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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

I had the opportunity to visit the West African state of Ghana to observe the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections held in December 2012, and would like to share my experience. Let me begin with an overview of Africa. Africa is the second largest continent, with 53 independent countries, and its people speak a variety of languages. Its dramatic landscapes include arid deserts, humid rainforests, and the valley of the East African rift which is, according to scientific studies, the place from where human species originated. It is from Africa that humans spread to Europe and rest of the world.

We are familiar with North Africa, which lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert and comprises of Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. North Africa’s history dates back to the dawn of civilization and Egypt are considered world’s oldest civilization. Anthropologists have proved that settlements were established 6,000 years ago, along the banks of the river Nile and since that time, waves of settlers, including Romans, Arabs and Turks have brought a mix of different cultures to the area. However by the time Egyptian civilization was known to the world, most of Africa was cut off from Egypt by the Sahara Desert around 3,200 BC.

By 5,000 BC, farming had spread to North Africa, at that time Sahara Desert was a fertile land. Gradually it dried and became a desert. The effects of climate change is as old as mankind and this cycle is repeating during our present time at a much faster pace and that is why today the world is seriously concerned with the climatic change knocking at our doors due to excessive use of natural resources. This is evident with the melting of ice and the rise of sea level will definitely affect the coast lines of Bangladesh.

In order to revisit the past, let me briefly touch on a few historical facts. In 814 BC the Phoenicians from present day Lebanon founded the city of Carthage in Tunisia. Carthage later fought wars with Rome and in 202 BC the Romans defeated the Carthaginians at the battle of Zama. In 146 BC Rome destroyed the city of Carthage and made its territory part of their empire. At the same time, Egyptian influence spread along the Nile and the Kingdom of Nubian and Kush arose in what is now Sudan. By 100 AD, the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia was highly civilized and well known to the world. Axum traded with Rome, Arabia and the India subcontinent and the people of Axum converted to Christianity in 4th century AD. The Roman Empire continued to extend beyond Europe and in 30 BC. Egypt became its province and Morocco was absorbed in 42 AD. The vast Sahara Desert was cut off from the rest of Africa from Roman expansion.

In 642 AD the Arab Muslims conquered Egypt, and in 700 AD they also conquered Tunis and Carthage, and soon after, controlled the entire coast of North Africa, and converted whole of North Africa to Islam. Only Ethiopia remained as the Christian kingdom and was cut off from Christian Europe. After 800 AD, organized kingdoms emerged in North Africa. The Arab traded with Africa, which led to the spread of Islam to other parts of Africa. Arab merchants brought luxury goods and salt, and in return they purchased gold and slaves.

The Europeans founded their first colonies in Africa in the 16th century with the Portuguese settled in Angola and Mozambique. The Dutch founded its colony in South Africa in 1652, which Britain took over in 1814. In 1830 the French invaded northern Algeria.

Colonization became serious in the late 19th century when Europeans ‘carved up’ Africa. In 1884 the Germans colonized Namibia, Togo and Cameroon and in 1885 Tanzania. In 1885 Belgium colonized Congo. The French moved to Madagascar in 1896 and also expanded their empire in northern Africa and colonized Morocco in 1912. Italy took over Libya, and by late 19th century Europeans colonized most of Africa. The European states tried to stop the slave trade with Britain banning the slave trade in 1807.

In 1914 the British took control of Egypt. By then all of Africa was in European hands except Liberia and Ethiopia. The Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1896 but the Ethiopians defeated them. Further South the British took Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda and Kenya. Angola and Mozambique remained Portuguese colonies.

However in the early 20th century attitudes to imperialism began to change in Europe. Churches, along with spreading Christians, provided schools and increasing numbers of Africans were educated in Europe. The movement for African independence gained momentum and in the 1950s and 60s most African countries became independent. In 1960 alone, 17 countries gained independence and in 1975 Mozambique and Angola also became independent.

As mentioned earlier, I visited Ghana as an Election Observer, and want to share my observation about Ghana. It was one of the earliest African kingdoms, and included parts of Mali and Mauritania as well as present Ghana. By the 9th century, Ghana was called the land of gold and was known as Gold Coast. However Ghana lost its glory in the 11th century by the invaders from the north.

Ghana was the first place in sub-Sahara Africa where Europeans arrived to trade in gold, and later in slaves. It was also the first black African nation in the region to achieve independence from colonial power. Despite being rich in mineral resources and endowed with a good education system and efficient civil service, Ghana fell victim to corruption and mismanagement soon after independence in 1957. Later in 1966 the police and the military coup deposed the President and pan-African hero, Kwame Nkrumah up heralding years of mostly military rule. In 1981 Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, having a Scottish mother, staged a second coup, and was later instrumental in taking the country towards economic stability and multi-party democracy.

In April 1992, a Constitution allowing for a multi-party system was approved in a referendum, ushering in a period of democracy. Today Ghana is a well-administered country by regional standards, and is often seen as a model for political and economic reform in Africa. Cocoa exports are an essential part of the economy and is the world’s second-largest producer. The discovery of major offshore oil reserves in June 2007, encouraging expectations, led to a major economic growth. Oil production began in 2010, but some analysts expressed concern over the country’s ability to manage its new industry. It appears that the oil sector is still being developed. Bangladesh could update its policy for oil and gas exploration and production in line with countries that have recently updated the policies to maximize benefit and gain confident for foreign investment in the sector. My comments are based on experience of working with an international oil company at the early stage of Bangladesh’s independence and familiar with the sector.

Bangladesh’s economic diplomacy in Africa has vast potential. We need to introduce our young graduates from agriculture institutes to be involved in managing cash crops. Our pharmaceutical and readymade garments have good prospects in Africa.

The overview assessment of the December 2012 elections in Ghana by national and international observers was largely positive on the conduct of the election and the poll conducted by a respected local observer and their findings of the final result of the Presidential election reflected the Election Commissions official result. However, the main opposition party did make allegations regarding irregularities in the tabulation of the result and indicated that it will undertake a legal challenge. The Dec 2012 elections in Ghana met the benchmarks for democratic elections. However the aspects of the administrative system and the environment for the polls can still be improved.

Shahed Akhtar is a former Bangladesh diplomat and analyst.