As I breeze through check-in formalities at Accra international airport on my non-stop evening flight to Johannesburg, I cannot help the flashback to 27 years ago when I first started travelling to my second home through marriage from the country of my birth, Zimbabwe. How the tables have turned in less than one lifetime.
In those days there was one flight a week to Accra via Lagos on Balkan Airlines. By comparison with Accra, Harare was the very essence of tranquility. You went from a country bursting with hope to one where its bright star in blazing the trail to Africa’s independence had fallen to its lowest ebb with each successive coup.
You left a country where the dollar was stronger than the US dollar to a land where money changers hung around in dark alleys stuffing notes under their flowing robes. You braced yourself for the heat and the sweat of the airport, the inevitable “third page in your passport” to get through customs, the likelihood of stolen luggage, the hassle to get past hordes of hangers-on looking to squeeze whatever they could out of you.
My first trip to Ghana coincided with Jerry Rawlings’s second coup on December 31 1981. A naive Southern African schooled in liberation politics, but without a clue about what it meant to be in a state run by the military, found herself unable to leave the country for a fortnight as every airport, phone line and telex machine was shut off. Rescued by American missionaries who made a foot trip over the border to Togo, I thanked the Almighty for a passport that I could carry with pride whether east, west, north or south on this globe.
As I remember that moment, I am reading the headlines in the Daily Graphic about Robert Mugabe, the global pariah—even in Africa, even in Ghana, his second home through marriage. Ghana, which once proudly claimed Mugabe as its son-in-law, has turned its back on him as well.
It’s not just about the way he turned his back on his first wife, Sally, starting a relationship with his secretary as the Ghanaian wife who stood by him through years of incarceration lay dying of a long kidney ailment. That, of course, is a sore point with Ghanaians. As only Ghanaians would have the guts to do, Mugabe’s in-laws snubbed his second wife Grace when she tried to visit with him a year ago.
But the sense of betrayal runs much deeper than the sins of the son-in-law. It stems from the statement made at the just-ended G8 summit in Japan: that Mugabe has shamed all of Africa, taken all of Africa down with him when he brazenly marched to power on June 27 after terrorising the opposition Movement for Democratic Change into withdrawing from a second-round leadership election after it won the March parliamentary polls.
Rawlings might not have been the West’s idea of a democrat, but he restored enough discipline and order for Ghana to take the harsh economic medicine necessary to halt hyperinflation and get a resource-rich nation back on its rails. He submitted himself to elections. And, just as Ghana blazed the trail to become Africa’s first independent nation, it led the way in becoming one of the first post-independent African nations in which one elected leader handed over to another through the ballot box.
John Kufuor’s Ghana is not a utopia. But, as Zimbabwe becomes a country ruled by the military in all but name, this at least is a nation in which coups are a thing of the past.
When Ghana knocked all the zeros off its cedi currency a little more than a year ago, after several years of stable economic growth, something amazing happened. The cedi strengthened to just a little over one US dollar. The two now stand virtually at par, as they did in Zimbabwe in 1981.
When Zimbabwe tried the same trick, almost at the same time last year, the inevitable happened. The zeros climbed back again so fast that no one even bothers to give a figure to the inflation rate any more. As the Latin Americans would testify, it takes a lot more to halt hyperinflation than knocking off a few zeros at the printing press of the reserve bank.
As I prepare to leave, an old friend asks me how it is possible for a leader—even if he or she makes every conceivable political and economic bungle—to bankrupt a country as rich in human and natural resources as Zimbabwe in less than our lifetime.
At the airport I brace myself for the worst. Habit has taught me to keep my wits about me, even have extra “pages in my passport” in case they might be needed.
But there is no need. The queues are normal. No one insists on opening my suitcase. I am asked politely which seat I would like.
I go through customs with the minimum of fuss. I even put my feet up in the lounge.
The flight leaves on time.
Gazing down at the lights of Accra I reflect on the 180-degree turnaround that I have witnessed in one country in less than a generation. Is it true that what goes down must come up?
If so, how much further must Zimbabwe sink before it rises? And how much more shame are we as Africans prepared to bear on Mugabe’s behalf before we force that turn?
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links. This article is part of the GL commentary service that offers fresh views on everyday news