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In the humid air of Ghana’s Department of Energy all eyes are on Norway. At his 1960s-era lacquer desk, the chief director of the ministry, professor Thomas Akabzaa, rolls out a large chart. “This is a plan. This is our national dream,” the former lecturer in geology explains, “Norway is our model. Norway stands up tall in terms of human development. One of the reasons for this is that they have been able to leverage their oil and gas wealth for the benefit of their population. This is what Ghana intends to do.”

It’s easy to see why the country’s political elite opts to focus on Oslo. Ghana discovered its offshore oil reserves in 2007 and started pumping for export in December 2010. Yet Ghanaians are surrounded by abject examples of what’s become known as the “resource curse”. For all the talk of the Scandinavian model, the spectre of neighbouring Nigeria – where the discovery of oil in the late 1950s brought about crime, conflict, systemic inequality and dystopian-scale pollution – haunts the room. “We have ample evidence to show that in a lot of developing countries with oil and gas, you find an increase in poverty in the midst of considerable wealth from these resources,” concedes Akabzaa. ”On the flip side, there is Norway.”

Compared with some of its neighbours, Ghana is an African success story. After a spate of free and fair elections (most notably in December 2008 when President Atta Mills peacefully took office with a majority of just 40,500 votes or 0.46 per cent) the country has become the stable democratic anomaly of its region. Ghana is fast becoming a darling of the West and a popular haven for businesses looking for secure headquarters in West Africa.

A sudden shot of oil money could scupper all of this. But Ghana’s leaders say they are determined not to follow in the wake of other Sub-Saharan oil nations. In late 2010, after much political wrangling, Ghana’s parliament passed a series of transparency measures and the much-flaunted Petroleum Revenue Management Act – a robust framework for the management of oil funds. In it, 70 per cent of government oil revenues were earmarked for 12 areas including infrastructure, education and health while the remaining 30 per cent is in a “stabilisation fund” for future investment.

Ghana’s capital, Accra, certainly needs it. Beyond the leafy cantonments and the anodyne ministries district where Soviet-inspired Black Star Square commemorates the country’s independence in 1957, the city is a burgeoning megalopolis snarled by dense, raucous traffic which tussles along half-built roads followed by trails of hawkers selling plantains, silk ties and flick knives. Gridlock is a way of life. Locals sit for hours at the Mensa Junction in fleets of Toyota mini vans trying to get to and from work. At night, the highways are lit with piles of burning rubbish. And while official estimates say the city is expanding by 3 per cent a year, other pundits, including the city’s former mayor, Nat Amarteifio, fear the city is sprawling unchecked and at enormous speed. “There is a huge slum here called Old Fadamah, that is popularly known as Sodom and Gomorrah,” says Amarteifio. “During my term as mayor it was the dumping ground for the city’s waste. We moved the garbage – but then the people settled. Right now the population there is around 80,000. There is no sanitation, no roads. It is the city’s underbelly.”

Managed properly, Ghana’s oil revenue could change the fortunes of places like Old Fadamah. Its economy has been given a huge boost by the discovery of oil. At 13.5 per cent, Ghana’s GDP was the fastest growing in the world in the first quarter of 2011. On the street the optimism is palpable and expectations high. “We know this oil will be good for us,” says Alfred, a newspaper vendor who clutches a selection of Ghana’s daily rags. “Look at Iran, look at Saudi; these people live very well. They live in glass towers.”

The city’s elite is similarly excited. In his office in Accra’s Metropolitan Assembly the current mayor, Alfred Vanderpuije, outlines what he intends to do with the oil funds. “We need to use some of this money to develop our infrastructure, to provide hospitals, roads and good drinking water for our people,” says the former US school administrator in an ice-cold office at the town hall, where the curtains are drawn and the door zealously guarded by a troupe of police. Vanderpuije is a busy man – the political appointee is packing for a trip to China and his team of glazed bureaucrats turn away a steady flow of locals who sit listlessly in the reception. “We need to have a plan in place,” he says, “We need to make Accra a modern city for the 21st century.”

Nevertheless, the prospect of oil is already realising Vanderpuije’s vision. Ghana’s growing economy is attracting foreign investment from Nigeria, China and Lebanon. Accra’s main drag, Oxford Street, is lined with new start-ups such as Dynasty Chinese restaurant, Piccadilly Casino and an entertainment complex called Citizen Kofilurid, made of lurid purple glass. Most promisingly of all, Ghana’s educated diaspora is returning from the US, Germany and the UK with skills, money and creativity – a reversal of the brain drain seen in the 1970s.

