Amidst the economic crisis, Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo's cathedral plan is put on hold

Ghana National Cathedral as pictured

Accra, the capital of Ghana, has hoardings covered in artistic renderings of architectural marvels that prevent curious onlookers from seeing what is on the other side.

The multi-million dollar structure, dubbed the National Cathedral of Ghana, is either a symbol of the nation's poor economic management or a wise and audacious investment, depending on who you ask.

President Nana Akufo-Addo reiterated his support for the religious structure in a speech at the start of the new year, just two weeks after Ghana effectively defaulted on repaying most of its external debt due to an intensifying cost of living and economic crisis.

The president addressed the crowd at the building site where a Bible reading marathon had been going on, saying, "The National Cathedral is an act of thanksgiving to the Almighty for his blessings, favour, grace, and mercies on our nation.".

He claimed that God had spared Ghana from the conflict that had affected many nations, including some of its West African neighbors, who were dealing with a variety of security issues.

The president then disclosed a personal contribution to the construction costs of 100,000 cedis ($8,000; £6,700). Seventy percent of the population is Christian, and it was intended to be a sacred place where all Christians could gather for national religious services.

However, Mr. Akufo-Addo's zeal for the initiative has divided the public.

President of Ghana Nana Akufo-Addo
Others question whether the cathedral can be afforded, despite President Nana Akufo-Addo's claim that it is an act of thanksgiving.

Critics have questioned the amount of money - about $58 million - that the government has so far spent in these financially difficult times, despite the fact that most of the costs are supposed to be covered by donations, with the state providing the land and some seed funding.

In addition, there have been concerns raised about the project's awarding of the design contract to renowned British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, which has strained relations with some of the most influential Christian figures who make up the National Cathedral board of trustees.

The board has agreed to let parliament look into how contracts were awarded and has approved a financial audit in response to the authorities' denial of these allegations.

Theo Acheampong, a Ghanaian economist, thinks the government's priorities are incorrect in light of the country's current economic circumstances, which include a weakening currency, decreasing foreign reserves, and overstretched public finances.

"Generational crisis here. The country can't pay its debt because of the high inflation rate, which compels the government to reduce spending. The cathedral is also not a national priority at a time when the government is asking the IMF for a $3 billion loan, according to Mr. Acheampong.

After his election victory in 2016, Mr. Akufo-Addo first revealed the cathedral's plans. The architect was then hired two years later. However, the president's "his gratitude to God" project didn't start until 2022, two years after his reelection.

However, since MPs refused to approve a further budget allocation from the government of $6.3m in December, there is no longer the sound of heavy machinery chiseling the earth and animated workers shouting over the din at the construction site.

Sam George, a well-known opponent of the project, criticized the government by quoting the Gospel of Luke during a debate in parliament last month.

Let's say one of you wants to construct a tower. When he finished reading the verses, his opposition colleagues, suitably amused, cheered. "Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying: "This person began to build and wasn't able to finish.".

An artistic impression of Ghana National Cathedral
The cathedral will have a music school, a gallery, and a museum inside of a park.

The project's vision cannot be criticized.

The National Cathedral was given a nine-acre plot of prime real estate between the parliament building, the national theater, and the international conference center.

It had previously been home to judge-only residences, whose demolition sparked its own controversy.

The cathedral will have a high pitched staggered roof imitating the Akan people's architecture, drawing inspiration from Ghana's rich arts and culture. Additionally, it will feature ceremonial canopies and Ashanti royal stools as symbols.

The cathedral's religious decorations and furnishings will be made by Ghanaian and other African artists.

The main structure will house Africa's first Bible museum in addition to a music school, an art gallery, shops, a national crypt for state burials, and 5,000 permanent seats with space for thousands more, per the plan.

Critics, however, are unimpressed by the grandeur.

The MP Mr. George told the BBC that "taxpayers' money should not be used to fund a personal pledge to God.".

He described the cathedral as a "vanity project," evoking the largest church in the world, The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, which was constructed by Félix Houphouet-Boigny, the architect who led the Ivory Coast to independence, to transform his hometown.

We are Christians, but Mr. George asserted that the government had no business supporting the construction of a place of worship.

Paul Opoku-Mensah, the presidential appointee in charge of the National Cathedral project, is undeterred by the criticism and believes that it will help the economy.

We have a plan to draw tourists to Ghana, unlike Ivory Coast. We must put our religiosity to use for our own growth, he said.

After touring the Bible Museum in Washington, DC, Mr. Mensah is negotiating the loan of sacred objects from Israel for eventual display at the cathedral.

An artistic impression of the Ghana National Cathedral
The goal of the cathedral is to draw tourists from across the continent and beyond.

Critics assert that the project's cost has fluctuated over time and has even been overstated, with some speculating that it may reach $1 billion.

However, Mr. Mensah told the BBC that the building would only cost $350 million or less. "That number is sacred," he said, adding that the cathedral would serve as a center for Christians, drawing people from across the continent and beyond and generating revenue for the building.

Additionally, he refuted assertions that the cathedral was the Christian majority's reply to the $10 million Ghana National Mosque, which was erected with Turkish government funding. 2012 saw the launch of that.

However, Mr. Mensah claimed that the project had become "caught up in the divisive politics of our country," adding that although Ghana's economic crisis cannot be disregarded, critics had failed to recognize the cathedral's viability, which according to preliminary estimates could generate $95 million in revenue over the course of five years.

When it comes to music, art, and engineering, he said, "We're looking at what great cathedrals did to Europe by extending the frontiers. But given the economic conditions we face, we can review our plan, like do phased construction and reconsider what type of artefacts we install in the building.".

Construction site for Ghana National Cathedral
The construction site is no longer moving forward.

Following the parliament's rejection of funding for the cathedral, Mr. Mensah stated that his team was looking into alternative funding sources.

"We are creating strategies for large-scale financial mobilization, such as mobilizing a million Christians to give $20 per month for two years. We also want to entice the diaspora community, the private sector, and donors to make contributions. " .

However, Mr. Mensah is still trying to persuade lawmakers to support funding for the project. Because he thinks some of them don't fully understand the project, he wants to set up a meeting with them.

However, he also acknowledges that the project is in jeopardy and is unlikely to be finished before President Akufo-Addo leaves office the following year.

"The success depends on our ability to raise the required funds. We are currently concentrating on that," Mr. Mensah said.

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