The Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta had on Thursday 25th March, 2022, addressed the nation as was much anticipated following the announced cabinet emergency retreat at the Peduase Lodge which ended days earlier. The outcome of the deliberations at the retreat were made known to the people through the press briefing undertaken by the Finance Minister. As the government side has been allowed the opportunity to address the nation on measures it intends to undertake to mitigate the current economic challenges arising from general hardships, a depreciating currency, rising food prices, rising fuel prices, rising cost of transportation, and the need to mobilize revenues while cutting down cost, it is important to equally subject the measures to scrutiny and to observe what was left out and their possible impacts on what the government intends to achieve.
First of all, it is important to note a very significant wrong foot which was put forward by the Finance Minister. In a country where we have all agreed that things have plummeted given rise to the suffering of the people, it is important to acknowledge that shared knowledge becomes the best antidote to the current debilitating economic situation. It was needless for the Finance Minister to place the Minority side of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) on the chopping board for blames. That wrong foot, would always result in the Minority side rising to their defence and in effect, throwing sticks in the spokes of government’s wheel. A more reconciliatory approach aimed at inviting the Minority to the table for their support would have been appropriate.
Unfortunately, what the Finance Minister exhibited, was the result of an already flawed effort at reaching a national consensus in dealing with the challenges that confronts the economy. The process towards finding solutions to these challenges that government has eventually come to admit, was never opened to the opposition NDC to participate in. Unlike the Senchi Retreat which the NDC side spearheaded in the past which saw invitation extended to the New Patriotic Party (NPP) but which they blatantly refused to attend, this Peduase Retreat never extended a hand to the opposition let alone allow them to decide to attend or not. As a result, the posture of the Finance Minister affirms their intransigence in getting the opposition involved in resolving these challenges. Unfortunately, we cannot govern a nation like that with posturing such as these.
That set aside, it is equally important to make the point that our Finance Minister sought to use the Word to drive home his point. What he has fallen short of, remains that, the same Word, cautions against recklessness. He has failed to realize that no one who prepares for a drought, gets affected at the early stages of that drought. At best, such a person is only affected when the drought extends beyond what was anticipated. In our case, if we must take the pandemic of 2020 as a drought, we were never prepared for that drought. As a matter of fact, in less than two weeks after the ‘drought’ hit our shores, we were vulnerable. Prior to that, we were told how the economy was robust and could stand several weeks of import cover. It took the investments made by the previous administration of John Dramani Mahama to salvage the immediate challenges.
The government had had to fall on funds created by the John Mahama administration to draw out 1.2 billion Cedis to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. We had to rely on the Bank of Ghana for a 20 billion facility, USD2 billion from the IMF, USD430 million from the World Bank among others to handle a situation in an economy that was repeatedly described as robust. In effect, a total of about USD5 billion Covid-related revenues accrued to the government for use to deal with the pandemic in Ghana.
In all of these, what was shocking was that, we took all these monies just to handle the pandemic, forgetting that we have a post pandemic economy to manage. To the extent that the Ghc33 billion secured to manage the pandemic was dissipated in the pandemic year without any records of accounts, it makes it difficult to want to repose any further trust in the management of any additional funds in the hands of the handlers of the current economy.
We need to be able to diagnose the challenges well and be able to situate the announced measures in their proper perspective to be able to tell if they would yield any meaningful results. Our wrong first foot was initiated with the size of the Nana Akufo-Addo’s government. For a President who promised while in opposition to protect the public purse to begin his first term with a list of 125 ministers, it was unacceptable. Prior to his taking office, the previous administration was making some savings. For instance, the Stabilization Fund, the Contingency Fund, the Infrastructure Fund, among others, were created making some savings for the state. The Electricity Company of Ghana in the year 2016, made a huge profit due to the huge investments made in that sector following the resolution of the prolonged power challenges known in local parlance as ‘dumsor’.
Soon after these 125 ministers were inducted into office, the Electricity Company of Ghana made a huge loss, reversing its previous gains by end of the first year of the Akufo-Addo’s administration. If we must be truthful to ourselves, the first question we would ask would have been to see the benefit created for this state by those 125 ministers whom we were told were appointed to help achieve results. These same ministers were occupying office when the pandemic hit this country without us having the capacity to withstand the shocks. Clearly, these ministers came to live large on the savings made by the previous administration and have added nothing to the Ghanaian economy. If indeed, their appointment was of any benefit to this country, we would have seen similar savings made in public spending. If we consider the expenses the nation had to incur in taking care of these ministers, we can have no other conclusion from the fact that they were a cost to this nation.
