‘Essential commodities' is a term that could be interpreted in a number of ways according to time and circumstance, but in the Ghana of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the government changed almost annually, it took on a special meaning that will never be forgotten by those who survived those lean and turbulent years. The policy and practice of essential commodities was a response by an impoverished regime to the rule of kalabule, the preceding era of economic chaos during which scarce imported goods were sold and resold in the informal market at ever increasing prices. It was an attempt at rationing that had the whole nation waiting in long queues for what in retrospect appears to have been a handful of randomly selected items worth only a few cents.
Under the rule of Colonel (later General) Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, January1972 to July 1978, the Ghanaian economy steadily declined and the military government became increasingly corrupt. From February 1973 to June 1978, the unit of currency, the cedi, was officially pegged at 1.15 to the US dollar, but rapid inflation ensured that its purchasing power in the local market fell to a small fraction of this value. Anyone who could obtain an import licence at the official rate of exchange could make a huge profit from reselling in the internal market. Needless to say, the military restricted the issue of import licences to themselves and their friends, and to a few foreign-owned commercial companies that were too big to ignore.
The first attempt to control the situation was to introduce ‘controlled prices.' Anyone selling above the government designated controlled price was liable to arrest by the military and there were frequent incidents in which market traders, including women and young children, were subjected by soldiers in uniform to public humiliation and beatings. In spite of the risk, trading at free market prices continued. Imported goods circulated at ever increasing prices and the term ‘kalabule' (perhaps from the Hausa ‘kere kabure,' keep it quiet!) came into general use. Goods sold by the big foreign retailers at controlled prices were quickly bulk purchased by traders and absorbed into the kalabule whirlpool.
In June 1978, only a month before his ousting, General Acheampong devalued the cedi to 2.75 to the US dollar. This was still far above its real value and it was not until the period 1983 to 1986, under the aegis of the IMF, that six further devaluations brought the cedi more or less into line at 90 cedis to the US dollar. In the meantime, the problem of a highly exploitive informal market, imposing very high prices on poor people, remained. Ghana government attempts to improve this situation culminated in the early 1980s with the introduction of the concept of ‘essential commodities.'
Essential commodities were a range of those basic imported goods that had been most prominent in trading under kalabule. Included in essential commodities were tiny round tins of mackerel and evaporated milk, boxes of cube sugar, tablets of toilet soap and bars of laundry soap. Sometimes, small plastic bags of imported rice were also included. During the second revolutionary era of Rawlings, beginning in 1982, the distribution of essential commodities was entrusted to the peoples' defence committees and workers' defence committees. Weeks went by when no commodities were available then notices would be sent out announcing a distribution. On the appointed day, long queues would form in communities and work places at which each person was allotted his/her share: usually just one item of each essential commodity sold at controlled prices.
If the aim of the government was to spread the deprivation of the poor to the middle classes, this policy succeeded. Nobody could now consume a healthy diet. At the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, the Vice-Chancellor, deans and professors stood in line for their meagre handouts with campus guards, labourers and the unemployed. People whose normal healthy body weight was 175 pounds, maintained a weight of about 145 pounds only by filling up on bananas. Yet there were times when bananas, like most other locally produced foodstuffs, were also in short supply. Everyone discovered or rediscovered what it was like to be constantly hungry.
Looking back from the twenty first century these remote and hungry days seem ludicrous and even laughable; but those who lived through them will affirm that the eras of controlled prices, kalabule and essential commodities might have been caused by people playing with the economy but they were largely devoid of humour.