My fight with Kufuor's Government - Prince Kofi Amoabeng
Interview conducted by Ololade Adewuyi for STAR Newspapers, Accra. All photos by Ben Dzaka for STAR Newspaper
You were recently quoted by a paper to have said that the Ghanaian economy is worse than it was at independence in 1950, What do you believe are the solutions to Ghana’s problems? First, do you agree with that statement that I made?
I would not have an opinion on that. Ok let me explain what I meant by that statement. As part of our ten-year anniversary celebrations at Unique Trust, we organized a seminar to empower SMEs (small and medium scale enterprises) who are our main clients. At that seminar, we got the services of EMPRETEC, which Unique Trust paid for, to give them expert insight into how to manage their small businesses. We had to chat to that group about our own experiences at Unique Trust and where we are coming from and how we have been able to reach where we are in ten years. Therefore, I had a special session with them at the closing and told them about my three principles for guiding anyone doing business. The first principle is the fact that one needs to be realistic, seeing things as they are and take away all the fantasies and emotions that go along with it and see things as they are. In addition, under that topic, what I said is that for example, with the redenomination of the Cedi, we say one cedi to replace ten thousand cedis the value is the same. When in life did one become ten thousand or one become the same as ten thousand? It is not true. We can say the value is enhanced, what do you mean by the value is the same? If we were changing one-cedi note to another one-cedi note then you can say the value is the same. However, this is something Ghanaians are living with and we sing it all the time. In addition, I said under the same breath that our economy has deteriorated because the major measure of a country’s performance is the GDP capita. I said it is a fact that our GDP per capita was around $400 at independence fifty years ago. Point number two is that $400 fifty years ago in today’s terms is about $2,500. If you want to challenge that fact, you can go ahead and challenge it, otherwise I am telling you that our present day GDP of between $400 and $500 means we have deteriorated. It is a fact.
The government has not disputed that. Nobody can dispute that fact except that Ghanaians themselves do not even see it. That is one aspect of not being realistic.
So seeing all the negative facts on ground, how would you change Ghana if given the opportunity to become leader seeing how easy it is to criticize other people, how do we make things right? Can you give concrete measures? If I should become leader, that is extremely hypothetical. I would not be in a position to change things because I would never venture in active politics but the problem has everything to do with our culture. I believe the most important ingredient for development is having respect for all. Our culture is a culture where you respect somebody because you feel you can get something from that person or you think you need that person in your life. Giving respect for all is not an African thing. Africans believe in worshipping the authorities even bothering on the edge of sycophancy and raising those in power to the highest level in order to get what you want from them. In Africa, the moment somebody enters a room, everybody is trying to find out ‘who is he?’ and if they do not see that you have some power of influence or they need to cultivate your good side then they just trample on you. I am saying that does not bring development. That leads to retrogression. That is the reason for Africa’s lack of development. By saying that we do not give respect for all, the question should be what would ensure that we have respect for all in order to bring development. That is putting in place systems and procedures that are quite transparent and enforceable in its totality. It does not matter who you are the laws should apply. For example, we have broken all the systems that we have down intentionally. Our police system is steeped in corruption and cocaine deals; our court system is not delivering justice on time even though we are making efforts to improve it. Our public sector has broken down and our state institutions are not working. If anything would happen, it is selective. If the government does not like you, you can be sent to jail in two weeks. If the government likes you, you can be hanging around for several years for worse crimes. That is not justice for all. It is not respect for all. Furthermore, what selective respect as the African culture wants is that you appoint people into places based on their connections with the authorities. This means it not the best of the capable hands that gets there. Therefore, the person who gets there does not know the job and feels that he is being pursued or undermined by other people because he has inferiority complex, as he knows he is not the best for the job. Instead of doing the job and being measured by palates, his relationship and not his performance is what ensures he stays thereTherefore, it brings everything down. Whereas if you put the right person there with targets to meet, to be evaluated and judged, he then delivers and everybody gets a benefit out of that. For me, it is very clear why we are not developing.
