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Ghana Seen as Showcase For Africa - in a Manner

LIKE a good pupil, Ghana has enthusiastically followed the advice of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to become a showcase of sorts on a continent blighted by despair and war.

As civil wars shake neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia and corruption drains Nigeria's oil wealth, Ghana has quietly posted 5 percent economic growth per year over the past decade.

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At Ghana's tiny stock exchange, neatly dressed traders swap a handful of shares three times a week, contacting their bosses with cellular telephones and recording deals with felt-tip pens. The exchange was one of the world's best-performing emerging stock markets in 1994.

But is the progress really as good as it seems? Can it last?

"All the indicators are negative. Inflation and money supply are increasing," says Ken Ofori-Atta, chairman of the Accra-based Databank Brokerage Ltd., an investment house. "Even though we have achieved so much over the past 10 years, we have increased our commodity exports as opposed to ... manufacturing."

His doubts are echoed across the country, where frustration is rising over 40 percent unemployment and 60 percent inflation. The cedi currency has declined steadily against the dollar, eroding people's purchasing power.

Last May five Ghanaians died as normally nonviolent Accra residents protested a 17.5 percent value-added tax on goods.

Among the other problems economists see:

*Government overspending and dependence on foreign aid and commodity exports will prevent Ghana from emulating the rapid industrialization of Singapore, Malaysia, or South Korea.

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*Interest rates of 50 percent provide scant incentives for those wanting to borrow money to start new businesses.

*Growth is not keeping pace with soaring population numbers, so the average Ghanaian is worse off than he or she was several years ago. Unlike 10 years ago, there are light bulbs, steaks, and toilet paper in Accra shops; but most people lack electricity and plumbing in their homes.

*As for the stock exchange, most trades are in one company, Ashanti Gold Fields, and most of the country's 15 million people have no shares.

Ghana will be closely watched as it tries to overcome these challenges. The nation has been a trend-setter in Africa since 1957, when it became the continent's first state to win independence.

It was in the vanguard experimenting with socialism, and began liberalizing its economy soon after the 1979 coup by Jerry Rawlings, long before the austere dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became fashionable in developing nations.

The nation has much progress to show for its efforts.

New services have been created. Construction is booming to build offices for a new breed of entrepreneurs. With the help of good cocoa crops, a relatively well-educated population, rich gold reserves, and political stability, Ghana has become a source of hope both to other African countries and foreign donors.

BUT now diplomats worry that corruption and crime, the scourge of most African countries, will sully Ghana as the desperate seek ways to survive.

For instance, illegal digging has become the norm in the Akwatia diamond area. Smugglers offer murky pebbles wrapped in dirty paper to some visitors for $300 - 10 times the average monthly wage.

Townspeople were outraged when thieves broke the fence on the grounds of the local Roman Catholic girls' school and dug big holes for diamonds. Then they robbed the trees of palm nuts to eat. "This never would have happened before," says Hawah Brimah, the school's typist. "But people need to survive."

Elections in November 1996 appear unlikely to bring dramatic policy changes. Diplomats doubt the fractured opposition can beat Mr. Rawlings, though it may gain turf in parliament. And Peter Ala Adjetey, chairman of the main opposition National Patriotic Party, finds little to fault the government on other than not bucking the IMF on policies that hurt local development.

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