This is a true story; only names have been changed or omitted to avoid embarrassment. It is a story that illustrates the dire economic situation of the early 1980s brought about by the revolution that followed Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings’s second coming on 31 December 1981. It is not a story about abject poverty, but about a member of a relatively affluent community: the faculty of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi. It is a story about what should be a happy event: a young man’s acquisition of his first car, but in those dark days happy events were scarce and ephemeral.
The fundamental economic problem in Ghana in the early 1980s was the same as during the Acheampong years of the previous decade. The unit of currency, the cedi, was fixed at 2.75 to the United States dollar but its purchasing power had fallen far below its nominal value at the official exchange rate. For those who could obtain an import licence, importing a vehicle was regarded as relatively cheap in cedi terms. However, import licences were very hard to obtain and imported goods were resold at black market prices that reflected the true purchasing power of the currency.
The Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of UST had adopted the policy of employing graduates of the university for their year of National Service and keeping on the best young people as assistant research fellows. Over the years since its foundation in 1972, the TCC had built up an effective team of these young professionals, but retaining them was becoming difficult because local salaries were rapidly losing value and opportunities beckoned from more advanced countries overseas. The management was always on the lookout for ways of rewarding merit within the limits imposed by university regulations and obvious economic constraints.
Kwesi was a young man of exceptional talent and work output, who served for a number of years without any hint of wanting to seek greener pastures, but he had a keen interest in buying a motor car. He insisted that he could afford the cost if only he could pay at the official exchange rate. So the expatriate director was persuaded to buy a car in the UK and resell it to Kwesi on the specified terms. The cedis were repaid in regular instalments and for a few weeks Kwesi enjoyed the envy of his peers as he drove around the campus in his shiny new Japanese saloon. Then much to the horror of the TCC management, Kwesi arrived at the office car park one morning with the wings of his car painted yellow!
Visitors to Ghana see immediately that half of the cars on the roads have yellow-painted wings – the official designation of a taxi. Kwesi told the director that he had found that he could not run his car on his university salary and needed to operate the vehicle as a taxi to meet the regular repayments. He said that he did not intend to become a taxi driver himself, but he would employ a junior brother to ply for hire on the streets of Kumasi.
From that time, Kwesi’s car was rarely seen on the campus and it was about six months later that the director again saw it parked at the office. The shiny new car had aged twenty years and the formerly slim junior brother was now of portly mature stature. Kwesi was asked if he was satisfied with the returns from his taxi business. He said that the business was not flourishing because of the fuel shortage. The taxi spent most days waiting in a queue at the filling station. Kwesi was then asked if he thought that his brother was cheating him. He expressed shock at being asked this question and said that he was sure that he could trust his brother. He wanted to know why the director had asked this question. The answer was another question, ‘Have you noticed how fat your brother has become?’ A shadow of doubt crossed the young man’s face. ‘I will look into it,’ he said.
When he came later to report, Kwesi admitted that his brother had held back much of the income he had earned from the taxi business. On many days the brother had succeeded in getting fuel and operating normally but he had reported to Kwesi that he had remained idle all day in the queue at the filling station. Kwesi sacked his brother but he was left with an acute dilemma: if he couldn’t trust his brother, who could he trust to drive the taxi? If the taxi remained idle, he couldn’t afford to run it as a private car, especially as its worn and battered condition demanded frequent repairs to keep it on the road. His only option was to sell the vehicle, and the amount he received only just covered the outstanding balance owed to the director.
Only the wealthy could afford to run a private car in Rawlings’s revolutionary Ghana. The aspiration was far out of reach of young salaried professional, and on the university campus, even professors who did not have a thriving consultancy practice found that their faithful old jalopies had to be laid up. The essential problem remained until April 1983 when the exchange rate of the cedi fell from 2.75 to 24.69 cedis to the US dollar, with frequent further devaluations over the next three years. As for Kwesi, his personal problem was solved a few years later when he was invited to study for his doctorate at an Ivy League university in the USA.