So what must we do? Well, that is very difficult. The culture of the people is their way of life. Moreover, even though we want to believe that it is dynamic, it changes very slowly more so in Africa where we still chew chewing stick and kocha. We have not changed from that way. Our chiefs will sit atop twelve people and be dancing. We have not seen a need to replace that with donkeys and chariots. The worst thing is that if you should try to change that system for the benefit of the so-called ordinary person, that same ordinary person will be the same one who will revolt because it is their way of life. So the solution even though you can talk about it, its implementation is very far off.
Let me take you a bit backwards to when you said the whole economy has gone backwards, there is progress as there is sufficient evidence to prove that the banking sector has grown. The banking sector has grown by relation to twenty million people compared to independence when you had about six million people. It is only one sector. The sectors that have grown in Ghana are the telecommunications sector only because the technology was not there at the time of independence because we did not have the colour TV and the mobile phone technology that we have now. The banking sector also has ridden on the back of technology to grow. If Unique Trust is doing well then what would we mean by depression in the banking sector. Look at education; it is the vehicle for development. When I went to university in Ghana, I got a letter in my village; got there, was received and given a room, three meals a day, ice cream, tea, coffee, exquisite lecture rooms and allowance to study. Final year I had one room to myself. Now what does the Ghanaian who enters university have? The very room that I had to myself now has about eight or ten students to that room and it is for ‘in out out and out’. No meals, student’s loan is hard to get and now we have people going to school under trees even in Kumasi. A mate of mine teaches in a school in Kumasi where the blocks have been blown off so the students learn under trees. Here in Accra, there are places where you have fifteen JSS schools in one compound. So education has run down. Under transport, what do we say? The rail transport is non-existent. Where is Ghana Airways? Black Star Line, which Kwame Nkrumah brought about, is gone. We constructed a few roads but look at the majority of our roads presently; they are in dismal shape.
It is possible to go on and on counting the inadequacies of the system. Now do you see how far backwards we have come? I just want you to have a better glimpse of why I said those things. In industry, we used to have a match factory, a corned beef factory, a tomato factory, a glass factory, etc. they are all gone.
Do you not think that most of the problems Ghana is experiencing like other developing countries are because of the economic policies of the stronger western powers? No way, absolutely no way. I genuinely believe that the advanced countries would want to see one or two African countries develop so that the attention of African immigrants going to Europe will be redirected to West Africa. I believe they genuinely want to put money down so that one or two West African countries develop.
You think the West is sincere enough to want us to develop seeing that there have been revelations as to how Europe engineered Africa’s underdevelopment and its policies today still entrench for our lack of forward movement. The whole world is about exploitation. If you expose yourself, people will take advantage of you. It is up to you to know what is happening in your environment then strategize to improve your lot. Then people will respect you. When Singapore, Korea and Malaysia were developing, they were not stopped by the advanced countries. The West did not become poorer because they became richer. So it’s not true. We are the cause of our own failures. Do not look anywhere for your own problems. We should blame our leaders. When the black man (Ghana) woke up to demand for independence, they accounted for their governance and packed up leaving our country to us. They handed over to us railways, universities and so many other things that were working. They also handed over to us reserves running into millions of dollars with no debt. That is a foreigner running your country for you. Since the white man left, every that has come government has accumulated more debts for us. Then the NPP declared an emergency enabling us to have our debts written off, which is quite disgraceful. We have started piling them on again. If you talk about the woes coming from the white person, I personally will say no, it is not true. We gave them some opportunity to abuse us a bit but what have we done for ourselves since independence?
You do have friends in influential places, politicians and ministers… (Cuts in) No, I do not.
You don’t. I know them but they are not my friends.
