African viewpoint: Too proud to be rich?

A man keeps his money in his back pocket in Lagos, Nigeria (Archive shot, 2008)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, former BBC Focus on Africa deputy editor and Ghanaian government minister Elizabeth Ohene gets her head around some large figures.

I have been reading over and over again the Forbes list of the 40 richest Africans which was published recently.

The list does not include what many would consider the usual suspects, when talking about rich people in Africa.

There are no presidents - current or former - no dictators or rulers of any kind because, according to Forbes, they try to distinguish between wealth that is generated personally through entrepreneurship and wealth derived largely from positions of power.

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The stories, real and apocryphal, about the wealth of Nigerians are many and varied ”

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The other category of people that do not appear on the list are Africa's famous hardworking females; there are no women on the list, and I wonder if that means hard work does not lead to wealth in Africa.

According to Forbes, the richest African is a Nigerian.

Now that probably should not come as a surprise; the stories, real and apocryphal, about the wealth of Nigerians are many and varied - so no surprises there.

But if you take a closer look at the list, the bragging rights properly belong to South Africa, which has 15 people in the list, followed by Egypt with nine, Nigeria with eight and Morocco with five.

Kenya and Zimbabwe then provide the three to make up the list of 40.

Poor relations?
Ghana trainee teachers (Archive shot 2006) Student leaders, when negotiating for loans, said all Ghanaian students were poor

All 40 of the richest people in Africa come from six countries and this leaves the other 47 other countries faced with some stark realities.

Should we accept that we are the poor relations then?

Or do we have a case of what I call "difficulty-with-figures-syndrome" at play here?

Or is it simply that we are so much better at hiding wealth here in Ghana for example?

The Forbes people have a reputation for being able to ferret out money - no matter how well hidden.

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People are not evading tax - they are simply behaving as they were brought up to do by claiming to be poor even when they are not”

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Over here we have a difficult relationship with wealth.

In many parts of Ghana people are encouraged to claim to be poor and to appear to be embarrassed by wealth.

You will hear a lot of "poor me" from people who do their best to look poor when they are not.

Indeed, as they say in these parts: "Let someone say it for you", in other words let someone say you are rich, but never yourself.

This is probably why paying taxes is so difficult for so many people; you cannot go and fill forms to say you are worth a million dollars and pay the appropriate tax on it, even if you are.

In other words, people are not evading tax - they are simply behaving as they were brought up to do by claiming to be poor even when they are not.

Fear of banks

And then of course nobody has forgotten that not too long ago - in 1982 to be exact - the government went into all personal bank accounts and everybody who had more than the equivalent of $50,000 (£32,000) had to appear before a committee to explain and justify the source of the money.

Mo Ibrahim photographed in October 2011 Sudanese-born entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim awards elected African leaders who voluntarily leave office

To this day, people are reluctant to put their money in the bank in case somebody seizes it.

Over here when you are rich, our instinct is to say you are a thief.

A few years ago, in my capacity as minister of tertiary education, I was having negotiations with student leaders about the establishment of a student loans scheme.

There was not a lot of money to go around so I tried to convince the student leaders the loan should be available only to those who really needed it and that we should have a means test to determine those who would qualify for the loan.

With one accord, they insisted: "We are all poor."

We wear poverty as a badge of honour.

But I should be careful I do not give the wrong picture here.

I exaggerate only to make the point.

There are parts of Ghana where people claim and boast about being rich when the money they have is really not that much.

A fortnight ago I was told by somebody that I presumed should know about these things that two men of my acquaintance in Accra were billionaires - dollar billionaires that is - and I was beginning to bask in reflected glory until the Forbes list came out and pricked my bubble.

But I look at the list again and note that there is one name missing for which I can find no explanation.

Mo Ibrahim is not on it; yes, him of the Mo Ibrahim Index, known and generally acknowledged as a billionaire and who has set up the prize that gives $5m to African leaders to encourage them to do the right thing.

Surely his money is not derived from a political position?

Now if he is missing from the list, I have hope yet that my two friends in Accra will make it onto a revised list next year.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's latest column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Liz, as many on the forum has already stated, it is the truth, I am a Ghanaian but sadly have to agree that we do not invest and also create jobs whereby we employ people. All that the rich do in Ghana is to display their wealth but not helping no one except their families. Things are changing and I do believe that very soon we will have a Ghanaian on that list. Thank you

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Well as a Nigerian, I think I can say Ghanians are our poorer neighbours. We will soon start sending add to you if you fulfill certain conditions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    To: BornGrea, I think you uninformed Ghanaian, should explain what your Ms, Ohene meant by' ''Now that probably should not come as a surprise; the stories, real and apocryphal, about the wealth of Nigerians are many and varied - so no surprises there''. That is insulting. For your info, All Nigerians on the list started their businesses as from 1985. So your 1979-1986 events in Ghana is no excuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Ok once again I will ask all the Nigerians to stop being unnecessarily offended by banter! ahah?! why?

    No one is saying Nigeria should not feature in or top the list, they are simply debating how there isn't a Ghanaian in the list. It's really not for uninformed Nigerians to debate. Read the article again, and then think before you cry blue murder. Back to the point, the reason is 1979 - 1986.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Did i read someone mentioning football. that should be an argument for another day. What has football to do with the issue at hand. your country keeps pleading with our hardworking industrialists to come over.
    are u not surprised. why should ghana be on the list.


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