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Ghana in my heart: Outgoing US Ambassador

BY: Mary Mensah
 Mary Mensah (right), Foreign Editor of the Daily Graphic, interviewing Ambassador Stephanie S. Sulliva. Picture: ESTHER ADJORKOR ADJEI
Mary Mensah (right), Foreign Editor of the Daily Graphic, interviewing Ambassador Stephanie S. Sulliva. Picture: ESTHER ADJORKOR ADJEI

 The US Ambassador to Ghana, Stephanie S. Sullivan (SS), has completed three and a half years of duty in the country. Mrs Sullivan, who assumed duty in September 2018, initiated a number of bilateral interests which have gone a long way to deepen US-Ghana relations. She has championed issues on gender violence and child abuse which she is passionate about.

Some of the key interests include the fight against COVID-19, agro-processing, pharmaceuticals, the automotive industry and digitisation.

The US Ambassador is, however, leaving on Saturday, April 9, 2022 after a three and half years duty tour. The Foreign Editor of the Daily Graphic, Mary Mensah (MM), caught up with the ambassador who granted this interview. Below are excerpts.

Mary Mensah (MM): Ambassador Sullivan, It’s a privilege to interact with you before your d

Stephanie S. Sullivan (SS): Yes that is correct, my family and I lived in Ghana from 1997 to 2001 when I worked as the Chief of the Political Section of the US Embassy in Accra. During that time, I came to appreciate the men and women’s football in Ghana so I’m wishing the Black Stars success in their match today.

I have love for sports so I got involved with female football and actually trained with the Postcom Ladies at the time and the United States hosted women’s World Cup in 1999. Most people don’t know that Ghana’s first entry into the World Cup ever was not the Black Stars, it was the Black Queens.

I trained with them, I was not even fit to polish their boots but they tolerated me. It was a really wonderful opportunity for me to make good friends and understand a very important part about the Ghanaian culture.

(MM): Is soccer the only sport you’re interested in?

(SS): I’m generally a sportswoman. I’m currently the reigning national champion in Ghana in squash for women. Most days, I wear a flag pin close to my heart. It had the flag of Ghana and the flag of the US. It was like coming home for us so we were very excited to have this opportunity for me to return to Ghana as an ambassador.

(MM): How long have you been in Ghana as an ambassador? Were you here with your entire family?

(SS): It will be more than three years and three months when we depart in a couple of weeks. Our small boys have all grown up to become big boys now and living their independent lives but they come and visit from time to time, but my husband has been with me all this while. When we were here previously, he did teach for a year at GIL and it has been wonderful to run into former students of his. Now he is very involved in environmental activities, photography groups and other endeavours.

(MM): You’re leaving Ghana at a time when the world is battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Has the global pandemic impacted positively or negatively on global affairs, especially in US relations to Ghana?

(SS): We are more than two years into it now and I’m so grateful that scientific strides have been made that have enabled us to be vaccinated. The US is the largest partner with sub-Saharan Africa in public health arena specifically with COVID-19. Whether it has to do with providing vaccines or breathing apparatus such as ventilators. In fact, we donated 50 ventilators to Ghana, four oxygen plants for regional hospitals in Ghana. We have done a lot throughout Africa and specifically in Ghana with addressing the immediate effects and also the second and third other economic effects. So it in fact offered another opportunity to strengthen our partnership and relationship.

(MM): How can the global community be able to prevent future pandemics?

(SS): One of the things the US has been focused on is the kind of early warning system of preventing and detecting the pandemics so unfortunately, it’s likely there would be more pandemics in our lifetime.
And it may not be a mutation of COVID-19 and that is one of the reasons why it is so important for people to get vaccinated, even though it seems like the pandemic has subsided, it is to deny the COVID-19 virus the opportunity to mutate into a more potentially deadly form.

Even once it ceases to be a danger, there are so many different viruses in the forests and as we deplete the forests, it’s not only bad for the environment, it threatens the climate crisis even more but it provides the opportunity for some of these zoonotic diseases to emerge, such as Ebola and the others.
So I think the lesson we have learnt during Ebola and now with COVID-19 is how to keep ourselves safe which is very important to keep in mind going into the future.