Oh well, when you meet them what do you tell them? I do not talk to them because they always misconstrue what I say. If you do not say something in their favour then you are against them. Ghana has now been polarized everything is looked at in political terms. When I started Unique Trust in the 90s and people saw we were doing well, they began to say, “He’s NDC. He’s coming from the military and they gave him some money with which he’s now doing business”. Then the NPP came and they said, “Now the man’s NPP”. Others said “no he’s NDC” then the NPP began to come after Unique Trust. Even in football, Hearts of Oak is supposed to be NDC while Ashanti Kotoko is NPP. What kind of a country is this? I do not waste my time talking to politicians because it all is ignored. People ask me why I even talk when I have built a company and I am okay and things like that. I am not after bread and butter. It’s when you leave your house in the morning, you meet the first traffic light, and you see your fellow human being begging among the traffic. You see the look of desperation in some of their eyes. You look around and see filth and you imagine the opportunities that we have. You can’t just say you won’t do anything. Your hearts bleeds for the people. That is why some of us talk. Unfortunately, for some people if it’s not in favour of the government of the day then you’re against the government. It is sad. Ghana is even better than some other African countries because I know their cultures are worse and they abuse their people more than we do ours. Nevertheless, ours is still very bad.
You seem to have a feeling for the underprivileged, what have you done to alleviate suffering among the underprivileged populace. I don’t think there’s much that I can do. Most times, I’m not even sure I’m doing the right thing. One of the few things that give me pleasure is when I look at the faces of my staff and see that the about two hundred and fifty people who I employ have a means of livelihood, self-respect and are able to feed their families and relatives. I look at the investments that we’ve made and the interests that we’ve paid higher than treasury bills. We’ve paid pensioners and organizations we know that we’ve added more valuable to them. I look at the people we have given loans to and the numerous businesses that we’ve saved not withstanding what anybody says. And I know the individuals who are benefiting from our services so that gives me some satisfaction that I’m putting something back into the system. I look at the taxes that we’ve paid; for 2005 we paid c10 billion in taxes that were supposed to go into the Consolidated Fund to help the government disburse as it deems fit. Even though I have my problems as to how it is disbursed. I look at the corporate social responsibility work that we do whereby we give to orphanages. If you look at what the average person is suffering, then the underprivileged people need to be pitied. Even those of us who have jobs are complaining then I say what about those who are crippled, blind theirs would be pitiful. So we try to give something to them in the special homes. We went to the National Trauma Centre where people are lying on the floor and spent about c600 million trying to rehabilitate it. We also adopted it because it’ll be rundown again before you know it. How much can one company formed under just ten years do? There should be more companies like us if the system is functioning properly so that there would be lots more taxes for the government to collect and take care of its citizens. But there are only a few success stories.
Let me take you up on that. You started ten years ago and are now the second best indigenous company in Ghana, how then did you develop so well if you accuse the same system of being so unruly? You might say I’m a bit crazy but I teach people and say be realistic. Don’t listen to what people tell because that’s not the truth most of the time. Our upbringing in Africa is even wrong because we were brought up to fear authority. The father is coming to the house and the children have to run and hide. The father is never wrong even when he’s being stupid. Moreover, even if there is any misunderstanding you have to beg your father. You see that we grow up fearing authority, not challenging the status quo and being timid. This is our way of life. When I was growing up people believed I was a truant who didn’t respect authority and all supposing things. But the good side is that if the boss is wrong I can say so. He can fool all of us but even though I can’t do anything I’ll tell him that he’s wrong. Most people take it that the government is trying but I believe the government is doing absolutely nothing. If you want to develop a people you start with information about the people. This is a country where we don’t even have addresses so the government doesn’t even have a clue where the people live. How do you say you develop such a people? So the tax man is limited and the government doesn’t know what is required where; it doesn’t know what to take from where and therefore is not capable of developing the people. I was realistic about the country’s situation so I did my own investigations by going to the markets and knew how they were suffering when it came to accessing loans. My own experience put me in