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From gestation to birth

BY: Elizabeth Ohene

If all goes according to plan, the President of the Republic will be in Tamale this morning, Wednesday, to cut the sod for the construction of an interchange in that city.

The Tamale Interchange is the headline item on the first phase of what we are calling the Sinohydro projects.

There are 68 separate road projects that come up to 442 kilometres in all.

A sod-cutting, or ground-breaking, or sod-turning ceremony is a traditional ceremony in many cultures that celebrates the first day of construction for a building or other project.

This is a good time, therefore, to think back to when we started hearing about Sinohydro infrastructure projects and how long it has taken from first mention to sod-cutting.

In other words, what has been the gestation period?

I have always been fascinated by this sod-cutting ceremony and the rites that come with various aspects of the construction industry.

But that is not my interest today.

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I am interested in the type of sod-cutting that President Akufo-Addo is doing today.

The type that comes with a lot of hoopla and speeches and is meant to mark the formal start of construction and to announce to the world that work on a project is starting.

Final take-off

Today’s ceremony is telling the whole world that the much-talked-about Sinohydro deal is finally taking off.

It was back in July 2017 that this $2 billion aluminium barter for infrastructure deal was announced by Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia at the end of his state visit to China.

It came with a lot of excitement; those interested in finance zeroed in on the $2 billion tag and the argument over whether the barter deal to give the Chinese alumina in exchange for the infrastructure work was a loan or not.

For most of us, our interest was which of the many truly horrendous roads in the country would be included in the list of roads to be fixed.

I am not quite sure at which point the excitement that greeted the first announcement turned into scepticism, but it was not surprising that many people began to express doubts.

As the saying goes, once you have been bitten by a snake, you get frightened at the sight of a worm.

We have after all lived through an earlier $3 billion loan deal with China, signed with a lot of flourish between our then President and his Chinese counterpart.

We were told how we were going to spend the money, the energy sector was going to be the main beneficiary, and our President spelt out the roads that were going to be built, paramount among which was the Eastern Corridor roads.

Not to put too fine a point on it, nothing happened.

It is like being told you are pregnant and you start making plans for the arrival of the baby, find a name and nothing happens.

The lesson was a painful one: there is a big chasm between a headline announcing a big loan or grant or project and it being translated into reality that can be seen and touched.

President John Evans Atta Mills didn’t hang all his hopes on the Chinese loan.

There was the Korean STX deal that was going to bring more than a quarter of a million housing units.

I recall clearly the day President Mills cut the sod at the Police Training Depot in Accra for the start of the construction works.

Nothing came of that either.

Maybe a case of what the doctors call a spontaneous abortion?

Fake pregnancy

Then there were the ones that we should have seen immediately for the frauds that they were.

They are in the category of when a woman announces a fake pregnancy.

Did anybody really believe that somebody was bringing $10 billion to build a so-called Hope City near Kasoa?

President John Mahama put on a big show and cut the sod for that phantom project.

I have been thinking you can tell if the project is real or a phantom one depending on how long it takes for the sod-cutting to be done.

Every time they are in a hurry to cut sod for a project, the chances are the real construction will never take place.

But when the headlines continue and are mentioned in State of the Nation Address after State of the Nation Address and Budget after Budget without any sign of workmen and hardhats, you can safely conclude that it is a phantom project.

And so, with past experience as our guide, we have been suitably sceptical about the Sinohydro deal.

I can’t really think of a better analogy than the phenomenon of gestation to illustrate this point.

I know that these days women take scans of their two-week “pregnancies” and post them on Instagram, but in my time, women took their time before announcing a pregnancy.

And to continue with that analogy, I might point out that a mouse takes between 18 to 21 days to produce a baby, human beings take an average of 280 days or 40 weeks and the gestation period for an elephant is about 640 to 660 days or roughly 95 weeks.

Today’s events in Tamale appear to have taken elephantine periods of gestation to bring us to where we are.

When Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia came from China with the news of the Sinohydro deal, we were not expecting that this would be a mousey deal that would be delivered in two to three weeks, anything like that and we would have known that we had another Hope City on our hands.

But we did get the impression and most people expected that all the Sinohydro negotiations would be done within six to nine months at the most.

In other words, we were expecting a human gestation.

We have ended up with almost two years gone before we have reached sod-cutting today.

We thank the Almighty of course that this has not been a phantom pregnancy.

Problem is in our present condition, there isn’t a lot of tolerance among the populace to wait that long for things to bear fruit.

We also have experience in this country of projects that are started with a lot of fanfare and which then fizzle out halfway through and are then abandoned.

We are hoping that with the innovative funding structure that has been devised, once work starts, we shall be witnessing rapid progress until completion.

As an old friend of mine used to say, if you finish building “inside” before you get to the site, you would be finished in record time. In other words, if you have secured the requisite funding before you start construction, you will finish building in record time.

In this Sinohydro deal, China has a point to prove, we have a point to prove.

It had better work, and fast.