Ebo Quansah in Accra .
As the old banger came to a stop, she emerged in her wheelchair from the scores of people vending all kind of goods on the street. She had a pusher in a 12 year-old boy, who had obviously abandoned the classroom. A child of two and a half years sat on her lap, wincing from the heat of the tropical sun at its zenith.
The traffic lights had changed from ember to red, requiring traffic to stop. The tyres supporting the old car I was driving screeched for a while before coming to rest just at the foot of the traffic light posts at Kaneshie First Light, in Accra.
The right hand popped out from the woman in the wheelchair with the fist initially in a clench. Apparently, it was entangled in the cloth that wrapped her body and that of the baby boy on her laps. The clenched fist opened up and stretched to indicate a plea for alms.
It is a sight that has greeted drivers and passengers in Accra and other commercial centres in this country over the years. Somehow, out of curiosity, and with the light still red, I engaged the beggar in a short conversation. She was impregnated in Cote d’Ivoire and brought forth just before she was forced to leave that country. Together with other beggars, she left for Ghana and has been asking for alms on the streets of the capital city for some time now.
The changing of the lights curtailed our conversation, as drivers tooted the horns of their vehicles behind me. Long before this encounter, I had learned that beggars on the streets of major cities, towns and villages in Cote d’Ivoire, including the political capital Yammoussokro, and economic heartbeat Abidjan, and who could not identify themselves as locals had been sent packing in a major drive to clean up the city and town centres, and that many of those beggars had found their way to Ghana.
It tells everything about why beggars are swarming our streets in addition to street vendors. Like most things Ghanaian, no one is going to take action until it is too late in the day. By then, these miscreants, with support from lawyers, many of whom appear to have lost their briefs, would seek alternate means of livelihoods and huge compensation packages.
If you drive on the Nima Highway in Accra especially, you would encounter beggars plying their trade in huge numbers. Both sides of the highway have been lost to these beggars. The irony is that, not only is begging an offence in the statutory code of this country, most of those asking for alms in the business hub and in street corners of Accra and other cities, towns and villages at the centre of the earth, are not indigenous Ghanaians. They are foreigners who have long overstayed their welcome.
This society is getting sick, I am afraid. In the name of ECOWAS protocols on free movement of goods and peoples, Ghana is entertaining all sorts of miscreants, seriously damaging the economy. I intend to explain why this country could do without them.
After the encounter with the beggar and her baby, I headed for the Vodafone offices at the Kwame Nkrumah Interchange, to rectify a problem or two with my cell phone chip (sim card).
Immediately I parked the old banger and popped out in front of the building that once served as the headquarters of Vodafone operations in Ghana, I was swamped by a number of people trading in the national currency. I mean black market dealers changing the local money into foreign exchange and vice-versa. The manner they tried to speak the local language and their general demeanour clearly gave them away as foreigners on this soil.
They openly displayed both local and foreign currencies like the dollar, pound and CFA in huge bundles. It is clear that these are people doing serious damage to the local economy, and yet, they have the freedom of the managers of the state economy to continue to do collateral damage to the welfare of the local economy.
In Accra, places like Tudu, Tip Toe Lane, Nima, Accra Newtown, Adabraka, Osu, especially Oxford Street, and many other places in the national capital, are dens to these black market dealers. Kumasi has its fair share of the black market. Alabar is the centre of the currency trade in Oseikrom. So are suburbs in Tamale, Takoradi, Cape Coast and many other towns and villages in Ghana. Along the border posts in Aflao, Elubu, Gonokrom, Paga, Hamile and Bawku, the trade in the national currency flourishes under the watchful eyes of the police, immigration and custom officers.
When the Akufo-Addo administration took charge of the state apparatus, promising to revamp the economy, I was thrilled to bits. The economy, after all, determines whether or not the long-suffering people of Ghana would recover from the abyss of adventure we have been experiencing, long before the advent of colonialism.
Nearly two years into the advent of the Akufo-Addo administration sadly, the economy has failed to deliver the people from abject poverty, even though the potential to do so is evident. For me, one of the measures needed to raise the level of the living standard of the people is to curb the smuggling of our resources, particularly foreign exchange earned by our hard-working farmers and industry players.
Everybody knows that black marketeering and smuggling of the local currency are the main reasons accounting for the perennial fall of the value of the local cedi against the major currencies of this world.
