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Next Finance Minister: Will Ken Ofori-Atta break one-term cycle?

BY: Maxwell Akalaare Adombila

Since the coming into force of the Fourth Republic in January 1993, no Finance Minister has served in office for the full two terms of a President. Will the immediate past minister, Mr Ken Ofori-Atta, be the exception?

An economist and investment banker, Mr Ofori-Atta made his mark in the private sector before retiring in February 2012. He then dedicated his all to the election bid of then candidate Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and his party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP).

Now in government as the eighth Finance Minister since 1993, the co-founder of Databank Financial Services and a Henry Crown Fellow could break the unwritten code in the country that has seen new faces walk into the ministry as political heads in almost every new term of a President.

History beckons

Although Professor Kwesi Botchwey served as Finance Minister for 13 years nonstop, a greater part of those years were under military regime. Under the Fourth Republic, Prof. Botchwey was only Minister of Finance between January 1993 and 1995 before he handed over to Mr Richard Kwame Peprah, who served in that capacity until January 2001. 

Since then, all Finance Ministers (Messrs Yaw Osafo Maafo, Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu, Anthony Akoto Osei, Kwabena Duffuor and Seth Terkper) served for a maximum of four years, with Dr Akoto Osei, who replaced Baah-Wiredu, serving the shortest period.

Thus, should President Akufo-Addo reappoint Mr Ofori-Atta as Finance Minister, the latter will be on his way to breaking the pattern that all finance ministers have suffered since the advent of the 1992 Constitution.

It will also set him up on becoming the second longest serving Finance Minister in independent Ghana, should he remain in that position until the end of the President’s tenure in January 2025 (without prejudice to the election petition at the Supreme Court).

Technocrats’ job

Should Mr Ofori-Atta be retained as Finance Minister?

Finance ministries the world over are critical institutions of every political set up, given the sensitive roles they play in national development and governance.

This has made their occupants people of interest and a sensitive part of the political echelon in every dispensation.

As managers of the national purse, finance ministers are the centres of attraction who liaise with the members of their government to raise funds and fund programmes and policies.

They are mostly allies, loyalists and trusted confidants of the President and command respect from the ruling party, with clout that transcends domestic borders. More like a requirement, they must exude some political confidence and carry with them an aura that draws faith from and makes it easier for individual and corporate citizens to entrust their taxes, the sovereign wealth and the power to raise funds and spend same in the government through them.

Finance ministers must also pass for good financial disciplinarians with distinct tactics and personal relation attributes that make it easier for them to deal with all the egos in government without bruising any.

Needless to say that these explain why most finance ministers in Ghana’s history and elsewhere have been technocrats rather than core politicians.

Ken’s case

As a cousin of the President, insiders say Mr Ofori-Atta’s loyalty to Nana Akufo-Addo and the party is not in doubt.

The President’s perceived trust and faith in him is also public knowledge. While announcing his nomination as Finance Minister four years ago, Nana Akufo-Addo described him as an experienced financial expert with “the capacity and insight to move modern economies.”

He is also on record to have described him as “a magician,” “amazingly capable” and “a highly patriotic” minister.

Now, with a second term mandate at hand, President Akufo-Addo will be assessing his views against the realities as he decides on whether or not to retain the minister.

When it comes to deliverables, posterity will be the better judge of Mr Ofori-Atta although analysts say his policies on growth, the deficit, debt, public accounting methodologies and the handling of the financial sector and energy crises will weigh in heavily.

Peculiar test

Some economists also intimate that while these will be critical in deciding whether or not to retain him, the peculiar nature of the circumstances makes Mr Ofori-Atta’s strengths his weaknesses and vice versa.

The President is faced with a hung Parliament headed by an apposition Speaker at a time when the havoc from the COVID-19 pandemic is still swelling up.

What happens at the Ministry of Finance, which is the anchor institution of his vision, will play a significant role in crystalising his ideals into legacies and loosening the political tensions and rigidities at play now.

More than ever, the President needs people in charge of sensitive positions who can appeal to internal and opposition interests and earn consensus for implementation of key policies such as the budget, bills and agreements.

As the President’s cousin, Mr Ofori-Atta passes the confidant test but not the consensus builder one, especially with opposition politicians.

His relationship with the President puts him in an awkward position and his controversial spats with opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) over the past four years make interesting recalling, especially under the current political architecture.

New thinking

Then comes the viewpoint from some keen followers that the ministry deserves a fresh direction, given the economic quagmire the country finds itself in now.

Plunged into its first recession in almost four decades with borrowing no longer an option, a debt overhang that has breached major sustainability thresholds, a deficit target of 11.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and revenue growths stunted, some experts feel a new direction is urgent.

“We need a whole new thinking,” an Economist, Dr Said Boakye, said, explaining that “the trajectory we are going, where borrowing is high but normalised, is not good for the economy.”

Instructively, a change at the ministry will intrigue the local and the financial markets and almost everybody will take time to grasps what such a decision about a man so close to the President means.

Arguably, an avenue to infuse fresh thinking into the ministry, it could be read as a signal of a paradigm shift in economic management.

Whatever the case, the jury on whether it should be continuity or change at the Finance Ministry is still out there until an announcement is made.

Thus, as the President settles to announce his appointees, what happens at the Ministry of Finance will be watched with keen eyes.

As one NPP stalwart and economist, Mr Kwame Pianim, said in an interview, this is a decision for the President and only him can make it.

“He must be allowed to appoint who he deems professionally competent and has the integrity and trust to help him deal with the fallouts of COVID-19 and the other challenges,” he added.

If it is Mr Ofori-Atta, it is a record. If it is a new person, then the one-term cycle continues.