‘The UN must change’ - John Mahama
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‘The UN must change’ – John Mahama

‘The UN must change’ – John Mahama

After surviving arguably the most captivating election court case in 56 years of his country’s independence, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama now has the time and comfort to run the country as best he can. In this interview, Mahama talks about everything from the election dispute to the economy, energy, paying taxes, the oil and gas industry, and world affairs.

Q | Times have changed in Africa, wars and conflicts have declined, and more countries are practising democracy. Do you think Africa’s time has come?

Absolutely, I believe the world is seeing a new Africa. And [given] the right place at the table, Africa will prove itself. We are not looking for sympathy from the rest of the world. We are looking to be given the opportunity to also stand on our own feet and be able to compete as equals on the world stage.

Africa is the richest continent with the most natural resources. We must take advantage of these natural resource blessings. We must move from primary to secondary and tertiary processing of these resources. We must move from being primary producers. Our natural resources are important to the world, but let’s have the opportunity to add value to those resources. We must move from being just primary producers.


Q | Some say the current dynamics of international politics call for an expansion of the UN Security Council to include more members – and maybe permanent seats for Africa. What’s your take on this?

The current structure of the United Nations is outmoded. The United Nations took over from the League of Nations after the Second World War, and the conquering powers that won the war put in the arrangements that currently exist in the UN. I believe that many years after the world wars, the world has changed considerably. Small or big, weak or powerful, we all have a stake in the survival of the world. I believe the structure of the organisation must change.


Q | What do you hope to achieve for Ghana and Africa during your term?

I believe that as African leaders, we have two main issues to work on. First, we must engage the world in a manner that shows a new Africa that is able to manage its affairs in a way that makes us worthy partners on the international stage. We must do away with the embarrassing conflicts that have displaced hundreds of thousands. We must encourage transparency in governance, uphold democracy and rule of law, and make sure our people are able to express themselves and participate in governance.

The second [priority] is to integrate our economies more, create free trade areas that promote trade among ourselves. We should also create a situation where we integrate infrastructure in Africa. That is why I am one of the main backers of the Lagos-Abidjan Highway, which will be a highway that crosses five countries, and create joint border crossing points where you have officials of both countries doing one check and allowing people to drive on. That for me will be a dream come true.

Q | You came to office last year under difficult circumstances, following the sudden death of President John Atta Mills. It’s now been a little over a year since he died. How well do you think the country has healed from that terrible tragedy?

We recently held the first anniversary marking the death of the late president and it brought back all the memories of the difficult period we went through following his death. Since then we have had to handle issues of gravity regarding our democracy and governance. But I believe that Ghana has healed sufficiently since then, and we now have to confront new issues together as a country, including the recent opposition election petition.

Professor Atta Mills was a good mentor. He was a comrade and a friend, and I learned a lot from him. And those lessons have strengthened me to face the challenges that lie ahead of us.


Q | What about yourself personally? How well have you dealt with the loss of your dear friend?

I believe that when God places responsibilities on your shoulders, he gives you the strength to carry those responsibilities. At first, I felt a sense of trepidation because I had gotten used to working with a leader to whom I reported. I reported to him and contributed my best in terms of advice and effort, but ultimately the decisions were his to take and the buck stopped with him. Any mistakes the team made were attributed directly to him. 

After Prof. Mills’ death, I had to step up to the plate, and there was nobody to look up to, except God. Everything was so unexpected. I had not anticipated that anything like this would happen. And so, to take over the mantle and have no one to look up to, as I used to do under Prof Mills, was a very bewildering experience.

Q | You have now been president for nine months in your own right. How has it matched your expectations?

I don’t think there can be a situation more adverse than what I have been through in the last nine months. There were fires burning down markets all over the country. There were industrial actions by various professional groups. We have had problems with the economy, battling a deficit of nearly 12 per cent. Inflation was beginning to rise on the back of the removal of fuel subsidies. We were also faced with a serious energy crisis – a severe shortage of power as a result of the disruption of the West African Gas Pipeline. There was a general dissatisfaction with the situation and this was marked by complaints from all segments of society.