I am struggling, and I am not alone in this struggle, but equally, colleagues I spoke to, were struggling to ascertain the exact monetary value we would be saving in these measures announced by the Finance Minister in his press briefing. When he announced that he would ensure a moratorium on importation of 4-wheel drives into the country, we asked ourselves, are the V8s not already in town? We see the 2022 model of V8s already on our roads. Those who have the capacity to buy those vehicles are government officials and the cars are already here. So on whom, is this moratorium applying? As we speak, none of us has a list of vehicles government intends to import this year. We are already ending the third month of the year, and we have no idea how many such vehicles are in the system, and would never have any means to measure which vehicles come into town subsequently. One can predict that months into the year after this measure was announced, an attempt to get records of government-imported 4-wheel drives into this country would be classified as a national security matter, denying the public the knowledge that should enable them judge the potency of this measure. If there is any doubt, we can all look at how attempts to ascertain the cost of the President’s travels in a rented private jet was handled by the government.
When the Finance Minister says that they have decided to place a ban on new government projects and to complete the existing ones, one must be concerned further. The President promised to build 111 hospitals across the country within 18 months. As we speak, none of these hospitals has begun construction. The La General Hospital has been pulled down for a new one to be reconstructed. It has been close to 3 years already and absolutely nothing is happening on the site of this hospital even after the sod cutting which occurred in August, 2020. Are these hospitals going to be halted since no work has begun on them? Or they are part of the ongoing projects that would be continued? What we need to remind ourselves of is that these 111 hospitals were announced when the pandemic had already visited our country, and for that matter, government was aware of its financial capacity before the President went ahead to announce them. We need to be clear on that.
One of the policy measures government intends to pursue is to wean off public universities from government subventions. As government commits not to touch on the Free Senior High School Policy, a policy that is taking a chunk of its resources, it rather intends to narrow the access of students into public universities. Records would reveal that in Africa, generally, the number of citizens seeking education continues to decrease as students climb the academic ladder. This means that at the basic level, there are more students in school as compared to tertiary levels. And further, the records would show that the girl child is even at a disadvantage than the male child. For a government to make a major policy intervention to increase the intake of students at the Senior High School level, the least is to make access at the tertiary level easy. And part of the means of making this access easy is to ensure as many public universities as possible, and keep school fees at these universities as affordable as possible. This can guarantee that the numbers as would complete secondary education through the Free SHS policy would not be overly disadvantaged when attempting to access tertiary education as a result of cost associated constraints. If the government should pursue this policy, it simply means that efforts are further entrenched to make tertiary education possible only for the rich while making it tougher for the poor to have access to higher education. It is in this light that tertiary education must be looked at with reference to this policy measure to truncate government subventions to public tertiary universities which would mean full cost recovery leading to full fee-paying at that level.
When the Finance Minister again announced reduction in the cost of meetings and conferences by 50%, we need to ask if government meetings and conferences have a fixed expenditure pattern for which they can easily be slashed by 50%. If that is not the case, which I know is not the case because every meeting comes with its own expenditure, how and who would monitor the cut? Where would these records be made available for us to see?
Clearly, the interventions with real value have been avoided. If for instance, the government had decided to realign the current ministries by merging those that were already merged under the John Mahama administration resulting in the reduction in the size of ministers, we can be able to quantify the savings the country would make. For example, if we have our ministries reduced and the ministers reduced by say 10, we are able to know how much we are saving by multiplying the number of ministers against their salaries, the vehicles we are saving, the bungalows we would have saved. But the government has bolted from touching and cutting down on the tangibles and the measurables to dwell on discretions which would not be made available to the public. Ghana deserves better, and if any commitments are being made to cut down on expenditure just to inspire revenue, that must be done with clear evidence that the citizens can follow through and be convinced of.
One of the lingering issues that remain unanswered is, what exactly would all these supposed cuts be used for so that the citizens can see and say “yeah, this is where the cuts are being invested in”? For example, in the 4 years of the John Mahama administration, his appointees committed to a 10% pay cut which was channeled into building CHPS Compounds across the country. It was therefore possible for the citizens to see where the committed salary cuts were going. What similar measure can we hold this government to with regards to the 30% pay cuts they have announced through the Finance Minister?
Having listened to the Finance Minister, there was absolutely nothing announced to boost domestic production apart from advocating for the consumption of local produce. But, does that just happen? As we speak, even locally produced foodstuffs are going up. We have not heard of any stimulus packages for those who are engaged in production of food locally such as rice producers, poultry producers, maize, yam, and general cereal producers. It remains a fact that the cost of fertilizers have gone up in the midst of government reducing the subsidies from 38% to 15%. In his press briefing, if our government was committed to boosting local production of crops, the Finance Minister would have immediately announced the reversal of the reduction in subsidies on fertilizer. To the extent that that did not happen, it can be concluded that government is engaged in tokenism rather than willing to solve a real problem.
