Operating in Ghana 101

Johnny left Ghana when he was 12. A Canadian missionary, who was returning to her home country, adopted him and took him along. The missionary made him promise that he would return to Ghana to serve whenever he felt ready. Well, three years ago, Johnny, now in his forties, did return to Ghana to serve. He came with a wealth of knowledge and experience in ICT and a wide network of wealthy investors.


On 2nd January, Johnny came to watch my play at the National Theatre and after it, he came to introduce himself and asked if we could talk. He had come for the first show and I had about two hours before the second show and so I took him to my dressing room and I said, “What do you have on your mind?”
Johnny said, “Uncle Ebo, you know this system. Please tell me, how do I get things to work in this country?”


I could sense his pain and confusion. He had come with good intentions and the means to make a contribution and yet he was being frustrated at every turn. He had been back in Ghana for three years and he had not accomplished anything. But even as I listened to his story, I knew he was not alone in this. Many returnees and indeed many foreigners who come to Ghana with good intentions suffer the same confusion and frustrations.
Those who come to Ghana with the aim of milking and robbing the nation do not face the same frustrations. They often find very willing accomplices who make it easy for them. The trouble comes on those with genuine good intentions. They are blocked, obstructed, harassed, delayed, prevented, rebuffed, resisted, stonewalled and frustrated at every turn.


So, for the sake of Johnny and all the returnees and foreigners who come to Ghana with good intentions, I bring you: Understanding the Ghanaian System 101. Here we go:

  1. Ghanaians don’t understand: “This will benefit Ghana”; they understand: “This will benefit you personally and directly.”
    It is unfortunate but it is true that the average Ghanaian in public office will not do anything unless he can be assured that he will benefit personally and directly from it. And if he is not given that assurance, he will delay, stonewall and frustrate and obstruct the project. He will not do what he has to do to aid the project and he may do worse by ensuring that no other person touches the project.
    So, for instance, don’t tell a Ghanaian official that you have raised $2m to combat malaria in Ghana. You can tell him how many lives it will save and how much Ghana will be saving on health bills. So far, you have not said anything that will excite him.
    But say to him, “We will appoint you in your personal capacity as a consultant to the project at a fee of $2,000 every month,” and you are now talking. Now, you will see how efficient the Ghanaian can be. That project will take off in record time.
  2. Ghanaians hate those who transform an organization and make it more efficient.
    Many establishments in Ghana seem to be in trouble. Nothing seems to be working in them and everyone complains. To the newcomer and foreigner, this seems like madness but as Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “though this be madness, there is method in it.”
    There is method in the inefficiencies of institutions and establishments in Ghana. The inefficiencies persist because they create avenues for people to make money at the expense of the institution or establishment.
    So, when you come in from the outside and you set to work to reform and transform an establishment to make it efficient, you are treading on dangerous grounds because you are closing avenues and loopholes from which some people are lining their pockets. And they would gang up against you. They would write anonymous letters and reports about you; they would spread false stories about you; they would make false accusations against you and they would agitate for whoever appointed you to remove you.
    The irony of the situation is that those people who are benefiting from the corruption and inefficiency in the establishment are the very people who would accuse you of being inefficient and corrupt. They would make it seem that you are the worst thing that ever happened to the establishment and that if you are not fired, you would collapse the establishment.
  3. The values Ghanaians say they believe in are very different from the values they are prepared to work with.
    Ghanaians know what is right and they speak eloquently and passionately about those things and how they want to see those values at work in Ghana. Now if you think that because they speak for these values, they are willing to adhere to them, then you are mistaken.
    For instance, a Ghanaian will say that he hates programs that begin late. He will speak passionately about the need for programs to begin on time. But put him in charge and he himself will be late for the program.
    You see, the Ghanaian believes in a principle as long as he is not expected to live by it. When a Ghanaian speaks about a principle, he is saying that others should live by it but he can exercise some flexibility about living by it. So, when it suits him, he lives by it; when it doesn’t, he ignores it.
  4. The Ghanaian believes that his employer owes it to him to make his life comfortable, no matter his lifestyle or productivity.
    The Ghanaian does not understand that companies survive on the input and productivity of its workers. To the average Ghanaian worker, the company should have a pot of money somewhere from which salaries are paid and conditions of service improved and this should not depend on the productivity of the workers but solely on the need of the workers.
    The concept that a worker is employed to produce results and that the company depends on the collective results of its workers to generate the income from which salaries are paid is foreign to many Ghanaian workers.
  5. The Ghanaian will not tell you “No” to your face.
    This is one of the characteristics of the Ghanaian that confuses returnees and foreigners the most. Submit a proposal to a Ghanaian official. He knows he is not interested but he will not tell you so. He will act very enthusiastic about it and promise you that he will act on it with dispatch.
    As soon as you leave, he throws it away. But anytime you call, he will have encouraging words for you to keep your hopes up even though he knows he has dismissed the proposal. He knows nothing will come out of the hope he is giving you but he will give you the false hope all the same.

I know I have made general statements. They don’t apply to every Ghanaian but it applies to many more Ghanaians than it is comfortable for us to admit is the case. To the returnees and foreigners who are here with good intentions and good dreams, I hope this helps.

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