Why you should care

Criticism erupts over a presidential project in a country where schools lack roofs.

Plans to build a colossal cathedral by renowned Ghanaian architect David Adjaye in Accra have resurrected a species thought to be extinct — white elephants.

Supporters say the $100 million construction, which will require the demolition of a number of recent government buildings, will be an important statement of national ambition. The west African country’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, who gifted the land for the project, insists that Ghanaian Christians, who make up roughly 70 percent of the population, need a symbol.

But in a country with high debt and an annual per capita income below $2,000, the plans have revived memories of the “Basilica in the Bush,” the largest church in the world, built in the 1980s by the then lifelong leader of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

At a time when taxes are going up, banks have collapsed and you can’t pay for social programs, is it really the thing to do to build a cathedral?

Yaw Nsarkoh, vice president, Unilever

Critics have taken to social media to complain that, when schools lack roofs and farmers proper roads, building a cathedral might be frivolous. The project has also unsettled the country’s religious minorities, who worry about a possible blurring of church and state.

“At a time when taxes are going up, banks have collapsed and you can’t pay for social programs, is it really the thing to do to build a cathedral?” Yaw Nsarkoh, executive vice president of consumer group Unilever for Ghana and Nigeria, reflects.

Akufo-Addo was elected nearly two years ago by making big spending promises — which he has since had to cut back because of lack of funds. Yet the Ghanaian leader has brushed off criticism that the construction is a waste of money. “You’ll never have enough money to do everything at the same time,” he told the Financial Times Africa Summit in London last month. “People say: Is this a priority? It is a priority among other priorities.”

Ken Ofori-Atta, Ghana’s finance minister, has insisted that the cathedral would largely be financed by private donors, though sceptics have said the government will end up underwriting it.

Other members of the establishment, while having mixed feelings about the construction, reject the argument that Ghana should postpone all prestige projects until it had tackled more pressing issues. “You can’t say: ‘Until we are wealthy, we cannot afford national pride,’ ” Edward Effah, chairman of Fidelity Bank, Ghana’s biggest, says.

Akufo-Addo has encapsulated his vision of a nation that can stand on its own feet in the slogan “Ghana Beyond Aid.”

Sir David, who also designed the acclaimed Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., has called the proposed structure a place where “religion, democracy and local tradition are seamlessly and symbolically intertwined.”

Yet critics say that the cathedral’s extravagance is driven less by concerns of national prestige and more by an emerging struggle over the role of Christianity in Ghana’s identity. Under former president John Mahama, who comes from the predominantly Muslim north, a Turkish foundation paid for the completion of a huge mosque in Accra.

“The Christians are feeling a bit upstaged by what they consider a minority religion,” says Kwasi Prempeh, executive director of Ghana’s Center for Democratic Development. “The Christians are saying, ‘We have to flex our political muscles.’ ”

Ofori-Atta, who, like the current president, is a devout Christian, has insisted that the state paid for Muslims to attend the Haj, and that it should not be taboo for it to back a Christian project. But so much has religion seeped into government that Ofori-Atta has led prayers this year for the successful completion of a eurobond issue — to the discomfort of some staff.

The government also views the cathedral as a way of clawing back ground from a plethora of evangelists and “charismatic preachers” who have drawn millions of people, and tens of millions of dollars, into their congregations.

“There are so many one-man-style churches, and these guys are making fortunes,” says Daniel Domelevo, Ghana’s auditor-general.

The government is considering taxing private churches on the grounds that they are more moneymaking enterprises than places of worship.

Crosby Aboagye, a taxi driver passing the looming Turkish mosque, says he supported the idea of the new cathedral. “There are only a few Muslims. We are a Christian country,” he says. “If you go to Ivory Coast, they have a national cathedral. Why not Ghana?”

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By David Pilling

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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