And to cap it all, the opposition refused to accept the results of the presidential election and launched a challenge to overturn the results in court. They declined to recognise my government, and this manifested in a boycott of my inauguration and a refusal to participate in the process of vetting my ministers. This was a combustible combination of elements that made governance very difficult, and one had to remain focused in those circumstances. I believe that such a combination of forces or elements cannot exist again for any president; I don’t expect them ever again. In fact I believe they have strengthened me a lot and given me the kind of courage I need for this office.


Q | So what is the score now, Mr President?

We are making progress, although we are not out of the woods yet. We have to ensure that Ghana never again goes through what we have been through in the last nine months. We are engaging with labour, [as] we have a wage bill that is threatening to spiral out of control. We are trying to let labour understand that the budget can only sustain expenditure based on the resources available. We cannot collect tax revenue and use all of it to pay only public service employees. We need to ensure that there is money available to cover goods and services, for capital expenditure, and to provide services for the rest of the population.

Thank God the market fires are over. Whoever or whatever was setting them off, whether electrical or sabotage, they happily appear to have abated. We are, however, maintaining our vigilance to make sure they don’t recur. We have increased the visibility of the security services and this is causing the crime rate to go down.

The Supreme Court has also given its verdict on the election petition filed by Nana Akufo-Addo and two others, and so we can now put it all behind us and look forward to a brighter future for this country.


Q | What does the court victory mean to you personally and to the nation as a whole?

We believe that this was one of the cleanest, fairest, and freest elections we have had in this country. The court victory has therefore been a vindication of the position we always held. Indeed after the elections, we all, as a country, congratulated each other. There was hardly any violence before, during or after. They passed peacefully. It was only when we got to the declaration of results that we received the first hint of trouble. When the New Patriotic Party (NPP) called for a suspension of the declaration of results, it took all of us by surprise. We thought it was just scare-mongering, or some Halloween ghost.

Subsequently the NPP accused the Electoral Commission of padding the results in my favour. They actually alleged fraud. I believed clearly in my heart that the elections were clean and reflected the will of the people. We had been vigilant and wanted to make certain that no matter who won, Ghana would be the overall winner by ensuring that it was a clean and transparent process. Of course, we had done enough work to ensure that we would win, and we were confident that we would win. And so when these allegations came up, it was a real worry. We were anxious to see what evidence the NPP was going to bring. Indeed, at first I thought it was a bluff and that they were just going to huff and puff for a while and then let us get on with the business of running the country. Finally when they rolled out their evidence, it was obvious to all right-thinking persons that they had just been on a fishing expedition.


Q | Can you elaborate on that?

Yes. In any human enterprise, there will be mistakes or errors. And I am sure that if you take any election in this country since 1992 and go on a fishing expedition as the NPP did, you will find the errors of presiding officers not signing one form or other; you will find errors in tallying, you will find much of the same evidence that the NPP eventually brought up in court, because elections are a human enterprise.

In the excitement of an election, a presiding officer might forget to sign his or her signature. Must that invalidate the votes of hardworking citizens who had done their patriotic duty of queuing for hours to cast their votes? Indeed the request was absurd. And in most of the examples adduced, party agents had indeed signed as a testament of the results. To ask the Supreme Court to annul more than four million of your compatriots’ votes, almost one third of the total votes cast, in order that someone can be president is clearly a backdoor route to the presidency.
 

Q | Do you accept that the court case has taken some shine off Ghana’s democratic credentials?

In a way it has. Ghana has made a lot of progress and our democracy has matured. Our electoral system has been touted as one of the best in Africa. And it is unfortunate for us to have done this to ourselves. I feel sad about it.

Our electoral system has developed over elections. We have translated the experiences learned to improve the integrity of the system. When we vote, the whole community comes out at 5am and queues through the day to cast their vote. And at 5pm when it is all over, we count the votes publicly along with the presiding officer. You hear the whole community shouting “one, two, three, four” until the whole count is over.

When people have entered into an enterprise with such pureness of faith, it is cruel to ask that their votes be annulled.

I knew right from the start that justice would be served. That is why I said I knew in my heart, and by God’s faith, that we did nothing to rig this election and I believed that the Supreme Court could reach no other conclusion than that. That was because I believed in our defence, and I am happy that I was vindicated. I am also happy the Electoral Commission was vindicated.
 

