Xenophobia is a Luxury Ghana Cannot Afford

"Why can't we just get along?"

“Why can’t we just get along?” Fujian man and his Ethiopian wife

Yesterday I heard someone say my landlord hates the Chinese.  It was no secret she was referring to me.

I find that kind of talk both understandable yet counter-productive.

The legacy of colonialism seems to have made Ghanaians suspicious of all foreigners.  We are all labelled obruni.  No one seems to agree on a single definition but it can mean “white man”, “foreigner”, or “from beyond the sea”.  Thus, someone who is European, African-American, or Chinese could all be called obruni.  (Meanwhile, the Ghanaians may refer to themselves as obibini or “black person”.)

Ghanaians think they are being friendly when they call out, “Obruni!”  To them, it’s the equivalent of “Hello!” or “Good Morning!” I don’t find it offensive but I do think it gets to be annoying after the 30th time. Sometimes, I think maybe I should start calling out to the fat and stout people, “Obolobo!” as a greeting.  I don’t know their name so I’m using something descriptive.  The use of the term “obruni” is just an example of how Ghanaian society demarcates “the Other” from what is homegrown.

I think Ghanaians believe that the foreigners have come to the country to exploit the resources and the people.  Earlier this year in May and June, the government cracked down and deported nearly 5,000 Chinese involved in illegal gold mining (aka galamsey) in the Ashanti region.  The government and the media complained that the Chinese were practicing mechanized gold mining that was polluting the waterways.  This made it difficult for local farmers to irrigate and harvest their crops.

When I consider Chinese using machines to extract gold as fast as possible while polluting waterways, I think, “Yep, that sounds like those mainland Chinese.”  These are the same people who are able to manufacture cheaper than anyone in the world and who flood global markets with knock-offs.  Human rights and the environment are not big priorities for them.

But I also ask myself, how can 5,000 Chinese in Ghana even begin their operations?  It’s not like one day there are none and the next day their is a small city full of them.  Some Ghanaians would have noticed.  The Chinese had to obtain tacit or explicit approval from the tribal chiefs to move all that equipment onto those lands.

I see the anti-Chinese sentiment roused by the government and the media as an all-to-familiar example of those in power blaming foreigners for their economic woes.  In the 1990s, California passed Proposition 187 limiting illegal immigrants access to social services.  Among the Chinese, it is known that Indonesians’s resentment of the Chinese merchant class can lead to periodic waves of murders and rapes.  Even tiny Singapore is currently going through its own period of xenophobia.  They are taking all the jobs!

Many foreigners — Europeans, Chinese, and other Africans — complain that the Ghanaians want to “chop” their money.  “Chop” in the colloquial language refer to eating, e.g. “I’m going to chop [lunch].”

My understanding of the xenophobia is limited by my understanding of how Ghana’s economy works.  (Ghana’s GDP is around $40B.)

First, nearly everything in this country is imported.  Typically, Ghanaian entrepreneurs or traders (import/export) go to China to buy goods then ship them to Ghana for resale.  According to the CIA World Factbook, 25 percent of imports come from China; Nigeria comes in second with 11 percent — I bet most of that is oil;  the US is third with 7 percent.  In 2012, the country imported $17.6 billion

Since Ghana’s exports are mostly gold and cocoa, prices are set by world markets. In 2012, the country exported $13.4 billion.  Thus, the country had a trade deficit of $4.2 billion ($13.4B – $17.6B).  It’s primary export partners are:

  • France: 13.3 percent
  • Italy: 12.1 percent
  • The Netherlands: 8.7 percent
  • China: 7.2 percent
  • Germany: 4.2 percent

Second, Ghana needs help from outside.  It is classified as a highly indebted poor country (HIPC) or those with “high levels of poverty and debt overhang which are eligible for special assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.”  Most of the countries in this list are African because this status is closely tied to colonialism.  Note: China never colonized Africa!

Thus, Ghana benefits from the charity of others, e.g. the US, IMF, World Bank, China.  Bloomberg News reported in 2012 that the Export-Import Bank of China loaned Ghana $6B for social infrastructure, e.g. education, health, electricity and water projects.  This is in addition to a $3 billion loan facility from the China Development Bank for oil development.

Third, the Ghanaian economy is a “jack of all trades.”  Fortunately, it does not suffer from “Dutch disease” or an over-reliance on natural resources.  Prior to 2007 when oil was discovered, Ghana’s earned foreign currency through the export of gold and cocoa.

Meanwhile, the country is not a powerhouse in any particular sector except for cocoa.  (Relying on an agricultural commodity is not a recipe for economic growth.)  Due it’s reputation for political stability, foreign companies entered Ghana to set up regional headquarters to support their activities in West Africa.  Multinational companies that seem focused on earning revenues from Ghana — not West Africa — include Nestle, Unilever, PZ Cussons, Vodafone, MTN (telecom), Gold Fields (South Africa), Guiness, Ecobank.

One of the things I know Ghanaians do not like about the Chinese is the perception that they are racist.  They think that the Chinese think they are superior to the Ghanaians.  Hmmm…  They may have a point.

But I do know that many Chinese are frustrated by Ghanaian “laziness”.  The Chinese come from a culture where people work 12 hour days, 6 days a week.  But the Chinese are not alone in their frustration with the Ghanaians.  Ask any foreigner about the challenges of working with Ghanaians — be ready for a mouthful.  I spoke with an Irishman on Monday night and he was “amazed” (in a bad way) by the Ghanaian work habits.  He said that Ghanaians do not respect how dangerous a construction site can be.  Dying on site is an acceptable risk.

Jubilee Oil Fields

Many people are making noise about how the oil discovery will benefit the country.  It seems Tullow Oil’s projections for the main oil field, Jubilee, is coming up short.  For 2012, Tullow projected that the government would receive $650 million in oil revenues but actual figures were less than $240 million.  For the first 9 months of 2013, oil production averaged 102,000 bpd.  The government  projects that production will rise to 120,000 bpd in 2014.

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa.  For comparison’s sake, Nigeria’s current production is 2.5 million bpd or 25 times greater than Ghana’s.  Nigeria’s population is about 6 times larger.  Ghana is a long way from becoming an oil major.

I’ve determined that only the Nigerians encourage more resentment than the Chinese.  “Nigerian” is practically a four-letter word here.  The Chinese may be stealing our gold but the Nigerians are responsible for fraud and all the armed robberies that go on in the country. (I know Nigerians who lie about their origins to ward of prejudice.)

Considering how reliant the country is on foreign aid and foreign direct investment, I do not think the Ghanaians have the luxury to make their country less hospitable to foreigners.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The verdict on my driver | obolobo

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