Allegations of corruption recently forced Cecilia Dapaah to resign from her position as Ghana’s minister of sanitation and water resources. Following news reports that the minister and her husband had stashed large sums of money in their home in Accra and could not readily explain the source of the cash, the country’s Office of Special Prosecutor (OSP) moved to arrest her.
It all started when Dapaah reported to the police that two young ladies, who were domestic workers at her home, had stolen money and personal items belonging to her and her husband. As much as $1 million, €300,000, and over one million Ghana cedis were allegedly taken. According to the news reports, the theft occurred over several months last year, and the minister herself waited several more months before reporting the matter to the police just recently.
An overwhelming majority of Ghanaians are outraged by the revelations. They have accused the minister of looting state resources. There is, however, a vocal minority that has come to her defense, insisting on a presumption of innocence until she is proven guilty in a court of law. Given the long history of official level corruption in Ghana, the public anger is fully justified. But because Ghana is considered to be a rule-of-law society, the minority’s request for suspension of judgment is not unreasonable either.
However, while we wait for the OSP to conclude its investigations, there are other troubling aspects of the scandal that can and should be examined right away. Dapaah was a senior member of the government that spent more than a year begging the IMF for a $3 billion loan because the country was completely broke. Since her arrest, rumors have emerged that other government officials have similarly large sums of money kept in their homes. Cumulatively, no one knows how much cash is stashed under mattresses and elsewhere in the homes of Ghana’s public officials, but it could very well be substantial enough to have saved the country the trouble of having to wait so long for IMF assistance while millions of Ghanaians starved.
There are many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Ghana that cannot grow or have had to close down due to lack of capital. Interest rates on bank loans are as high as 40 percent, so no one wants to borrow from banks. Ghanaians running SMEs routinely approach relatives living overseas, like me, for capital to either start or sustain their businesses. But because we are also providers of funds for education of our countless nieces and nephews in Ghana, health care access, and myriad other basic needs of relatives and friends there, we often are only able to give just enough for petty trading. Those are single-person enterprises that cannot provide jobs for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed high school and college graduates in the country.
When I describe to my American friends the extent of the financial support immigrants like me provide to our relatives and friends at home, they are quite often flabbergasted. They cannot fathom how we are able to balance all that with our own needs here.
The most likely reason some public officials keep such large sums of money in their homes is that they are not legitimately earned. If they were, they would be deposited in banks or invested elsewhere. Practically speaking, these officials are not doing much governing. The education, health care, and other services we pay for are supposed to be the responsibilities of government. On top of their abdication of duties, these officials suck the life out of the country’s economy by their hoarding of cash.
Velocity of money is an important indicator of the dynamism of a national economy. When money changes hands frequently, it helps increase economic activity. Essentially, all those large sums of money hidden in homes for long periods of time have a speed of zero. If they were deposited in banks, liquidity would increase, which would help bring down lending rates. That would encourage SMEs to borrow, leading to economic growth.
One of the biggest problems Ghanaians face today is persistently high inflation. In recent months, the official rate has hovered above 50 percent, but some experts estimate the real rate to be as high as over 100 percent. Ghana’s inflation problem is not a result of too much money chasing too few goods. The high inflation is primarily due to a combination of excessive reliance on imports and a weak currency. By keeping all that money out of circulation, Dapaah and the other public officials exacerbate the problem.
Scarcity of dollars and other foreign currencies is a big contributor to the local currency weakness. Moreover, if banks had the capacity to lend freely at affordable rates, SMEs would flourish. Perhaps those businesses could then produce at least some of the many goods the country is forced to import. Clearly, putting all that stashed money in circulation would create a virtuous cycle that, in short order, could substantially alleviate the current dire socio-economic conditions in the country.
It will be interesting to find out, after the conclusion of the OSP’s investigation, what motivated Dapaah to keep so much cash in her home—assuming she is able to prove that they were legitimately acquired assets. She cannot claim to have been holding some type of reserves, because she and her husband were not running a banking operation. And even if they were, such reserves are not supposed to be kept in a bank CEO’s bedroom.
Success in life hinges mainly on learning to do a few basic things right. Ghanaians, and Africans in general, have made it almost a full-time job blaming slavery and colonialism for every single one of the continent’s current ills. While it is true that those twin historical evils account for a lot of them, sometimes the problem is homegrown, as the Dapaah scandal clearly illustrates.
We claim to be so paralyzed by historical injustices that we can’t even get out of bed at times. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the brave Ukrainians who, even under heavy Russian bombardment, wake up every day to plough their fields and grow crops, fix their electricity grids and other damaged infrastructure, and generally get on with life. It’s past time for Africans to learn to take the baby steps required to get their societies moving. These concepts shouldn’t be difficult for anyone to comprehend, particularly for a minister of state.