touch with the banks and I knew that the banks weren’t treating clients properly and were not responding to the needs of the people. It hit me and I said I’m going to do what the banks are supposed to do in a different efficient way. In those days you had to listen to people and try and solve their needs because business is about trying to satisfy the needs of people. If you don’t respect people you can’t even think of what is worrying them to determine what their needs are. When you look at someone, you should be thinking about how to improve his life. That is when business starts nurturing. We started with these goals in mind. I said I was going to do loans for 15% a month and people thought I was crazy but I knew that people were given loans in the market at 30-50 % a month. So I said if I can give loans to people at 15%, I’ve saved them something. People said nobody would take a loan at 15% but I knew it was possible. I started giving out money at 84% per annum and I knew that with discipline I would still have a margin. As situations improved, I narrowed down interest to a situation where we now give out loans at between 3-8% per month. You have to be realistic and stay focused on the job. The problem is that our culture will always take you away from your job. As soon as you start making some money, employing one or two people, everybody will zoom on you. They will want to make you chief, there is a funeral here you should attend, you want to look after your brother, your mother wants this and the money you have to invest in the business is being frittered away. You have to know this culture is wrong. I would not spend the money that is supposed to grow the business to do something else. People even borrow money to satisfy cultural demands or societal pressures. That is wrong. That is how we have been brought up. Only a few people would be realistic and say “what is happening to me is wrong and I wouldn’t go that way”.
Do people come to ask for loans to do burials? Yes, people come to take loans for so many frivolous things. A guy came here to borrow money because every summer he has to go to Europe for summer with his wife, three kids and a help. Therefore, that year he came here to borrow money to buy tickets because his money was not ready. It was what was expected of him so he needed to take a loan to fulfill his obligations. I asked myself what are their priorities. We always want people to see us in a certain respectable light. I do not care what people think about me. I just focus on my goals. The society makes unnecessary demands that people unfortunately cave in. How difficult is it retrieving loans from defaulters? It is very difficult. However, in giving loans, you just do not give money to everybody who walks into the office seeking one and then you go after them after a month to collect the money, no. it requires understanding the person, getting the truth about the need for the money and if they will use the money for that. Once you establish contact with a client and he/she tells you exactly what their situation is, and then you are at the beginning of trying to give a good loan. Then you have to use your better education and knowledge of the business to evaluate the business the client has told you about. Factor in the cost of the interest to the business and ensure that the client will make a profit or his position will improve. You have to agree with the client that this will be the result if he agrees to do what we say we will do with the moneys. The client says yes I am happy with it, I will abide by it thank you very much before we go into giving the loan. There is some mutual understanding about how much money we are giving out, what the money is supposed to do and the probable problems that will occur. Many people after doing the type of business they wanted to do and making the money start having ideas different ideas. Therefore, you have to be there to monitor and pick up the money when it comes in. if your monitor and evaluation is good, you will do good loans. However, you still have people in the system who will come in and lie or people who tell the truth but as soon as they leave the office, they turn around as need that is more urgent arises and they divert the money. In that situation, I really do not have a problem. My issue is that when they have disrespected you and the cause for which you gave them the money, they should come back and tell you that something went wrong and I could not stay by what we agreed. The typical Ghanaian would put off their phone and not stay in their house trying to avoid you. I have put my telephone number at all of our offices saying if you have a problem, you should call me directly. You do not call me; we call you but get no response, we have a responsibility to the owners of the money then we come after you.
So you enforce retrieval of the loans. The point is that these very disrespectful crooks and cheats in the system know that the system can be manipulated, because if you take them to the police station they can bribe their way, the court system is slow and adjournments can last up to three years. They misapply the money and try to use the weak system to their advantage. we have our own problems but I believe we are one of the companies who deal with them better than the others.