Q | Indeed, the nation went through trying times. Some people were uncertain about the outcome, and that made governance a bit difficult, as you say. But you kept your cool and managed the affairs of the nation. How did you do that and what really inspired you?

I believe in the maturity of Ghana’s democracy. I say always, when I have the opportunity, that Ghana’s democracy has come too far to be reversed. I also say that Ghana has achieved a certain political maturity that ensures that our institutions are growing stronger and stronger. Parliament is getting strengthened, the Executive is getting strengthened and becoming more transparent, and our Judiciary and other governance institutions are getting strengthened.

I made sure that I was not distracted. I just encouraged myself to focus on the issues that mattered. The economy was of critical concern and it was at a time when we were preparing to launch our Eurobond.


Q | After the Supreme Court verdict, Nana Akufo-Addo phoned to finally concede defeat and congratulate you. It was eight long months late, but how did you feel about it?

I am a very gracious person and I am not vindictive. On 29 August, I went to the office at 9.30 am and was hoping to watch the verdict from my office on TV at about 10 am. The vice president and other senior staff joined me. We waited for a while, and the broadcast was not starting. We all wondered what was going on.

Eventually the verdict was given. Shortly after that one of my aides handed me a phone and said Nana Akufo-Addo was on the line. We spoke. It was a very short conversation. He extended congratulatory wishes to me. I didn’t feel victorious. I could feel the emotion in his voice. It must have taken a great effort to make that call and I appreciate him for that.

Q | Now that the court case is over, do you expect the level of political sniping and insults to tone down in the Ghanaian media?

[Laughs] I want to change the word “expect” to “hope”. I hope it will, but knowing the bitter rivalry that exists in our politics I am not very hopeful. But I believe that we have all learned some lessons, that there is a limit to how we can push the kind of freedom of expression we have on our airwaves and in our media.

Some people have been jailed recently for contempt and it reminded people after a long while that there are limits to freedom of expression, even though our constitution guarantees it as the right.

We have a very liberal chapter on the media in our constitution, yet the same constitution says those freedoms are subject to laws that are necessary for the maintenance of peace and public safety, etc. The Executive does not have the kind of powers that the courts have. We expect that the media will exercise some form of self-regulation. Unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be happening.

The Ghana Journalists Association has a code of ethics, but it’s completely ignored. Ghana, I guess, has the highest media exposure per capita in the world. For a population of 24 million people living in the size of territory that we have, we have about 250 radio stations. Almost every district in this country has multiple radio stations. In Accra alone, for every micro-centimetre that you tune your radio, you land on another station. And every radio station has something to say. Unfortunately, salaries are low in broadcasting and so most of the radio stations do not really care to get trained journalists to come and work for their establishments because of the low pay. So they just pick anybody who has a talent.


Q | Let’s talk about the economy. As the election neared, you stated that your priorities for the year included holding down inflation and maintaining macro-economic stability. Any progress on those issues?

We came out of last year with some distortions in the macro-economic environment. We had a deficit much higher than expected, at almost 12 per cent, and inflation had started to inch up. We also experienced a dip in the value of the cedi [the national currency]. We had to put emergency measures in place to correct the distortions. I am happy that the economy is responding to these measures. The national currency is stabilising and inflation is turning around.

My current priority is to tame inflation and bring it within single digits. I am also keen to see interest rates drop. We are pursuing a tight monetary policy. We are also trying to hold down the wage bill, while eliminating the huge subsidies we are paying on petroleum products and utilities.


Q | That reminds us of the little trouble about you paying tax when the constitution exempts the president from paying tax. How could the constitution exempt the president, the leader of the country, whose government must collect taxes from the people, from paying tax himself?

The constitution says the president should not pay tax on his or her income. So the president’s salary is not subject to taxes. I believe it is unfair, grossly unfair. The president must set the example by being the first to pay his taxes. Happily that is going to change in the constitutional review process.

I am the son of a farmer and I enjoy farming myself. I have a farm and I earn income from my farm. I also earn money from family properties that were left to us by my father. I have also published a book. All these bring me additional income other than my salary as president. I had always declared my income and paid my taxes prior to becoming president.

