In 1957 Ghana became the first African country to achieve independence from a European colonial power, and today it is one of the continent’s most vibrant democracies. A nation of great diversity in landscapes, languages and ethnicities, Ghana has seen a steady improvement in its people’s well-being over the years. With a GDP of GHS256.6bn ($55.4bn) at the end of 2018, Ghana is also a contender to become the year’s fastest-growing economy worldwide. As it tries to move away from traditional resource dependency, the country now faces the challenge of ensuring the widest benefit from that expansion, particularly given its growing and increasingly urbanised population.
Geography & Climate
Ghana’s 238,533 sq km of territory borders three countries and the Atlantic Ocean, and divides into four main ecological regions. High plains dominate the landscape in the north, stretching to the border with Burkina Faso, while on the southern coast, a sandy, savannah-like area runs along much of the 539-km shore, stretching from the western border with Côte D’Ivoire to the eastern frontier with Togo. In between those regions are two other distinct geographies: in the south-west, the forested Ashanti uplands and Kwahu Plateau; in the south-central area, the Volta Basin spreads across some 45% of the country’s total land surface. This is also home to the world’s largest reservoir, Lake Volta, which has a surface area of 8500 sq km. The Akosombo Dam in the south-east helps hold the lake’s waters in place, with these extending north to Yapei, 520 km away. The River Volta and its tributaries is the largest river system in the country, draining around two-thirds of Ghana’s surface.
The country, which is similar in size to the UK, also has three climatic zones. The eastern coastal belt is mainly warm and relatively dry, while the south-west corner experiences the monsoon and is therefore hot and humid. The north, meanwhile, can be warm and wet, but it is also affected by the harmattan, a dry, desert northeasterly that blows from December to March. The centre and south have two rainy seasons, from April to June and from September to November, while the north sees rainfall at its peak in August and September, with occasional rains at other times of the year, and squalls in March and April. Recent years have seen both drought and flooding, with the former largely in the north, the latter in the south.
Ghana is a generally hot country, with temperatures in the north reaching around 40°C from February to April, while the highest temperatures in the south are around 34°C, in February.
Languages & Demography
The World Bank calculates Ghana’s population as 29.6m in 2018. The country is a young one, with some 29% of the population estimated to be under 15 years in 2016. The country’s capital area, the Greater Accra Region, had a population of around 4m in 2010, the latest date for which government estimates are available. Other large cities include Kumasi and Takoradi.
The country has some 70 ethnic groups, with the Akan being the largest, at around 47.5% of the population. Mainly living in the southern and central regions, the Akan include within them groups such as the Tiwi, or Ashanti, and the Fanti, who mostly live in the coastal areas. Other prominent groups include the Mole-Dagbon, at around 16.6%, the Ewe (13.9%) and the Ga-dangme (7.4%).
This ethnic diversity also means great linguistic range, as around 80 languages are spoken. English is the official language and medium of educational instruction; however, Akan languages are the most widely spoken. The number of officially recognised languages is 11, with four of them from the Akan family, two from Mole-Dagbon, and the others from the Ewe, Ga-dangme, Gonja, Kasem and Hausa groups.
The largest religious categorisation is Christian, with 76.9% of the population identifying as such, according to a 2014 survey. Some 16.4% are Muslim, and the rest follow traditional beliefs, other beliefs or no belief. The largest Christian denomination is Pentecostal, while the majority of Muslims are Sunni.
Although the coastal area has been inhabited since the bronze age, the present country takes its name from a medieval West African empire, located to the north of Ghana’s current boundaries. People from this and other Sahel groups moved south in the 11th century, establishing a series of entities along the West African coast. By the 16th century, the Ashanti Empire had united many of these under its tutelage. In the north, a variety of Dagomba states also began to form in the 11th century, as Islam spread south from North Africa.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in numbers in the 15th century, with the Dutch, English and Danish all building coastal forts in the 16th and 17th centuries on what they described as the Gold Coast. Indeed, gold was a major export commodity at the time. Rivalries between European states, still confined to their coastal forts, continued until British dominance in the 19th century, with Britain abolishing the slave trade in the early 1800s.
Throughout the course of these events, the Ashanti Empire continued to exercise dominance in the immediate interior, but tension with Britain erupted into four wars in 1823, 1863, 1873 and 1895. Three territories under British control resulted – the coastal colony, the Ashanti and the northern region – which were later amalgamated into a single crown colony, known as the Gold Coast. The current borders of Ghana were then realised with the addition of British Togoland after a vote in 1956.
Pressure for independence grew in the 20th century, particularly after the Second World War, with constitutional changes resulting in the Gold Coast becoming essentially self-governing by 1954. Three years later, the country became the first in colonial Africa to gain independence, becoming a full member of the Commonwealth on March 6, 1957.
Declaring that independence was Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first prime minister. He initially led the nation with the British Queen as head of state, but in 1960 Ghana declared itself a republic and Nkrumah became the first president. Instability characterised these years, however, with Nkrumah holding a referendum in 1964 and establishing a one-party state. This was followed by his ouster in 1966 in what would become the first of many military coups in the country.
Civilian rule was restored in 1969, along with the ministerial system, with Kofi Abrefa Busia as premier. In 1972 another military coup ended civilian rule, followed by several further coups during the decade, as different military rulers jostled for power. Civilian rule was restored once again in 1979 when Hilla Limann was elected president, yet the 1980s then saw a succession of additional military interventions until elections were next held in 1993. These were boycotted by most opposition parties, and Jerry Rawlings became president. Elections held in 1996 returned him for a second term, while a third election in 2000 saw John Agyekum Kufuor victorious.
The 21st century thus began with Ghana experiencing a more embedded civilian rule than at any other time since independence. This continued with Kufuor serving two terms – the constitutional maximum – and being succeeded by John Atta Mills after elections in 2008. Since then, John Dramani Mahama (2012-16) and the current incumbent, Nana Akufo-Addo, have also held the high office, with the country now enjoying a period of multi-party democratic rule. Today, Ghana is widely considered one of the most stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with one of the most open and pluralistic societies.
The most recent human development indicators from the UN Development Programme show that average life expectancy has been rising in recent decades, from 56.8 years in 1990 to 63 in 2017. Ghanaians are also becoming better educated – with the mean years of school attended rising from 4.9 to 7.1 over the same period. All this progress has culminated in the country’s Human Development Index score increasing from 0.455 to 0.592, placing Ghana in the medium category and making it the leading country in sub-Saharan Africa.
After some belt tightening in response to a growing fiscal deficit, in 2017 Ghana saw almost twice the economic growth of 2016, according to the World Bank, with the robust expansion carrying through to 2018. The country had traditionally relied on primary commodities for its earnings, with gold and cocoa principle export items, until significant oil finds recently made Ghana a petroleum exporter. Dependence on such resources has, however, exposed the country to international commodity price fluctuations. Leaders have therefore sought diversification, encouraging domestic agriculture and industry, as well as service sector development.