I remember quite well the many nights when the lights would suddenly blackout, the refrigerator would cease to hum, and the whole house would fall silent. When the power came back on, one could hear the whole neighborhood cheer in unison, “Light ebaa!,” meaning the light has come. Beginning in 2007, Ghana experienced an energy crisis that made nights like these very frequent and after a while, very expected—to a point where the cheers of “Light ebaa” ceased. Suddenly there were talks on the radio and television about energy rationing plans, electricity power schedules, and the dam drying up.
The Akosombo dam, a hydroelectric power source constructed after Ghana’s 1957 independence, was one of many projects that Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, launched as part of his socialist initiative to transform the country into an African paradise. It was and still is the country’s only source of electricity and while it did put Ghana ahead of its peers back then, it has failed to meet fully the needs of a growing population. For a country of over 24 million people, Akosombo’s hydroelectric power is no longer reliable, especially when said reliability is contingent upon rainfall, which has decreased lately from global warming. Many Ghanaians criticized past governments for not maintaining Akosombo effectively or building another dam to meet the nation’s growing needs. Others suggested alternative forms of energy such as solar power. Others took to praying for the rains to come.
Late in 2007, the government announced that the energy crisis the country was facing had come to an end. How? I do not know. Maybe the prayers worked but I do not recall an increase in rainfall. Following through to 2008, electricity was never consistent and the blackouts persist to this day, only not as bad as they used to be. Obviously that statement was just something to pacify the disgruntled population but in the discussions that followed the energy crisis, some radical Ghanaians proposed an outrageous solution: privatize electricity.
Ghanaian mainstream society, it seems, has a rather adversarial relationship to privatization. Most perceive it as a sneaky means that Western powers have devised to control the African continent. In that sense, privatization does not prevent itself as an opportunity for growth, but rather a hindrance to sovereignty. It translates into Westerners invading the country, profiting off its resources, and outsourcing its citizens of employment. Any economist worth his or her salt will tell you that these assumptions are ridiculous and purely unfounded. China, in its ascent towards the status of a global superpower, began a wave of privatization in the 1970s that has so far served the country well. According to an article published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, China cut state-owned enterprises (SOE) by 75 percent between 1996 and 2003. Half of this reduction in SOE went towards private enterprises, yielding more profitability as opposed to the bloated inefficient SOE. As China exemplifies, private investment more often than not, makes any country better off. And in this day and age of globalization, it is only tactful in a capitalistic landscape where efficiency is all that matters. But to be fair, the animosity Ghanaians hold towards privatization is far from unfounded.
Right from independence, Ghana’s government assumed a very socialistic flair that has buried deep into the people’s expectations. The Nkrumah government created and managed almost every industrial initiative and even after it was overthrown in 1966, subsequent governments maintained that status quo. Often the outcomes of these state-owned enterprises were predictably disappointing: mismanagement, government instability, ineffectiveness, and corruption all led to the collapse of many promising initiatives. Nevertheless, the government’s control of these enterprises gave the new nation a much-desired feeling of sovereignty from Western colonial powers. In doing so, it created a cultural expectation of active government control of public service companies like water, electricity, and telecommunications—an industry that made a successful departure of its own.
In 2008, the Ghanaian government announced it was selling 70 percent of its shares of the nation’s telecommunications company, Ghana Telecom (GT), to Vodafone, a global telecom power, for a sum of $900 million. The outrage was phenomenal. Opposition political parties claimed the sum paid was inadequate when held against the long-run profitability of GT. Others said the sale propagated the notion that only foreigners were capable of running African undertakings. Officials of Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) decried the Vodafone deal as an insult to Nkrumah’s original belief that “the Black Man is capable of managing his own affairs.” The sale went underway in face of the brouhaha and now GT, rebranded, Vodafone Ghana, in its half-year financial report reveals an astounding 32.5 percent growth in revenue. That aside, GT’s privatization has improved the country’s image as a hotspot for technological foreign investment and positively boosted competition between telecom operators for efficiency. According to the National Communications Authority, Vodafone Ghana today boasts over 4.1 million out of 21 million mobile phone subscriptions nationwide, and has redefined mobile service by featuring Internet access on its network. Voices of criticism, albeit existent, have since died down.
So what of electricity?
The Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) seems to grow in incompetency by the day and incurs more losses than benefits to the government and its people. Ghanaian newspaper, The Mirror, published recent journalistic investigations showing overwhelming levels of corruption at all levels of the bureaucracy, permitting 354 state and private enterprises to evade electricity bill payments. More so, the ECG’s current pre-paid meter plan, which was implemented to reduce the frequency of payment defaults, has only provided officials an avenue of extortion from desperate customers seeking meter installments. The millions given in aid by the World Bank and other donors to advance the country’s energy development and access has effected slight change, if any. And as illegal electricity connection persists, electricity-related fires soar. The government, meanwhile, has done nothing but stand by and wring its fingers in concern.
While Ghanaians wait for someone to drag somebody to court on ECG corruption charges, it is about time we listened to those radicals supporting ECG’s privatization; the benefits would far exceed the possible drawbacks. As in the case of GT, Ghanaians could definitely expect an improvement in power supply and look forward to not paying bribes for services they are entitled to. Naysayers claim such a move will strip the government of political power and take jobs away from Ghanaians working in the energy sector. But is a failing enterprise the best way for government to exercise its political power? And are Ghanaians not already losing jobs due to increasing costs from the inconsistent energy supply? While the concerns of government sovereignty and job security are valid ones, they are unwarranted in the context of how privatization will be implemented. First of all, there are no feasible local alternatives to replace ECG so foreign investment presents itself as the best option. Investors in the electricity company would only have as much power as the government allows. If the government is active in setting standards for potential investors and maintaining transparency, it will not be overrun as many fear. Further, if the government could set up local employment quotas in the privatization scheme, jobs would be created and a healthy transmission of ideas would ensue. Really, what more is there to lose?
As Ghanaians continue to sit in the dark with candles, lanterns, and generators nearby, it is high time we divorced ourselves of the expectation that government should maintain control of all public services. We should be looking towards alternatives that would better the people’s lives even when they do not fall in line with our socialist anti-privatization mindsets. And perhaps the next time the light comes back on, we can shout, “Light ebaa!” knowing that this time, it will have come to stay longer.
Priscilla Agyapong is a graduate of the African Leadership Academy and is currently enrolled in Princeton University.