Indeed, they have a different orientation in Ghana.

In Lagos, Molue, or Danfo drivers will not stop for passengers to board or alight from their vehicles. To move about with public transport in Lagos is a herculean task. To board a bus, you will rush; to alight, you will struggle. Nothing is done peacefully. The orderliness at the public places in Accra contrasts sharply with the clustered crowds in Lagos.

Another amazing thing is the construction and general condition of cleanliness of the roads. The roads are wide and tidy. There is nowhere to find refuse along the road. What you see are dustbins sitting comfortably in about hundred yards apart at the sidewalks with waste inside them. Without being told, there is a telling sign that the waste management in that metropolis picks the refuse regularly.

The cleanness extends also to the bus stops. At every bus stop, you find a covered pavillion, well tendered and painted in different colours. The sleekness of the pavillions speaks volumes about the Ghanaian concerns for hygienic surroundings. In Lagos, it is one of these scenarios: either some vandals destroy the pavillion or miscreants remove its parts one by one or area boys convert it into a residence. A mad man could take it over as his exclusive territory or hawkers of wares convert it into a mini shopping complex. It is none of these in Accra. The pavillions are strictly used for the purpose they were built - to protect people waiting for buses.

There was a particular scene this correspondent witnessed. A waste disposal vehicle came to pick refuse from a house. The resident came out and told the driver that there was no refuse to pick. The man refused to go. The explanation for his refusal was astonishing to this correspondent. Hear the driver: "I’ve not come to that axis for refuse collection for three days. There is no way the people in that house would not have generated refuse within that period. Consequently, I expected the people to bring out their refuse. But here is a woman before me saying there is no refuse. Where did she throw it?"

‘Who will pamper you like this in Lagos?’ Refuse is thrown everywhere down here. More surprising is the fact that no one can urinate anyhow in Accra. You either do it in your house before going out or you find a public toilet outside, if you are pressed. To urinate at a public toilet costs about 2,000 Cedis. To do it illegally attracts a fine of about 10,000 Cedis or six months imprisonment.

They so much uphold the law that everybody is a law officer. For instance, at the Togo-Ghana border, many of us wanted to ‘ease’ ourselves at the bar beach. A motor park tout prevented us from doing so. "Do not piss there! You want to pollute this place? Don't you know that people take care of that place?" He shouted.

For five days that this correspondent stayed in Accra, electricity did not blink for a second, let alone going off. The constancy of electricity is legendary. Accra is a beautiful city to behold at night. It resembles some of the European capitals and probably, it won't amount to exaggeration to say that there is no nightfall in Accra. Everywhere is well illuminated to the extent that if a pin drops at night, you will bend down and pick it.

A security man, who identified himself as Tony, at a hotel, in a chat with our correspondent, disclosed that Ghana does not experience power failure at all, as electricity supply is as constant as the northern star. When asked if the hotel has a generator set, he answered in the affirmative, but added that he could not recollect when last the generator was switched on.

"I do not know the last time we put on this generator. I doubt if we have even warmed it this year. Nobody thinks of generator, because here, there is no break in power transmission. Power outage is out of the question. We always have light. It is unlike in your country, where NEPA does as it likes."

Sensing that this correspondent looked a bit offended by his comment on Nigeria, the man quickly added: "Do not be offended. I am only saying what I know. I once lived in Nigeria. I stayed for about four years in Ondo State. I left in 1996. Then, NEPA used to take light every now and then. I cannot say of now. But that was the situation then."

He was dead right. He only needed a confirmation that NEPA is even worse now. Ghana, of course, celebrated one year of uninterrupted power supply last year! Few people have generators, which they don't use anyway, Tony said. He added that there is no shop, where they sell generator around the town and no one uses stabilizer, because “power does not fluctuate nor do we experience half current”. Nobody can guarantee when all these will happen in Nigeria.

There is high propensity for power interruption in Nigeria. In some places, the people do not have electricity for months. Where there is, it comes and goes like abiku, every blessed minute. NEPA has notoriety for unstable power supply in Nigeria, in spite of the billions of naira spent on it. This constant power failure has earned NEPA another acronym: Never Expect Power Always! The thought of Nigeria celebrating a month of uninterrupted power supply remains, for now, in the realm of dreams.