It was shocking listening to the Finance Minister respond with the clear indication that he was picking the ‘suggestion’ for a refinery in the Western region from the media men assembled at the press briefing. In somewhere 2018, when the issue of rising fuel prices came up, there were questions as to why Ghana, a country that was mining oil and trading in same on the international crude market could not refine part of the crude oil for the domestic market. The government, in an attempt to provide answers and dodge the question of abandoning the Tema Oil Refinery (TOR), made the promise that they intended building a USD4 billion refinery in the Western Region which would have the capacity to refine the nature of our crude, something they claimed the Tema Oil Refinery could not do (find link: https://starrfm.com.gh/2018/01/govt-build-4bn-oil-refinery/). On this matter, if the man who is expected to make the resources available for the building of the new refinery doesn’t seem to remember this, then we have a huge problem on our hands.
As part of the measures to mitigate the rising cost of fuel, we heard of an effort at reducing fuel by 15 pesewas per litre which rounds up to 60 pesewas per a gallon of petrol. Analysts including Dr. Kwabena Donkor, Member of Parliament for Pru East and former Minister for Power, are even indicating that this very reduction does not have any impact on the revenues Central Government make on a litre of fuel sold. In effect, the government has merely passed the cost to those who trade in oil. If one considers the rate at which fuel prices are increased, the impact of this 15 pesewas reduction would soon be short-lived. A few weeks ago, at just a single increase, petrol and diesel was increased by over Ghc2 per litre. This is 13.3 times the supposed reduction of 15 pesewas announced by the Finance Minister.
What I would finally want to touch on in this piece is the unfortunate claims by the Finance Minister that if they had followed the programmes of the NDC administration, we would have been in a ditch. But we are already in a ditch by not following the programmes of the NDC so which ditch again? The mere address by the Finance Minister finding solutions means his programmes have brought us problems which we are seeking to get out from. So this confirms the fact that by not following the NDC programmes, we would have been in a ditch.
But, what ditch would this country have found itself maintaining the about 84 ministers that the NDc administration operated? What loss would we have suffered building the phase II of the Ridge Hospital and that of the University of Ghana Medical Centre? What would we not have gained completing the Police Hospital by now? Would we have suffered any losses if this government had gone ahead to complete the rest of the Community Day Senior High Schools? Would we have suffered if we had continued to make savings and created funds that are to mobilize resources to build a prosperous nation? Would we have lost if the ministers had continued to set aside 10% of their salaries over the last 5 years?
Clearly, the Finance Minister’s attempts to throw political jabs were unfortunate because these jabs had no meaning when subjected to logic. In one breath, the NDC has no ideas. In another breath, the Minority of the NDC are using their cleverness to scare investors away. Like I have said elsewhere, if the Minority are using their comments to scare away investors, why aren’t the scriptures and motivational quotes of the Finance Minister drawing the investors close to Ghana? The whole issue is a matter of credibility.
When the World Bank Country Director of Ghana says the government must be truthful to the people, it carries a lot of weight. It means there are lies in the system, some of which are deliberate to cook the books. But investors are not unaware. They know what we have to offer as a country and especially by individuals whose financial management strategies have been questioned and cautioned. When our debt to GDP is published at a minimum of 81%, investors are aware we have become debt distressed and have no fiscal space to take on additional loans.
It is shocking that the very Finance Minister, who, then in opposition, in his new found love for politics, cautioned the previous government that it could not borrow its way out of debt, is the same Finance Minister who today is leading the country into borrowing an extra USD2 billion out of this economic quagmire (link: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1116176332514035).
The current economic situation must encourage us to look truthfully into our own conducts, and this sincerity must come from government. The Finance Minister, in his usual scripture-bearing self, must know that he first must be truthful to us, before demanding truth from us. Unfortunately, the government’s posturing when it comes to issues of accountability is worrying and not assuring. If we look back and observe how Mr. Daniel Yaw Domelevo was retired from office in an attempt to pursue the Senior Minister for payments made to Kroll and Associates for no work done, we cannot trust this government. Just recently, an attempt to demand accountability into the 33 billion Covid-19 funds by Parliament was resisted and blocked by the majority side citing bad precedence and a setting of a parallel institution aside the Auditor-General. The government must establish some credibility. The suffering of the people is real, and government must be real in dealing with the sufferings of the people.