Monday, July 21, 2008

As the Week Opens in Accra: Deconstructing ECOWAS in a Whirlwind West African Weekend

What does it take to have a truly West African weekend? A meal at Tante Marie in Accra Mall, or a Sunday evening with Blood Diamond? How about seeing a close relative off to the neighbouring West African country of Benin, by way of Accra.?

I might not have been sufficiently privileged to eat at Tante Marie, but I most definitely got my good share of West Africa.

It all started with Saturday morning, when up very early, my Mum and I accompanied my Dad off to Nigerian-based ABC Transport, near Caprice. At the time of morning we woke up--circa 4.00am, traffic was bound to be quiet and slow.

Some twenty minutes later, we were there at ABC Transport premises, curious, yet pleasantly surprised about how the Black Man can manage his own affairs. I felt especially proud when, after departure formalities (checking-in of passports at a till labelled "Lome-Benin-Lagos", weighing of suitcases to ensure when they passed the standard 25kg, a small yet reasonable fine would be paid; and finally lining up in not-so-single file to the buses to board (all against a backdrop of DStV) ) I spotted a Westerner, who looked rather confused at this kind of organised chaos.

But if to the Westerner, it looks like chaos, to the average ECOWAS-ian, it looks like a very decent attempt to travel West Africa at a reasonable rate. The trip from Ghana to Cotonou and back goes for around GHC100. For now, it is only four countries--Togo; Benin; Nigeria and Ghana--the ABC transport plies. I live to see the day when it can go westwards towards Cote d’Ivoire and maybe Senegal?

I didn’t mention Liberia or Senegal because I was reserving it for the part of the weekend that took me there--well almost: Blood Diamond.

After seeing Leornardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning performance in the 2007 movie "The Departed", I was convinced this guy as an actor was going to go far. Though I saw the former before this one, I knew I was going to get something great. And very good it was. From DiCaprio’s very good emulation of a White African accent to his shaky relationship with the ruthless colonel, one got an impression that you were living the movie with him and the Sierra Leonean fisherman – Vandy – played by Djiman Housou.

But back to West Africa: as Solomon Vandy was introduced at the end of the film as someone instrumental in highlighting the path of what has become known as Blood Diamonds, I almost couldn’t help hold back tears at the sheer evil of the global Western money-men who, in collusion with Africa’s corrupt leaders, perpetuate the conflicts that seek to enrich them perpetually at the expense of the number of countless innocent lives.

In the end, it felt like I had met Jennifer Connelly’s character journalist Maddy Bowen in Conakry, Guinea (even though we never saw the meeting in the film) with Vandy, and back to London, after the turbulent period of meeting the child soldiers in Sierra Leone near the mining “village”.

Far be it for me to give away too much of the film—especially for those who have not seen it – for it’s a profoundly disturbing ride through West Africa and much of the Western world, where profiting from diamonds are de rigeur. When the end credits exhorted one to insist on the quality of the diamond, I thought it risible, yet a good start in sensitizing our minds to the terrific history behind that which is claimed to be a "girl’s best friend".

Ultimately, as I thought about the regular unbearable lightness of being West African, I paused for a second and thought about the weekend. Being West African may sometimes be unbearable, but you just have to know where to look. Sierra Leone, so the film intoned, is at peace—and so is much of West Africa. ECOWAS’s attempts at conflict prevention and conflict resolution are bearing fruit with institutions like Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Training Centre and efforts like the Kimberely process. That even Guinean citizens were able to force the country’s long-serving leader in 2007 to consider former ECOWAS official to be prime minister is a reflection of the long road to a conflict-free ECOWAS so many of the 230 million members of the region have hoped for.

Long live West Africa! Long live ECOWAS.

Ghana's Business & Financial Times Paper, Come Again!

The picture on the cover of today's Business and Financial Times newspaper--a paper I look forward to reading each week -- is strangely familiar: it is from, my Accra blog--without attribution. I called them as soon as I saw it. They promised me they would acknowledge in next edition.

Mr Editor of BFT, we live in hope!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mid-Week Madness:Why did NPP Government Have to Sell Ghana Telecom?

The 70% acquisition by Vodafone of state-owned Ghana Telecom may be a done-and-dusted deal, subject only now to parliamentary approval in the august house. There are, however, serious issues arising that merit some consideration.

