The gods of Africa are not asleep after all
ByCameron Duodu First Published in Pambazuka 23 May 2011
With the IMF’s (International Monetary Fund) Dominique Strauss-Kahn in hot water over accusations of sexual assault in a New York hotel, Cameron Duodu revisits the effects of the fund’s structural adjustment programme in his home country of Ghana.
Trust African women not to be politically correct! Even as speculation raged over the identity of the New York hotel chambermaid who was the victim of an alleged rape attempt by the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who has now resigned), a female member of an African internet forum had seen a political dimension to the issue.
She wrote: ‘I hear the chambermaid is an African. There is even a suggestion that she is from Ghana.’
(It turned out that the woman is actually from Guinea, but that is immaterial, since Ghana and Guinea once formed a ‘union’ in 1958).
Pursuing the Ghana angle, the lady writer observed: ‘If that is true, it would give “structural adjustment” a whole new meaning.’
Ha — I laughed bitterly on reading that. Ah, yes – ‘structural adjustment’, I reminded myself. No Ghanaian of a certain age can ever forget it. In April 1983, the ‘Provisional National Defence Council’ Government of Ghana, led by Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, invited the IMF to come and ‘salvage’ the economy of Ghana. Ghana had run out of most imported goods, especially essential everyday items such as soap, toothpaste, sugar, milk and the tinned foods which constituted the basic diet of boarding schools.
The Ghana currency – the cedi – was also extremely weak. Officially, its value was C2.75 to US$1. But in the unofficial ‘branches’ of the Bank of Ghana operating at suitably picturesque suburbs of Accra – with such names as ‘Zongo Lane’, ‘Mallam’ and ‘Chorkor’ – money-changers offered 20 cedis per dollar or more.
To combat the black market, the IMF ordered a devaluation. Despite our government’s aversion to ‘devaluation’, our government increased the exchange rate to about 15 cedis to the dollar.
But the IMF had no antidote to what happened next. The black market rate also rose! And the two rates of exchange began to chase each other like bloohounds and rabbits engaged in a ‘dog race’. At one stage, the exchange rate reached more than 5,000 cedis per dollar. This represented a gargantuan devaluation that recalled the legendary Latin American devaluations of the 1950s and 1960s. Many Ghanaians began to suspect that the IMF was using Ghana to conduct an experiment into how much hardship the people of a developing country could be made to endure, without causing a social implosion.
The fall in the value of the currency affected every aspect of life in Ghana. Whereas government officials could benefit from fringe benefits – such as the use of officially provided transport – the privately employed middle class was faced with creeping penury. To buy a car, which had previously been within the means of many middle-income groups, was now almost out of the question.
Worse, inflation in food prices began to have an effect on the physical appearance of many in the population. Adolescents in particular began to display something called the ‘Rawlings chain’ – a clear definition of the collarbone under the neck – caused by emaciation of the normally fleshy cover that protetcts the collarbone.
Added to this was the introduction of hospital charges and school fees. Every subsidy that could be identified was withdrawn – from the cost of utility services to the cost of petrol. The IMF also insisted that debts to Western companies, no matter how corruptly they were incurred, must be repaid. Protection of infant local industries was abolished. Trade was ‘liberalised’, even if the stifling of local industries created unemployment.
Bitterly, Ghanaians were quick to notice that IMF officials and their World Bank counterparts, who made periodic visits to Ghana to prescribe a bitter economic potion for them, could live it up in Ghana if they chose to, as their ‘per diem’ allowances were denominated in hard currencies that when exchanged in Ghana, procured them enormous purchasing power on the Ghanaian market. I remember one Ghanaian official complaining: “How can we operate on the same market as these people? If you buy one drink for a girl you’re courting, they cam buy twenty! If it comes down to a choice, who would she go with?”
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the IMF has attracted more resentment from the literate section of Ghana’s population than any other international body. And it is this pent-up bitterness which, as soon as the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair blew up, made them to re-experience, in their minds, the hardships that ‘structural adjustment’ brought upon their heads only a few years ago.
Of course, no one knows whether Strauss-Kahn will be found guilty when he goes on trial in New York or not. But one suspects that for the people of countries which have had to swallow the bitter pill of IMF structural adjustment programmes, such as Ghanaians, the mere sight of him in handcuffs, surrounded by tough New York City police officers, being denied bail and forced to spend days in the isolation section of Rikers Island detention centre (‘In the wing reserved for inmates with contagious diseases’) will generate near-sadistic satisfaction.
Indeed, whether the woman is a Guinean or a Ghanaian is of no consequence. She is African. And many countries in Africa will be mentally clapping their hands and saying: ‘The gods of Africa have used an African woman to reap vengeance for us. The gods of Africa are not asleep after all!’