An Interview with John Dramani Mahama

In an interview with Nayan Chanda, Ghana's Vice President John Dramani Mahama, now President, says how stigma of homosexuality hampers fighting AIDS, talks about the role of telecommunication in political transformation, voices concern about NATO attacks on Libya, and Ghana's effort to avoid the curse of wealth from natural resources. – YaleGlobal

An Interview with John Dramani Mahama

One advantage Ghana has in all this is that we have a free society
John Dramani Mahama
Monday, February 18, 2013

Nayan Chanda: We are delighted to have with us the Vice President of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama. His Excellency Mahama has been in politics for the past 15 years, in the Parliament and in the government in many capacities, from running the Ministry of Communication to founding the Ghana AIDS commission. He’s in fact at Yale as a participant in the Yale Global Health Leaders Conference. Excellency Mahama, welcome.

John Dramani Mahama: Thank you.

Chanda: So the question I have first of all is during the conference, you had the opportunity meet many of the fellow African health officials as well as other experts. So what are the challenges that Africa faces in terms of disease today, and what are the plans of dealing with them?

Mahama: Actually health is one area where Africa faces a lot of challenges, and a lot of resources have had to be applied to deal with some of the challenges we have had to face. I mean, from malaria to tuberculosis to HIV-AIDS to maternal mortality to mental health, just name any sector.

Chanda: Which of these are the most important at this point?

Mahama: That is the point. We have determined what we think are the most important, and often it creates a concentration on those ones to the neglect of others. That creates problems. For instance, 20 years ago, the world discovered HIV-AIDS and so over the past 20 years a lot of the focus has been on HIV-AIDS and huge, huge resources have been put into the fight against HIV-AIDS, to the neglect of areas like malaria, mental health, so on and so forth. And so while malaria continues to be a major killer, the amount of money and resources that go into malaria is nowhere near one-20th the amount that has gone into HIV-AIDS, even though malaria has been with us for much longer. It’s only recently the efforts have been scaled up in these areas. So I don’t like putting one health challenge over the other. I think all health challenges are health challenges and need to be dealt with. So we should try and distribute these resources fairly across. I was very happy to learn about the work on mental health. Mental health is a very serious area: it has been completely stigmatized as an area. Having people who refuse to own up, having people who have mental challenges in their family and so on and so forth. So I think it’s a whole new way of looking at things.

Chanda: Talking about stigma, the stigma attached to homosexuality…

Mahama: Yes…

Chanda: It’s a major problem, I gather, in Ghana because you have brought down the incidence of AIDS but it has grown among this community of people. So how do you hope to destigmatize this aspect of their life?

Mahama: That’s a very important question, and that’s one of the areas we’re looking at. I talked about it at the conference in New York, that is the conference on HIV-AIDS. We have been successful in reducing the prevalence of HIV-AIDS generally. Within our country, it’s gone from 3.6 percent to 1.5 percent over the last 10 years. But we have hotspots, and these are commercial sex workers. We’ve been successful in bringing the prevalence rate from 80 percent to 25 percent. But then now there is the category of men having sex with men and there’s a very strong cultural hostility to homosexuality in our society, so often people are not willing to own up to their sexual orientation. So these people are underground, and we want to reach them with awareness, reach them with treatment. We are trying to educate people to understand that we need to remove stigma so that people can come out of hiding and be able to say “Yaa, this is my sexual orientation, these are the problems I have”, so that with appropriate interventions that are necessary. But we have no statistics on men having sex with men.

Chanda: So how do you educate them: through media, through television?

Mahama: The media is the most important: If you see the survey we have done in Ghana, where we ask how do you receive information on various things, I mean anything, health, education anything, the first thing they tell you is radio, maybe followed by television and then after that interpersonal communications and all that. So media is absolutely, absolutely important, and if you look at the nature of our geography, some areas you cant reach people but you can send radio waves, so we do a lot of education using radio and television. We also have community health workers and others who know the community and are able to reach people through cycles, bicycles and any other appropriate means of transportation.