First of all, one would have to be from Mars not to know that this is an election year. After the announcement was made in 2006 to privatise, why is it only now that the putative sale has gone through, some five months before general elections? Secondly, despite the fact that there was a breather after France Telecom and Portugal Telecom were rejected some months back, at what point did Vodafone up and decide to make the bid, which, if we believe the opposition, was a non-starter, on account of the fact that there were other bidders ready to pay more than the $960million?

In December 2007, Kenya, where Vodafone operates as a mobile operator under Vodafone Kenya, was in the concluding stages of privatising state-owned Telkom Kenya, with the winning bidders France Telecom taking control by 21 December, 2007. The uncanny similarity of an opaque bidding process coupled with a privatisation so close to general elections makes for an explosive coincidence that is so serious it’s not funny. One might be tempted to think that this has nothing to do with Vodafone, till we read that an offshore-registered company by the name of Mobitelea was offered an opportunity to acquire 25% of Vodaphone Kenya Limited at the same price Vodafone had acquired them. This prompted civil society groups in Kenya to argue that “the privatisation of Telkom Kenya cannot…be deemed regular until the true picture of its ceding of [mobile provider] Safaricom shares to Vodafone Kenya is unravelled and rectified.”

Here, there is little proof that anything irregular has gone on despite the manner in which the sale went through so quickly, but reading the *Financial Times* account of the sale was sufficient to prompt speculation that given that the country is experiencing a budget deficit, the government might have seen a sale so close to the election as an opportunity to make amends around the economy.

Practices elsewhere
Still, whilst Kenya can talk about Vodafone Kenya bidding for a part of Safaricom, Ghana cannot even talk about a Ghanaian consortium ready to buy GT. This is one of the unique things about this privatisation. The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia tells us that Vodafone has three networks in the Middle East and Africa that are majority-owned: Egypt, Qatar and now Ghana. In the first case, state-owned Telecom Egypt owns 45% of Vodafone Egypt. In the Qatari case, Vodafone went in as a mobile operator, securing a 45% stake in Qatar Telecom, the Middle Eastern country’s second mobile licence provider. When we come to Ghana, a significant 70% was not only at stake, but also of our state-owned provider, prompting one to wonder why such a high figure, and why the land-line provider? Reports in the Ghanaian media indicate that Globacom had also made a bid, but had to settle for second best through a mobile service.

Questions Unanswered
Those are not the only questions. Reports in the media suggest that the minority’s concern was that Vodafone comes in as a strategic investor with little experience in landline provision. That it is setting up new services in New Zealand, where Vodafone also operates, that look like landlines and mobile lines combined should not be sufficient to assuage our fears of how it will manage our broadband services, national fibre optic system, and others. What of our national security? There is anecdotal evidence of our state security – BNI -- monitoring landlines; how far will the security services go in allowing a mobile provider with plenty of capital to share the monitoring of our landlines? Thirdly, all mobile providers have had to pass through GT for their operations. Now that Vodafone’s acquisition is semi-complete, will Vodafone’s supreme interest be in the regulation of the other providers, or a rough-and-ready competitor alongside them? Will the lines be indefinitely blurred on all these issues?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Vodafone on my Mind

Well, Tuesday 1 July was Republic Day and, as such, it was a holiday. It was odd coming to work on a Monday only to rest on Tuesday and get back the following day--but, hell, better than none at all!;-)

Back to the State of the payphones...well, they still exist in the country--like this one by the state-owned Ghana Telecom. It's a delicious irony I should be using this picture, for just today, heard that the British-based Vodafone has just bought 70% of Ghana Telecom(GT) for some $960million.

Results are what matters, so let's see what they will bring, though I cannot understand why Ghanaian polcy-makers have to consistently divest state-owned enterprises to attract investment. We've had horror stories from the Malaysians and Norwegians who did a bad job and left us. We're now going to the British...

Time will tell...

I am currently writing this week's piece for my column in Sunday World in which I raise some old and new questions about the Vodafone sale. Meanwhile, Ayo of put up last week's piece on Ghana Telecom and Vodafone, which you can read here, which I have entitled New Country for Telecom's Men.

Truth is I am alive, but been preoccupied by a new website for the office that is Joomla-based, and getting me all excited!

More on that later!


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