Accra’s bars and clubs are thick with American and British accents planning cultural ventures, pharmaceutical patents and construction projects. The city’s culture is being led by young people who buzz in and out on flights from Los Angeles and London. “A few years ago there was nothing going on in Accra,” says jazz singer Nana Yaa, who sips a glass of red wine after her set at the stylish Club +233. “I used to live in Liberia and then London’s Swiss Cottage but I came back two years ago to record my album. Everyone is coming home, it’s happening here. It’s a live music scene.”

Joe Addo, a London-trained architect, made the decision to up sticks from LA after he experienced the political optimism of the 2000 elections. Addo, who moved to Ghana for good in 2004, sees himself as a cultural entrepreneur and has set about developing local materials for industrial use. His own house, a vaulted modernist space made from dahoma hardwood (and full of Eames chairs and electric bikes straight from LA) is the first of many ventures for his company, Constructs. “We’re working on some large-scale projects and very small high-end ones,” he tells Monocle over a breakfast of Ghanaian pastries on his airy terrace, “It’s about understanding our materials, creating a new language in architecture inspired by where we are.”

Addo hopes that oil money might reinvigorate Ghana’s education system and produce a new cadre of African architects ready to shape the emergent wealth into a vibrant creative society. But in the meantime, he fears oil revenues might end up creating rushed, high-rise, and ill thought out condominiums. “This is what’s happening around the city,” he says. “It’s like the worst of Berlin has been put here in Accra. It looks flashy, but what does it do?”

Three hours’ drive down the coast in Takoradi, a port touted as Ghana’s petroleum boomtown, the effect of the industry is already evident. Developed by the British in the 1920s, Tadi (as it’s known locally) is now the nearest urban centre to the oil platform (a floating structure the size of three football fields) some 64km out to sea. Here, derelict Deco-era mansions sit decaying next to huge construction sites. It’s clear the oil crowd is moving in.

There is little sign of any meaningful infrastructure. At Takoradi’s train station East German-built “Ghana Rail” passenger carriages sit abandoned waiting for a Chinese-backed redevelopment project to revive the line. The foreman here has watched his busy transport hub wither since its peak in the 1980s (and finally stop in 2006) and isn’t convinced the oil sector will help revive Ghana’s infrastructure. “Ghana is rich in resources,” he says, gazing at his forlorn tracks. “We have bauxite, manganese, gold and cocoa. None of this wealth has trickled down. Why should oil be any different?”

At the bar in Takoradi’s Africa Beach hotel flanked by a montage of stickers from ELF, Kosmos Energy and SHELL, two Scottish oil workers sip cans of Heineken and stare out at a drilling rig on the hazy horizon. They also seem sceptical that oil will reinvigorate the town. “Of course it won’t,” says one. “This is the oil industry. All you need is beer and girls.” No cultural renaissance here then.

Despite the glaring pitfalls oil might bring, Ghana is optimistic. Its people are unflinchingly hopeful about their government’s ability to buck the trend and avoid the resources curse. In the small fishing village of Dixcove, one of the nearest communities to the oil platform, a fisherman, Ega Kwasin, tells Monocle he thinks oil is a positive thing for Ghana. In the shadow of a 16th-century British slave fort where small boats bring home the day’s catch, Kwasin explains how his nets have been clogged with oil and how the Navy has stopped his boats from reaching fish stocks near the oil platform. “Some of the canoe fishers have formed an association to talk about pollution,” he says. “But oil in Ghana is good. It will bring jobs. And we need them.”

From highlife to flip-flop

Ghana’s homegrown poly-rhythmical hybrid style, highlife, was popularised in the 1950s when western jazz fused with Afro beat percussion and became the soundtrack to the country’s independence in 1957. (The name goes back to the 1920s and refers to chic parties of the European elite.) Its successor, hiplife, throws US hip-hop into the mix.

Accra’s most famous hiplifer, Reggie Rockstone, has opened the modish watering hole The Office where local talent congregates for live sessions. (“Bless up,” he texted Monocle. “Hit me up tonight.” Which obviously we did.) This year Accra hosted its first music festival, Shalle Wotte (or “flip-flop”), in the historic Jamestown district where local musicians and Ghanaian performers from the diaspora (among them, Lady Waa and Sewor Okudzeto) came together for a public shindig.

Free press

Ghana’s daily rags have a turbulent history. The country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, founded The Accra Evening News in 1948 demanding “Self-government Now!” and then set about creating a Soviet-style state-run media model that was adopted by successive military governments.

Today, there are 40 newspapers published in the country – dominated by state-run Daily Graphic (a paper founded by the London Daily Mirror Group in 1950). The lively, fiercely partisan discourse is protected by the 1992 constitution, which guarantees the freedom of the media.

Harruna Attah, who founded the left-leaning Accra Mail 10 years ago, believes the press plays a crucial role in holding the government to account now oil is starting to flow. “We are the watchdogs,” he says, “but we need to be less bloody minded, less partisan. The Accra Mail is hoping to change the agenda.”

×The Monocle Daily

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