S. F. Miescher: A Dam for Africa

A Dam for Africa. Akosombo Stories from Ghana

Miescher, Stephan F.
598 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Aurelia Ohlendorf, Leibniz-Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europas (GWZO), Leipzig

The twentieth century saw an unprecedented boom in the construction of dams and hydropower plants, and the immediate post-war decades in particular can be described as a heyday of hydropower. In the course of decolonization, economic development through industrialization with the help of hydropower, as was often propagated by the superpowers, became attractive for many newly independent countries as well. When Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence in 1957, Kwame Nkrumah was able to draw on plans for the Volta River Project from British colonial times. The project was more than just the Akosombo Dam: it included a hydroelectric power plant, an aluminium smelter, an electricity grid, a deep-sea harbour to export the aluminium, new towns and settlements, and the associated infrastructure. In short, it was the centrepiece of Nkrumah’s modernization policies, with which he hoped to pave the way for Ghana’s industrialized future.

Stephan F. Miescher provides with A Dam for Africa the most comprehensive study of this post-colonial development project to date. The starting point and core of his book are oral history interviews conducted over the years on site with a large number of actors and people affected by the dam construction. The interviews are supplemented by an impressive variety of sources from the Public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD) as well as the archives and libraries of the Volta River Authority (VRA) and the Electricity Company of Ghana. Miescher also consulted for the first time the archives of Kaiser Industries in California, the company that financed, built, and operated the aluminium smelter until 2003, and archival holdings of the World Bank and various libraries in the UK. Additionally, he supplements the interviews and archival material with an analysis of Ghanaian contemporary print media. The explicit aim of the study is to trace the narratives surrounding the development project at the international, national, and local levels: “How did Ghanaians and international experts debate the Volta River Project as it unfolded? What were planners’ hopes and dreams for this dam during the era of decolonization and early independence? And what has happened to this vision since the completion of Akosombo in 1965?” (p. xix). Many of Akosombo’s modernization promises remained unfulfilled, the resettlement of some 80,000 people resulted in chaos and traumatic experiences, and much of the rural population remained without reliable electricity until the 2000s (p. 6 and p. 337).

The book is divided into four parts, each comprising two chapters, and compiles the results of research that has been conducted by the author in Ghana throughout several years, many of which have already been published elsewhere. In the course of the field research in Ghana, a six-part documentary film was produced in cooperation with R. Lane Clark, which partly follows the chapter structure of the book (https://ghanaselectricdreams.com/).

The first part covers the planning of the project still under British rule, its transformation with independence, and its implementation in the early 1960s during Nkrumah’s presidency. Drawing on Gabrielle Hecht’s concept of technopolitics, Miescher traces Nkrumah’s efforts to secure international funding for the project. He argues that the Volta River Project was central to the conception of a Ghanaian post-colonial future (p. 33). The first chapter deals with the planning of the project before independence; the second, with the implementation after 1957, when Nkrumah had to find new partners in the context of the Cold War. Although the Volta River Authority was modelled after the American Tennessee Valley Authority, Nkrumah also openly sympathized with socialist models of development. Fearing to lose Ghana to the Soviet Union, the World Bank and the US pledged their support for the project, and Kaiser Industries became the largest shareholder in the Volta Aluminum Company (VALCO), which was to operate the planned aluminium smelter with Akosombo electricity. In 1962, a master agreement was signed with Kaiser Industries, and the Italian company Impregilo was awarded the contract to build the dam.