However, instead of confronting the problem by going after the miscreants trading in the national currency illegally, and smuggling our hard-earned foreign currencies abroad, we are rather burying our heads in the sand and behaving like the ostrich. We pretend not see the problems welling around us.
I am not an economist. I cannot explain with all the jargons why this economy cannot pick up the pieces in spite of all the brilliant interventionist policies being introduced. Let me emphasise here, I admire the paperless policy at our ports, the Tax Identification Number, and other high-sounding names of economic policies introduced to stop the leakage of state resources.
All the same, I hold that these measures alone cannot guarantee that resources so gained would stay in the country to aid development, if these black market operators were not dealt with decisively.
It was alleged not long ago that a foreigner was arrested with a number of lorry tryes filled with dollars ready to be smuggled from this country. My disappointment is that since that arrest, there has been no publicity on what has happened to the case.
One would have thought that by this time, the courts would have adjudicated on it under a certificate of emergency and judgment passed to serve as a deterrent to other potential currency smugglers.
Let me stress it home here. I appreciate our role under ECOWAS protocols on free movement of goods and persons. But I am also aware that the same protocols place some limitations on the freedom of such persons and their goods in member-countries. I am aware too of the damage caused to this country, especially the political dispensation that thrives on liberal democracy, following the events in 1970.
There is a school of thought that holds that because the governing New Patriotic Party traces its roots to the Busia regime, the Nana Akufo-Addo government cannot be seen to be doing anything that would suggest that the events that begat the Aliens Compliance Order and the Indigenous Business Act of 1970 could resurface. I beg to differ.
The execution of the Alien Compliance order was problematic, in that the time was too short for the normalisation of most aliens’ stay in Ghana. It forced many foreigners, particularly huge numbers of Nigerians, to leave this country in a hurry under many inhuman conditions. But the two legislations inured positively to the welfare of the local population.
The execution of the local content in business was what really brought Ghanaian entrepreneurs into big time businesses in this country. Prior to that, one could hardly encounter many Ghanaians in the manufacturing industry, for instance.
My beef though is not about Ghanaian industry. My thesis in this piece is that there is a correlation between the dwindling value of the cedi and the black market in currencies, as well as the capital flight of foreign currency by smugglers, most of whom are foreigners operating illegally in this country.
I am advocating for a constant swoop on black market dealers in currency in Ghana. In addition, I am also suggesting for the serious attention of the Government Economic Management Team and the Ministry of Finance to consider re-structuring forex bureau operations in this country.
I lived in the United Kingdom for 13 and a half years, thanks to the oppressive rule introduced by the military junta headed by Jerry John Rawlings. During that period, I travelled to the East and West of this earth.
I have been to Tokyo in Japan in the East, and Los Angeles (United States) in the West. I have also visited Australia in the Southern Hemisphere. I know most countries in continental Europe. I am yet to encounter anywhere in the world where one could exchange local money for foreign currency anywhere in town. They are mostly done in banks and dedicated Bureaux de Change at the airport and town centres.
In this country, the operation of forex bureaux takes place anywhere and by any personality, native or alien, without any serious checks on the operators’ backgrounds. I do not think one could just walk into a forex bureau, say in Tottenham or Brixton in London for instance, and change currencies.
I am looking forward to a more stringent means of changing currency in Ghana with stringent checks on the background of those selling and buying currencies. When the government of Ghana announced recently that it would not increase the purchase price of cocoa locally, it offered the excuse that the foreign price of cocoa had fallen.
That is very true. But those who manage the economy on behalf of the good people of Ghana failed to factor in the undeniable fact that by retaining the price of a bag of cocoa at GH¢475, the Government of Ghana had contrived to reduce the quality of life of our hard working cocoa farmer. Goods and services that GH¢475 could buy in Ghana last year have dwindled to almost half the same value this year. And that is a fact!
This government, like all previous administrations of this country, is cash-strapped. It is so, because, in my humble opinion, most foreign currencies earned in this society are smuggled by black market operators, who, in more cases than one, are other ECOWAS nationals living in this society illegally.
Let us be bold and uproot the black market. It will boost our foreign exchange reserve and aid development, which alone, could improve the quality of life at the centre of the world.
I would like to submit too that beggars have no business being on our streets. Let the relevant authorities send them away. We have to save our economy before worrying about ECOWAS protocols.
I shall return!