Ambassador Stephanie S. Sullivan dancing to traditional drumming during a tour of the Northern Region of Ghana

(MM): The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused devastation throughout the global community with shortage of fuel, food among others. Going forward, what advise would you give the global community to prevent the occurrence of invasions in the future?

(SS): Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a war of choice, Putin’s choice. It’s not the Russian people who support it. We support the people and the government of Ukraine in their sovereignty and their territorial integrity.
Ghana has really stepped up in global leadership on the stage of the United Nations, as a member of the security council re-enforcing the support for Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

So sanctions are used as a method in the global community to try to mitigate bad behaviour and also prevent future occurrences but it’s really quite shocking it was broadcasted in advance through intelligence sources and what Putin has done has turned the world upside down on top of a two year pandemic and the food security challenges throughout the world is no joke.
We would really ask that all the countries in the world as members of the UN general assembly unite in condemning this unprovoked and unwarranted aggression.

(MM): What is the current focus of US-Ghana bilateral relations?

(SS): There have been several areas of focus. We have a tremendous team here at the embassy that works in the economics and development area, regional security area and accountable governance area. So we continue our focus on all these areas.
We have talked a little bit about public health but we also have the President Emergency Programme for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which is in its 28th year now and is a tremendous example of a good programme that one political party president came up with and when the next political party president arrived on the scene, they asked questions and said it was a really good thing so let’s double the budget.

So it went from a republican programme to a democratic programme followed by another republican programme that’s supported and now another democratic president who is supporting it and I’ll like to use that as an example of how we all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and try to go forward with development by building on what has come before and not worrying about whose idea it was.

In the accountable governance, I am pleased that I was able to observe for the second time, a peaceful election day in Ghana and saw credible elections because I was here in 2000. But as part of accountable governance, we are still looking forward to the results of the investigations into the violence that followed the election day in 2020. We have done a lot with the media, a lot of training with journalists about coverage of elections.

We have done training related to accessibility and disability issues and also we are very focused on the growing menace of misinformation and disinformation which is very damaging. The speed of social media can really derail things and people need to understand and develop discernment about what makes sense and doesn’t. Just say no to “Konkonsa”

(MM): On investment partnership in Africa, especially Ghana, where are we ?

(SS): On a continental level, we have a lot of programmes such as the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act which remains in place till 2025. We are very excited about our growing partnership with the AfCFTA Secretariat located here in Accra but with tremendous impact and potential to have a market of 1.3 billion people so we are looking forward to developing that relationship here. We also have programmes such as PROSPER Africa that unites the whole of government’s effort to advance economic relationships with Africa and in my tenure here since 2018, we have doubled the two-way trade between Ghana and the US despite the pandemic.

So there is a lot of excitement and I think investors look at what is happening on the ground and how businesses that are already there are operating and it is so important that the rhetoric about the investment climate be matched with the reality on the ground because new investors will talk to people who are already on the ground and if they are having a good experience, feel there is contract sanctity, level playing in field, transparency, accountability, fair trade practices , others will come.
If the people currently on the ground aren’t experiencing that flourishing investment climate, they will talk to the ones who are interested with predictable results.

(MM): What do you think Ghana should do to position itself to attract the needed investment for development?

(SS): Ghana needs to take a serious look at having the operating environment that the businesses experience match the very positive rhetoric.

(MM): What’s your take on government flagship programme, Ghana beyond aid?

(SS): We are actually very aligned with that and it’s in sync with our journey to self-reliance.
We want to see Ghana flourish economically. We want to see Ghana become a full trading partner in these ways. We want to put our AID programme out of business in Ghana because of the level of development that we are hoping and helping Ghana attain. Again, in partnership and in response to the needs that the government of Ghana has articulated.

So it’s a great concept but I think it needs to really match with the actions on the ground. I have to say in so many meetings, we talk about this and at the end of the meeting, someone will say just like Oliver Twist, we want more. So I think that’s a change of mindset that is a positive initiative but still needs more work on the implementation phase.

(MM): Can you share with us some of the major highlights of your tenure as US Ambassador to Ghana?

(SS): Let me go back to the three different areas I mentioned earlier. Let’s start with economic and development. I have been very excited about our collaboration in the area of Shea. Shea trees are amazing. The fruit provides employment to many women in the North not just in Ghana but throughout the Sahel and it’s economic contribution is really an important factor of resilience and stability against some of the extremis.