The second part explores in its two chapters the history of the American-led aluminium company VALCO, the largest buyer of Akosombo electricity. The first chapter deals with the relations between the American aluminium industry and the Ghanaian government. Because the agreement with VALCO did not entail the development of an integrated aluminium production but rather allowed VALCO to import alumina, to process it into aluminium in Ghana with favourable electricity tariffs, and then to sell it on the world market, the author describes the relations as a neo-colonial dependency. Until the renegotiation of the master agreement, Ghana did not succeed in freeing itself from the dependence on the international aluminium industry. The second chapter, based mainly on interviews, explores the work experiences and everyday life at VALCO, which the author describes as an American island within Ghana (p. 151). The company as well as the workers benefited from the relatively good and safe working conditions and a specific “VALCO work culture” (p. 150). The VRA was the loser in this arrangement, receiving too low a price for Akosombo electricity, together with the Ghanaian government, which collected hardly any taxes through the arrangement (ibid.).

In the third part, Miescher traces the process of resettlement, which was often traumatic for those affected, on the basis of the VRA files, on the one hand, and a large number of interviews in the resettlement towns established by the VRA, on the other. Although Nkrumah’s government claimed that “no one should be worse off” (p. 185), it was extremely difficult to keep its promises, and for many people, the resettlement resulted in a dramatic decline in living standards. The author convincingly contrasts the official narratives of the planners with the accounts of those affected and thus paints a multilayered picture of the resettlement processes. In the immediate vicinity of the dam, Akosombo was to be a modern, industrialized town with settlements for the workers of the dam construction site. Although the dream of industrialization failed to materialize, Akosombo developed into a small Ghanaian town worth living in (p. 272).

The last part deals through two chapters with the electrification of the country until the 2010s. In the first years, the electricity grid of the Volta River Project only supplied some cities and industrial sites in the south of Ghana. Rural regions and the north remained without connection to the grid. Drawing on many individual cases, Miescher demonstrates how the struggle for connection to the longed-for Akosombo light was a lengthy struggle for many communities and how this connection became a yardstick for participation in civilization. The author vividly describes how many people lived within sight of overhead power lines for years but did not have access to this desired modern commodity. This difference between modernization in the cities and exclusion in the countryside was already described by Klaus Gestwa in connection with the electrification of the Soviet Union.[1] It is unfortunate that the research debate on infrastructures and their functions of connection and exclusion is not taken up here.[2]

The book does justice to its claim to trace the competing narratives surrounding an extensive development project with the help of oral history and a broad base of archival sources. It vividly contrasts the planners’ hopes for a modern future through electrification and industrialization with the experiences of the people in the resettlement communities, the workers in the aluminium industry, as well as the rural societies that fought bitterly for a connection to the prestigious Akosombo electricity. It is also worth mentioning that the author succeeds in adopting multilayered perspectives and does not ignore topics such as gender and race.

A more critical reflection on the oral history methodology would have been desirable. How the interview partners were selected; to what extent their memories are unreliable, constructed, or incomplete; and what influence the interview situation has on the narratives of the eyewitnesses remains under-reflected upon, as does the controversial research debate on oral history in recent years.[3]

Nevertheless, this is a detailed and fascinating case study in the research field of international dam and hydropower plant construction, which has received increasing attention from historians in recent years.

[1] Klaus Gestwa, Raum – Macht – Geschichte. Making Sense of Soviet Space, in: Osteuropa 3 (2005), S. 46-69.
[2] Dirk van Laak, Alles im Fluss. Die Lebensadern unserer Gesellschaft – Geschichte und Zukunft der Infrastruktur, Frankfurt am Main 2019; Dirk van Laak, Infrastructures, Version: 1.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 20.05.2021, URL: http://docupedia.de/zg/Laak_infrastructures_v1_en_2021
[3] Christof Dejung / Christof, Oral History und Kollektives Gedächtnis. Für eine sozialhistorische Erweiterung der Erinnerungsgeschichte (Oral History and Collective Memory. A Proposal for a Social Historical Extension of the History of Recollection), in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 34 (2008) 1, S. 96–115; Lutz Niethammer (Hrsg.), Lebenserfahrung und kollektives Gedächtnis. Die Praxis der “Oral History”, Frankfurt am Main 1985; Julia Obertreis (Hrsg.), Oral History, Stuttgart 2012.

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