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Vol 60 No 1

Published 11th January 2019

JH Mensah, 1928-2018

His formidable intellect and tough independence of spirit made Joseph Henry Mensah an improbable candidate for the hurly-burly of partisan politics. Yet it was those qualities, along with his personal integrity and sense of humour, that marked his contribution to public service and government in Ghana and several other African countries over six decades.

His formidable intellect and tough independence of spirit made Joseph Henry Mensah an improbable candidate for the hurly-burly of partisan politics. Yet it was those qualities, along with his personal integrity and sense of humour, that marked his contribution to public service and government in Ghana and several other African countries over six decades.

Unusually for a technocrat, JH crossed the ideological span of his country's political scene. Armed with advanced degrees in economics from the universities of London and Stanford and a stint at the UN's Centre for Development Planning, he returned to Ghana in 1961 to work in President Kwame Nkrumah's administration. That might puzzle some who tracked JH's later rise to eminence in parties of the Danquah-Busia tradition which had fiercely opposed Nkrumah's rule.

That was one of our first topics of conversation when I got to know JH in the early 1980s. Over lengthy discussions involving his son KB Mensah, the distinguished journalist and leading voice for the BBC Africa service in the 1980s and 1990s, JH would explain to us how many of Nkrumah's economic ideas such as targeted nationalisations and an industrial policy, were liberal orthodoxies of the era, well within the Keynesian tradition. 

At that stage, he explained, any self-respecting anti-colonialist would be a critic of the laissez-faire economic policies taken up by the political right, and later by the World Bank and the IMF. As he sketched out how governments should tackle Africa's economic woes, JH came across as a social democrat. He was firmly convinced of the importance of a nationalist strategy which would accelerate industrialisation alongside the modernisation of agriculture and services. And he was hugely sceptical about the trumpeted expertise of the Bretton Wood institutions, particularly on Africa.

Equally, JH wanted clear limits on state intervention in the economy. Pouring government funds into a bad company won't make it any better, he argued. He also became warier of how some state interventions had allowed corruption and political patronage to undermine the wider goals of development.

On his calls for a heterodox approach to policy, mixing targeted interventions and market principles, JH's position was similar to that of Arthur Lewis, the Nobel laureate from Saint Lucia who was Nkrumah's chief economic advisor in 1957. Both Lewis and JH backed interventions to boost industrialisation but warned of the dangers of neglecting the agricultural base. Using cocoa revenues to build factories made sense but not if they were managed by political hucksters. These ideas informed JH's input into Nkrumah's Seven-Year Development Plan.

JH's strong ties to the farmers were deeply practical. His mother owned cocoa farms in her native Brong-Ahafo Region. At the start of the Second Republic in 1969, after a brief period as Commissioner for Finance under the National Liberation Council military government, he became MP for Sunyani and Minister for Finance and Economic Planning in the Progress Party government led by President Edward Akufo-Addo and Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia.

Following the overthrow of the PP in 1972, he became a long-term political detainee, arrested and imprisoned repeatedly up to 1978. After Jerry John Rawlings's 1979 coup d'état he launched a farming venture and chaired Sunyani Council in Brong-Ahafo. Forced into exile in 1982, he did not return to Ghana until 1995, becoming an MP again for the new Sunyani East the following year.

On a reporting trip to Brong Ahafo during the 2000 elections, Africa Confidential reporters called on JH, who was ensconced at the counting centre with his party agent.

When asked which party would emerge victorious, JH chuckled and then quoted Stalin: 'It's not the votes that count but who counts the votes.' He won, as did the New Patriotic Party, the successor to the PP, at national level. That election did much to burnish Ghana's reputation as a credible multi-party democracy.

Appointed as leader of government business and later senior minister by President John Kufuor, JH played a key role in shaping policy in the earlier years of the administration. Although he earned respect from both sides of parliament during his tenure, JH was frustrated by the level of debate in the chamber, which he blamed partly on meagre research facilities but also on politicking by party hacks of all persuasion.

JH's life will celebrated across Africa, particularly in West Africa where his work with the late Moshood Abiola on developing the case for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade pushed the issue onto the international agenda, despite the opposition of the companies and countries that benefited from the protracted exploitation. 

When Abiola won Nigeria's presidential elections in 1993, only for them to be annulled by the military, JH was one of the most effective cheerleaders for the democratic opposition to the ensuing junta. Having been detained by Ghana's military, JH's commitment to the cause was rooted in history. Beyond his fights with autocrats and generals, JH will be celebrated in capitals such as Addis Ababa and Nairobi as one of the continent's pioneers in development economics, and as an advisor to national governments and to the UN system.

Finally, it is JH's irrepressible sense of fun that so many will miss. There was in the mid-1990s a lengthy discussion in Abuja about the shape of democracy, sponsored by some European agency, in which all the turgid clichés about consulting stakeholders and inclusive policy-making were being trotted out as eyes started to glaze over. 

Then, JH stood up, diplomatically but firmly contradicting the notion that democracy and accountability were somehow uniquely Western values. Drawing an evocative picture of the royal courts in Ghana, JH compared the role of court jesters to that of 'our friends in the press': to ridicule and expose the abuse of power, leading to political change. Then, mischievously smiling at us journalists, he concluded: 'it all seemed fairly functional, even if it led to the de-stooling of the monarch or, in extreme cases, their demise.' For the first time that day, the conference room shook with laughter.


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