Africa

Letter from Africa: Why Ghanaians prefer to pay emergency rates

  • 4 April 2014
  • From the section Africa
  • comments
Two men push a car in a street of Accra, Ghana on 2 June 2007

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister and member of the opposition, laments the lack of a maintenance culture in Ghana.

There is a 19km (12 mile), two-lane dual carriage motorway that links Ghana's capital Accra to the port city of Tema.

This road also happens to be the one I need to take to get me out of Accra on the way to my village.

When the motorway was opened in 1965 and for years afterwards, it was the pride and joy of the nation.

Back in 2008, a survey showed that an average of 65,200 vehicles travelled on the road each day and I am certain this number has since doubled.

'Awe-inspiring'

Last month, a part of the road collapsed and it has been total chaos.

It is fair to say that this did not come to anybody as a surprise - everybody saw it coming, there have been complaints on the radio, but there was no money to make proper repairs or undertake regular maintenance, or so we were told.

Emergency works, which we are told will take 21 days to complete, are in progress. I am sure it will cost more than the money we did not have to do the regular repairs.

There is a suspension bridge over the Volta River at Adomi which links the eastern part of Ghana to the rest of the country.

Narcotics Control Board Headquarters in Accra (13 July 2007).
Government-owned buildings are among those which are badly maintained

I also need to use this bridge to get me to my village. The bridge was built in 1956 and when I was young I used to find it awe-inspiring. It has an arch that spans about 805 feet (245 metres) and rises to about 219 feet at its crown.

Back in 2008, the bridge had to be closed for several hours every day over a six-month period for emergency repair works to be done. It was said at the time that no repairs had been done on the bridge since it was built.

In 2011, there was an announcement that the bridge would be closed for a year for major repairs. Nothing happened.

Last April, a similar announcement was made and the scheduled closure dates went by without any word.

The bridge was closed last month and it will stay closed for two years for major repairs. I have no idea of the cost but I have no doubt we are paying emergency rates.

'Brand new'

And this attitude can be seen elsewhere, too.

If you see a house being painted anywhere in Ghana, you can safely assume that someone has died and there is a funeral coming up in that house.

A man prepares coffins representing a plane and animals in Accra on 12 December 2000
Ghanaians take pride in having lavish funerals - and being buried in elaborate coffins such as these ones

If you are seen painting your house, people will stop by and ask if you have a funeral.

Regular maintenance of structures is not one of our strong points. It is a subject much beloved of newspaper editors and government officials.

There are regular editorials and speeches bemoaning this lack of a maintenance culture. We can never find any money to paint or do any regular maintenance but when someone dies we find the money.

Children play football in Accra on 25 June 2006
Maintenance is done on some roads only when they are in a deplorable state

Indeed, part of the reason Ghanaians keep dead bodies in the morgue for so long before burying them is because we have to paint the house or sometimes build a brand new one to be able to give a befitting send-off to the dearly departed. We prefer the emergency rates.

But maybe I should stop moaning about the funerals. After all, a death in every house means every house gets painted.

There are many homes in villages around the country where the electricity has been disconnected because there is no money to pay the fees - once there is a death, the bill will be paid, complete with the reconnection fee and all other penalty charges.

Once the bridge is about to collapse we shall find the money. We simply prefer the emergency rates.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.

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