If building a city is about planning, Ghanaians know well how to plan. Go round the residential arrears and see how houses are built with required set back separating them from the roads for future development. The set back is wide enough to be sold as a plot for shopping complex in Lagos. Then, peep into the drainages within the city, you will see that water flows freely, unhindered by either pure water sachets or waste deposits. Look at the power pylon. They stand tall and erect, untouched by termites or hit by a trailer. Cables are well connected and uncluttered. Electric wires run separately from the telephone cables, all neatly stretched for easy access for repair purposes in case there is technical fault.

The roads? Neatly constructed. Searching for potholes on the Accra roads is like embarking on a needle in haystack search. It appears as if somebody sweeps the roads at intervals. Conspicuously missing on Accra roads are the typical Lagos scenes of flooded roads; muddy and untarred roads; pothole infested roads; roads half blocked by tankers or buses; roads almost barricaded by mountains of refuse and drainages blocked by heaps of pure water sachets.

Security system in Ghana is almost absolute. Although, you will not see a stern-looking policeman or gun-totting mobile policeman extorting money from motorists, yet, one feels the presence of the security men around. Throughout this correspondent's stay in Accra, he did not see a policeman on the road, so he could not describe the type or colour of the uniform of the Ghanaian police. At every checkpoint, you see an inscription like this: Checkpoint: Security that never sleeps (italics mine).

A Nigerian, Usman Ali from Zaria, who has lived in Ghana for eight years, had told three of us in the afternoon of that day that in Accra, your property is secure. He said although there are robbers everywhere, even in Jerusalem and Mecca, the preponderance is what is different.

"Nightlife is enjoyable in Accra. You are free to go anywhere, anytime. And it is safe here. You find robbers everywhere. In the Holy lands, Mecca and Jerusalem, robbers are there. So, they are here, but robbery hardly occurs. If you respect yourself, people will respect you here. Nobody oppresses anyone. People go on their own, compared to the situation in Nigeria. Let me tell you this, you can leave your car open with the engine running and the car key on the ignition, and nothing will happen to your car”, Usman told us.

He said we could go about in the city at any time of the day, without fear of being attacked of molested by anybody. The three of us (visiting Nigerians) exchanged glances. Knowing what operates where we came from, all the same, we decided to give Usman's postulation a trial. Around 2am. (3 a. m. Nigerian time), we came out of the hotel. We did not stay for long before a taxi came. We flagged it down and told the driver to take us to a place called Osu (somebody had already told us that they don't sleep in that part of the city). He told us Osu is best known as small London.

Without fright or worry, the taxi agreed to take us at a negotiable price. We quickly jumped into the car and the driver zoomed off. Accra is fun for those who relish carousing at night. People move about like it is in the daytime. Whatever it is you want, you get it for what obtains in Allen Avenue, Empire and Ayilara in Ojuelegba and a few other Red Light zones in Lagos, they are in abundance in Osu or if you like, small London. If you are a jonny just come (jjc), and you ignorantly cross the Marginot line, you may be sandwiched by the …. hmmmm! Night is as safe as the daytime in Ghana. Nobody thought of armed robbers or the social miscreants (area boys) that swamp Lagos.

It was very hard for us to believe. But that night, the taxi driver did exactly what Usman told us. We had told him to stop us because we wanted to feel the pulse of the night. We went into some shops, bought some commodities and peeped into a few dimly lit inns to see what went on in the semi darkness. When we came back, the car was humming slowly with the key dangling on the ignition. The driver was nowhere to be found and it was easy for anyone to escape with the car, but the driver was probably so confident of the security that never sleeps!

When he came back, he was full of apologies for keeping us waiting, not for us keeping him waiting. That is Accra, Ghana for you. Drivers in Lagos don't have the patience or decorum to stomach that kind of “nonsense.”

Ghanaians are very patient and pleasant people. They operate with an air of confidence and calmness and are not given to haste and hurry. In fact, one will be surprised at their hospitality and honesty. One evening, this correspondent with some colleagues went to a supermarket. One of us bought some items and paid. We, however, left the supermarket without taking the items. We had gone a few metres away from the place, when we discovered this. So, we retraced our steps back. Half way, we met the young lady manning the shop. She was looking for us. We asked her what would have happened to the items if we did not come back for them. Her answer: "I know your face. I saw where you came out. I will keep your things for you. Whenever you come back, I will hand them over to you."

