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Ghana's forgotten oil

December 6, 2016

Oil was a major campaign issue during Ghana's last elections four years ago. But this time around, no one's talking about it. A sector once regarded with hope now seems too complicated and insignificant to fight for.

Ghana Ölindustrie
Image: imago/Xinhua

These days, Ghanaian radios constantly blare out campaign adverts for the presidential elections on December 7. The streets of Ghana's capital, Accra, are plastered with huge placards depicting the candidates. But there is one issue seldom talked about in this campaign: offshore oil. Just four years ago, oil was making headlines in Ghana, as Ishmael Edjekumhene recalls. The chief executive of the technology firm KITE (Kumasi Institute of Technology, Energy and Environment), which researches sustainable development in the energy sector, told DW that the parties have hardly touched upon the issue this time around: "The government said that part of the income should be invested in a national health insurance. The main opposition party wants oil revenues to finance infrastructure projects. That's all."

When oil reserves were found in 2007, they triggered a real production fever and serious hopes for important additional revenues. Jerry Sam, Director of Programs at the NGO Pen Plus Bytes, described the topic as too technical and lacking in transparency. His organization aims to change this by using the internet to explain the issues. "We are in a dialogue with civil society to ensure that people are better informed on this subject."

Ghana Präsidentschaftswahlen Wahlwerbung
The ruling party says that many jobs were created in the oil sectorImage: DW/K. Gänsler

Getting informed 

Jerry Sam recommended that Ghanaians do not wait for politicians to take the initiative. "People should question politicians and demand explanations. For instance, if politicians say they are going to invest oil revenues in agriculture, what do they mean by that? What is the percentage?" But Sam's hopes that oil would turn into a key topic in the election campaign have been dashed.    

There is another reason for that: Ghana's Center for Political Analysis (CEPA) estimates that production will stagnate, and even begin to fall, as early as 2018. Today, sober estimates have taken the place of initial enthusiasm. Ishmael Edjekumhene believes that crude oil has a relatively low impact on the economy: "If you take a look at the quantities it is obvious that oil's share in Gross National Product wasn't significant. The best year was 2014, when it reached almost ten percent."  

Ghana Präsidentschaftswahlen Wahlkampf
The election campaign is in full swingImage: DW/K. Gänsler

No jobs for young Ghanaians

Nevertheless, the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDC) campaign never tires of claiming that the oil industry created many jobs. Oil minister Emmanuel Armah Kofi Buah puts the number at 5700. But according to the World Bank, almost half of 15 to 24-year-old Ghanaians do not have a steady job. The oil industry has failed to turn into a job motor. And unemployment is a key issue in the election campaign and in Ghanaians' lives.

There is someone who is still pinning his hopes on the oil sector. 36-year-old Nii Nai Mensah works in IT, but is planning to train professionally for the oil and gas sector. "My experience in IT will allow me to offer services like developing software which can be used locally," he told DW. 

Benefits and social responsibility

Ghana Präsidentschaftswahlen Nii Nai Mensah
Nii Nik Mensah believes in the oil sector's potentialImage: DW/K. Gänsler

Mensah believes that getting young people to work in oil production will help protect the industry by creating a sense of social responsibility. Those who benefit from the commodity will not fight against the sector, as happened in other places in the region. Nigeria's Niger Delta with its numerous conflicts around oil is the negative example Ghana should avoid, Mensah said.

But when asked which presidential candidates he trusts to use oil revenues in a way that will benefit the population - incumbent John Dramani Mahama or his main rival, Nana Akufo-Addo - Nii Nau Mensah just smiled and quipped: "The ballot is secret." On the eve of elections, the race is still very close.

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