Chanda: You also have another kind of advantage now, particularly due to your time as minister of communications. Ghana has really blossomed as a country: high cell phone penetration, so that’s another tool, perhaps, to reach out.

Mahama: That’s right. At the time we started this whole telecom liberalization, I mean, I look back 10 years, and it’s breathtaking how far we’ve come. You know, nobody believed that we could truly liberalize the sector and attract that kind of investment. Mobile phone technology has been taken to by people: I mean, remote villages where they said even if you sent telecom nobody is going to have the income to even buy, you know, credit to recharge a mobile phone, and you see tomorrow there are 200 subscribers in a little village. So mobile phone has become a very important means of communication, and it is one of the platforms we can use to 1) educate people and 2) reach them and 3) to generally improve the quality of their lives going forward.

Chanda: I was surprised though that while you have a 60 percent cell phone penetration, internet users are only 1.2 million, according to sources. How do you explain this discrepancy between high cell phone and low internet usage?

Mahama: That’s because initially the policy we had in respect of rolling out telecoms was an effort to just give people connectivity by voice, so that is where our focus was. So that is where we concentrated a lot of the resources, to building up the network and all that. With internet, the major problem was that we did not have enough access; we used outdated dial-up modem, which were very slow and made it difficult to access, as we didn’t have sufficient broadband access. Happily, that situation is changing and we have all the telecom companies rolling out their own internet. We have BlackBerry internet that comes with mobile phones, so you don’t need to buy a laptop to have access.

Chanda: You have a little computer in your hand.

Mahama: Yes, and so it’s beginning to expand rapidly. We had just one submarine cable in Ghana, controlled by Vodafone. Today, there are three more, providing fast-speed broadband access and it comes with your telecom service: you just put a little antenna on top of your house and you have high-speed service. So it’s increasing penetration and I’m sure that in the next 5 years, we will see a huge jump in internet penetration in Ghana.

Chanda: In the light of what we have seen in the Arab Spring, and you have written very eloquently about the Arab Spring, technology played a very important role there. How do you see the expansion of internet and cell phones in Africa affecting Africans’ social and political life?

Mahama: Well, for Sub-Saharan Africa, I think that the changes that had to be made have been made already. I mean the African Renaissance, African countries that have been turning around, military dictatorships were becoming a thing of the past, and most countries held national conferences toward constitutions and the bulk of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are constitutional democracies. Between 2010 and 2011, 24 Sub-Saharan African countries went through elections successfully. There might be a few hiccups like Cote D’Ivoire and so on but largely, I mean, these were successful elections. So for Sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of that revolution has taken place already. And so in the article, I’ve asked about what effect Sub-Saharan Africa has had on North Africa and what’s happening. I think social networking tools have been important in providing people with education and awareness. Today, you cannot internally suppress a people and not lot them know what is happening in other parts of the world. The only exception is North Korea or something, you know. In other parts of the world, where there is internet, media and television, people can see what is happening in other parts of the world, and so you cant continue to suppress them. I wonder also whether we should not overplay the role of the internet in this. It has also been the long-suppressed desire of the people to live with dignity, you know. So it’s a combination, interplay of the two, you know. I think it’s the combination of the people’s will to rise and live with dignity and the instrument they had, that’s what has helped.

Chanda: Now, the issue of the African Union. African Union has been rather ineffective, if I must say, in case of Libya, in case of Cote D’Ivoire. So what lessons do you draw from these two episodes of what the African Union should do to be more effective?