I therefore sought the advice of my lawyers, and it was their opinion that, while my salary as president was constitutionally exempt from taxes, any additional income was subject to tax. I dutifully declared those incomes and paid tax on it. And then, a few all-knowing people criticised me and questioned why I was earning extra income aside from my salary, and why I was paying tax! Isn’t that interesting?


Q | And that reminds us of another thing that happened early this year, when you took some heat for the country’s energy crisis. This made you promise to improve the situation, which you did. But how did you do it?

The energy crisis became my main focus at the time. I met with my minister of energy every other day, and I asked for a status report on every single utility. So every other day I took an interest in what our stock of light crude was. I took an interest in which power station was running and at what level. We delayed servicing schedules of some power stations to ensure that there was enough generation in the system.

I needed to have more generation in the system to cover the deficit. The Bui hydropower project was coming on stream. We discussed with the officials of the Bui Power Authority how we could fast-track feeding power from the new hydro project into the system. They gave various scenarios. We requested the engineers to fast-track the project and get a turbine of the dam into operation earlier than planned.

Even though the dam is due to be commissioned this month (November), we managed to get the first and second turbines into operation earlier than planned. In November, work on the project will be completed and when fully operational, it will feed the total installed 400 megawatts into the system.

I also took a trip to Nigeria and spoke to President Goodluck Jonathan and asked him to take a personal interest in having the West African Gas Pipeline restored. His personal intervention helped the progress of work on repairing the ruptured pipeline. I know that ultimately, our energy security is dependent on producing our own gas. So I have taken a keen interest in the Ghana Gas processing facility. We expect to be able to commission our own gas early in the coming year. We have signed MOUs [memoranda of understanding] with more independent power producers to increase our generating capacity.  Once we have our own gas coming in, we would be able to supply our thermal plants with power. But till then, I will still be looking at alternative sources of power.


Q | Your government is making good use of the natural gas resources associated with Ghana’s oil production, by embarking on a Gas Pipeline Project to fuel the transformation of the economy. How big do you expect the impact to be when the project is completed?

I put more stock in the gas project than in the oil exports because the gas project integrates into our economy. It integrates into the downstream part of the oil and gas industry, and so you can have natural gas processing, you can feed your thermal plants with power, and you can extract and process other by-products such as LPG, LNG, fertiliser, etc.

The multiplier effect of the gas industry will be much bigger than oil.  For example, Equatorial Guinea has a similar operation. They invested a little above $1 billion in it and paid it off in a relatively short period of about 47 months. We are investing $750 million of a $3 billion China Development Bank loan facility in the gas processing plant. I receive regular reports and updates on the project.


Q | Recently, the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine ranked Ghana as the No. 1 most promising African nation in which to invest and also as the No. 1 emerging oil and gas power on the continent. How is your government taking advantage of this enormous investor interest in Ghana?

Everybody knows that Ghana’s medium-term economic prospects are very good. The prospects for oil production look very promising. We hope to have Tweneboa, Enyenra and Ntomme (TEN) oilfields coming on stream by 2016. We have approved the plan of development. Over the past four years, we have made 16 new oil discoveries and all of them are at different stages of appraisal. And there is more exploration going on off our coast. Ghana’s prospects in the medium term are good.


Q | Are you confident that Ghana’s energy revenues will be handled responsibly?

We have put in place a lot of legislation to ensure strict accounting for oil revenue. That is a good thing because we must learn from the experience of countries that discovered oil in the past. My government will account for the revenue and ensure that it is used in the interest of the country. That I can guarantee you.


Q | You must have been pleased by the response to the country’s second $1 billion Eurobond. What does that say about investor confidence in Ghana?

I think it gives a thumbs-up to Ghana as an attractive investment destination because of two things: One, that the Eurobond was oversubscribed, we went into the market for $1 billion, and we were oversubscribed by $1.2 billion because the total offer was $2.2 billion, but we still took just $1 billion from the market.

Also we went into the market at a time when it was turning its face from emerging markets. Some developments in the US market started shifting investor attention from emerging markets and we went in at the tail end of it. And to still come out oversubscribed by $1.2 billion was good.

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Written by African Business Magazine

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