I laughed inwardly. Why? I was once told that at a popular market in Lagos, there are some people employed by the shop owners to watch you at close range while you buy what you want to buy. Subsequently, they follow you as you elbow your way out of the market. They will suddenly swoop on you and dispossess you of what you bought. Pronto, the article returns to the shop and the particular shelf from where you bought it, waiting to be purchased by another person.

If you have a slight headache, you'll wish to go to a chemist shop to buy drugs. But you will be surprised that in Accra, you cannot pick a drug off the counter. The first thing the pharmacist asks you when you go is: "Where is the prescription?" Unless a doctor prescribes a particular drug for you, it is very hard to get into a chemist and buy it. Another outstanding thing about chemist shops in Accra is, you could hardly find one without air conditioners. The reason for this, one attendant said, is to keep the temperature of the drugs constant for safe consumption. Drugs are hawked publicly inside Molue or at the bus stops with impunity in Lagos.

So orderly is life in Ghana that some Nigerians have relocated to the place, while others go there for holidays. For instance, Chief Dele Momodu, the publisher of Ovation Magazine is there. So also is the highlife maestro, Orlando Julius, with his wife. Momodu now publishes Ovation in Ghana instead of London.

About two weeks ago, some Nigerians, under the name of Forum of Nigerian Professionals (FNP), gathered together to celebrate the sixth year of democracy in Nigeria. Senate Minority Leader, Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi, was invited to deliver a lecture on the topic: “Democracy and development in Africa: the Nigerian experience since 1999.”

The forum was an avenue for stock taking after six years. Afikuyomi lamented that Nigeria's story is a paradox of a sort: richly endowed, yet its citizens wallow in abject poverty; giant in appearance but more or less, living the life of a dwarf.

He painted the picture this way: "Ours is, indeed, a paradox because we pride ourselves as the giant of Africa. Yet, 45 years after independence, we are unable to generate sufficient electricity for our people. This has hampered growth and development in all sectors and it has crumbled social life. How can a country even begin to develop without such a basic and vital ingredient as electricity supply?"

Afikuyomi's experience in Accra, however, drew different words for Ghana. Making reference to the celebrated novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, by the Ghanaian novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah, he said the novel is an expose of the promises and faults of governance under the leadership of illustrious Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the independent Ghana. He, nevertheless, observed that if the cerebral novelist were to write another novel about contemporary Ghana, he would probably entitle it, The Beautiful Ones Have Now been Born.

The lawmaker explained his reason for saying this: "For we are all witnesses to the rapid progress made by Ghana over the last decade on the political, social and economic fronts. Accra, for instance, in its architectural symmetry, soothing serenity and consummate orderliness, symbolises a country that has internalised those values of discipline and organisation that are sine qua non for national development."

In his contribution, Momodu decried the deplorable and dilapidating conditions of infrastructural facilities in Nigeria, saying this does not provide a favourable atmosphere for business. He wondered when Nigeria would wake up from its slumber and develop into a giant that it calls itself.

For Mr. Michael Ajayi, the Chairman of FNP, Ghana is harnessing the opportunities offered by democracy and Nigeria ought to be doing this if not more than that. He turned to the journalists that came from Nigeria and said: "Since you arrived, have you taken time to go round the city and see how things are? You have a lot to teach Nigerians about Ghana; how clean the environment is; how orderly the traffic is; how stable the electricity is. Here, vehicles wait for traffic lights and pedestrians. Discipline is the key to all these. That is what is missing in Nigeria."

The simplicity of Ghana's democracy reflects on the manner its leaders carry themselves about. One needs to see the Ghanaian President, John Kuffour, going about freely without the plethora of entourage and long, winding convoy of security men. Kuffor's residence is not far from the people he rules. In fact, he lives among the people. There is an access road in front of his residence. People walk up and down the street where the president lives without molestation. There is a thoroughfare.

One night, three of us went past Kuffor's residence around 2 a. m. Only a soldier was seen sitting some yards from the entrance gate to the president's house. There was no "Military Zone, Keep off" written anywhere. The fence of the building is a little above the waist in height. One can easily peep into the compound.

Undeniably, life is simple, easy and beautiful in Ghana!

Sunday Punch, June 12, 2005