Mahama: I think the African Union is important and still an effective tool. It was a union that brought us together and asked us to finish colonial rule, which it did. It was decided to take the mandates and start the African Union. The African Union is more for peace, security and integration of the African continent. That is its mandate, and it has done well in creating a platform for African leaders to talk about issues of integration and all that. With issues of security and conflict on the continent, Niger, Liberia, Guinea, Mauritania and Sierra Leone had issues that have been solved. I think on the balance, if you want to assess the African union, it has done positive work. You cannot use just Cote D’Ivoire and Libya to judge that. With Libya, you could also see the role the international community played, because the UN took an interest. As you know, a resolution was passed that allowed air strikes in Libya. So while the African Union was playing a mediatory role, air strikes had started already. By the time the African Union team was ready to land in Tripoli, the airport had been closed. It took a while for them to go there: they spoke to Gaddafi, Gaddafi agreed to a truce. But unfortunately the rebels said no, we don’t want any peace unless Gaddafi is completely out of the picture. That has created difficulties. But the Libyan people should not have to destroy their country before they come to peace: there has to be some dialogue that goes on. I think the period of air strikes is relatively over. I mean the threat to citizens is a bit more abated. We should look for an opportunity for their dialogue to resolve the issue. If it continues, by the time peace comes that country will be completely obliterated.

Chanda: In Cote D’Ivoire, your president issued a statement and you also said about peace, that you stayed out of Cote D’Ivoire. Has that affected your relationship with Outtara?

Mahama: We have fantastic relations. Cote D’Ivoire is our neighbor so our destinies are tied to each other. We would wish that the issue was resolved more amicably and peacefully than by the force of violence. Fortunately, the solution eventually came through. We think that Cote D’Ivoire has the opportunity to make a fresh start. A lot depends on what Outtara plans. He needs to reach out and form a government of national unity and start a healing process in Cote D’Ivoire. Cote D’Ivoire’s problems have an ethnic and religious dimension to it and I think how President Outtara handles it is going to be important going forward. As for Ghana, we were present for his inauguration and we pledged to give him any support to make Cote D’Ivoire the nation he wants it to be. Once again living at peace with itself and developing the quality of life of its people.

Chanda: Finally, I think globalization has been very positive for Ghana overall, especially because given Ghana’s resources: gold, cocoa and now oil. It must be doing pretty well given the prices of commodity markets rising. Now as you have said yourself, having these natural resources could also be a curse. So how do you hope to prevent Ghana from becoming another Nigeria, which has a lot of resources but a lot of problems as well? How do you take care of that?

Mahama: We have been very lucky, especially with oil and gas industry, because of the timing we discovered Ghana’s oil and gas potential, it has given us the opportunity to learn from the best experiences or the worst experiences. Let me say on record that both cases have been sharing their experiences with us. Countries like Norway, which has some of the best practices on how to manage oil, have made a fantastic effect in Ghana, on legislation dealing with oil and gas and so on. Countries like Nigeria, which have had not-so-good experiences with oil, have also been fantastic and generous in sharing their experience with us. We’ve had several Nigerian resource people talk at oil and gas conferences in Ghana, and analyze what problems they went through and all that. I don’t absolutely blame them: Nigeria had no money to lend from in the 1960s; there were no other African or developing countries that had this resource. So they have had to learn from their own experience and develop their own experience.

But I must say they have made a lot of progress: they have a strong local industry that services their oil and gas industry. We don’t have it in Ghana: They tell us to look at local content, as we must increase multiplier effect in your own economy. Oil sales and infrastructure is not only important: you must also integrate oil sales into your economy. So we’re passing the Local Content bill that forces companies to look locally. That’s a good thing. All in all we have a lot of natural resources like bauxite, manganese and gold. We should ensure oil doesn’t become the dominant sector of the economy: we must keep agriculture active and keep food security.

Chanda: You’ve also said you’ll adhere to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Mahama: We do regular inspections to make sure things are being done in a trustworthy manner. We have regular review teams and so on. So Ghana is committed to upholding that. One advantage Ghana has in all this is that we have a free society. People are free to criticize, and we have a vibrant media. Those are the guarantees you need to take things forward.

Chanda: That’s a very positive note, Mr. Vice President. Thank you very much for talking to us.

Mahama: Thank you very much, thanks for having me.  


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