How do you go to bed at night knowing that you have taken away a family’s livelihood while retrieving a defaulted loan? I sleep very well. I am a very happy person. The only time a relationship will start between a client and us is when we have analyzed the client’s desperate situation and taken other people’s money to give to this client. For such an action, nobody can say we are bad people for giving money fast to people in desperate situations with feeling and respect. Ninety five per cent of the people pay back and are grateful. The other 5% who lack respect for civility want to abuse our trust and say we are bad people. However, I sleep very well at night knowing my God is behind me. When people walk in here and ask us for a loan bringing along a guarantee, they are simply saying you can liquidate this thing if do not pay you.
At the end of the day if this person cannot pay and they ask for a little more time, what do you do? I am saying that come back and tell us you have a problem. I welcome all of them. I respect people because I have a soft side that most people do not know. I want people to be truthful about their conditions. If you come back and tell me about the situation then I am ready to help you figure something out.
People respect you for what you have achieved in the country because you have turned adversary into something great. Don’t you think that people like you ought to stand up for positions of leadership in this country? Why are the good men standing down when they should be counted? You need to listen to some opinions about me before you make such conclusions.
The young people look up to you because you inspire them. They are in the minority. Ghanaians do not like the truth. If you say the truth too much and you are disrespectful and do not like the party or the big man, they take you as the enemy. I would not venture into politics by myself, ever. I know that the way I talk and say the truth, majority of the people will not want to vote for me. I am smart enough to know that. In a situation where the majority of the Ghanaians cannot stand the truth, I know it will be a waste of time. If I have to put myself up to serve the people, I know I will put in my best so you bet that I will never bribe anybody to vote for me. You cannot win elections in Ghana without paying and telling them lies.
In essence, you would run for president if a party adopts you. No party would adopt me. I do not think like them. I have found it refreshing that somebody like Professor Frimpong Boateng will put himself up for president. I’m praying and hoping there will be some miracle from somewhere to see that he’s a genuine guy who can change Ghana. Many people were surprised that you supported him. He is the only person worth my support. People are not realistic anymore. Here’s someone who has excelled in the medical profession, in the cardio surgical field, with a high IQ and he says he wants to replicate his success for his people. he’s been named a bad person because Ghanaians always call a good person bad. If we’re realistic, there’s not another candidate who can stand up to him among the lot. We say we are developing so we don’t need him but if we realize we’re not developing but going backwards then we’ll realize we need a different person and not the usual breed of politicians because they have only succeeded in bringing us backwards. You think the political jobbers are just wasting our time. I will not say they’re wasting our time but that they don’t know what it takes to develop people and they get side tracked by the cultural demands on them. For example, the president has to go to a funeral every weekend. We have only 24 hours in a day, how can you go and spend hours at a funeral? I do not get it. In addition, he has to go with a convoy of about 40 cars in a show of strength because that makes him popular.
In essence, you are not friends with the president. I have not met him before and have never shaken hands with him. I only see him from afar.
What if you had an opportunity to have an audience with him, what would you tell or advise him? The presidency is an institution you cannot but respect. I am a trained soldier and we take seriously rank and position. I do not think the president will need my advice because he has many people around him who he has trusted for so long and would not now come to ask for my advice. One thing I assure is that if he ever asked for my view, they will not be dressed up at all. They will be as raw as I am talking to you.
So if you ever came into a position of authority, how will we know that you would not sing another tune? Then they would have to listen to hard truth all the time. Moreover, I know I will not last because they would probably sack or kill me.
Graduate of University of Lagos and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. Chief Editor, Goal.com Nigeria edition. Former Online Editor and West African Correspondent based in Ghana for TELL Magazine, Lagos. Alumnus International Institute of Journalism (INWENT), Berlin; Reuters Foundation and Agence France Presse (AFP) Foundation. Photographs published in USAToday, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, AllAfrica.com, The Guardian, ThisDay, The Punch, Showbiz and Daily Graphic (Ghana). Photos exhibited in Krakow, Poland. Nominee Journalist of the year at The Future Awards, Nigeria 2010.