So we have supported through public private partnerships, linking the shea producers with private sector, mostly cosmetic companies, and working throughout the value change to support them and I had the privilege to go up and plant shea trees with some traditional leaders and educated them on preserving the shea trees park lands.
It’s shocking to me that people cut shea trees for fire wood. It’s like slaying the goose that lays the golden eggs. Shea is an incredible product and there’s a message I would like people to know. I think people take a lot of the value added elements in Ghana for granted.

And so whether it’s jewellery or beautiful fashion, there are a lot of Ghanaian things that people around the world really covered. So I think there’s much more potential for exports than Ghanaians realise and I think that will be an important part of Ghana moving forward, appreciating the things such as the shea and shea butter.
On the military security front, we have had a number of collaboration with the security agencies. Last year Ghana hosted this a obangame express - a multi national maritime exercise with a lot of ships and there was even an interdiction of some illegal activities during the exercise which was incredible.

Certainly, with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and through the power COPEC, we have stabilised electricity supply. I was involved several months ago in inaugurating the new Pokuase supply point and we are soon to inaugurate one at Kasoa. Electricity is a fundamental asset that helps not just students study at night, hospitals to be able to provide services 24/7 but helps ensure that the private sector remains the engine of growth. Having a sturdy source of power is also an attractive future in an investment climate.

(MM): Were you able to visit all regions in the country during your tenure?

(SS): Unfortunately, I have not. There are two regions I haven’t visited, if you count the old 10 regions. When it became 16 regions that made it more difficult for me to have trips to the new ones. For example, I’ve been to the old Western Region but not necessarily been to the new part of it. I’ve been to Brong Ahafo but not the three. If I have another year and we were not in a pandemic, I would have loved to visit all 16 regions.

(MM): Impressions or likes about Ghana, especially memories you’re taking with you as you leave

(SS): As I mentioned, we were so excited to come back and we are so delighted to have this second opportunity to live and work in Ghana and certainly Ghanaians have a well deserved reputation for being so welcoming and hospitable. I would say the first thing we would miss will be the people and the relationships.
Personally, it’s on a macro level. Whether it’s on country to country, government to government there were lots of high level exchanges. But even more importantly, the people to people linkages have really grown from strength to strength over time.
Ghana has the second largest number of tertiary level students in the US and that’s new, during my tenure, Ghana moved from three to two.

There are so many linkages whether cultural or business, sister cities. I would love to see people revive the existing sister-city relationship rather than book for new siblings. These are areas that are a testament to the long standing friendship and partnership between Ghana and Ghanaians and the US and Americans.
Memories of my travels, my interactions with many of the traditional chiefs, the traditions of the chiefs are not something we experience in modern-day America so that’s always very impressive and the various durbars too.

The food is wonderful but I know a place near my house where I can buy Ghanaian food so I won’t have to be deprived. Culturally, we’ve been to a lot of plays that are very interesting. Ghanaians are very witty and clever.
The way people weave in current events to these lessons that are impacted indirectly through plays, I find very compelling. I was at the stadium with the first and second ladies for the First Lady’s Cup, a sort of championship of the Women’s League and that was really the first time they had done that.

Ambassador Stephanie S. Sullivan (left), exchanging pleasantries with Mary Mensah (right), Foreign Editor of the Daily Graphic. Picture: ESTHER ADJORKOR ADJEI

To me, having been involved in women’s football when I was here before, it was great to see that level of support and talent on the pitch. These are all wonderful memories.

(MM): Apart from Ghana, have you visited any African country?

(SS): I have visited about 35 African countries but I’ve lived and worked in four of them for an extended period of time.

(MM): Any special message as you leave the shores of Ghana?

(SS): I do leave a piece of my heart and I take Ghana in my heart as well. I would just let people know that it’s not about me or the ambassador, I have a tremendous team here, the work and partnerships will continue. My successor is very eager to arrive and continue growing that fantastic partnership and relationship. I think it’s a very special story that goes back to some painful days over 400 years ago.

But also, when we look at the entwined history of the independence movement and the US civil rights movement, there’s so much that connects us and that partnership I know will continue to thrive. So don’t regret my departure, but take that opportunity to continue to deepen that relationship. My successor is a woman. Her name is Ambassador Virginia Palmer. She was the previous US Ambassador to Malawi.