The young Ghanaian holding an unlit cigarette in his outstreched hand came over to a visitor sitting on the Continental Hotel veranda and asked for a light from the guest's already burning one.
In other times and places, such a simple happening would hardly be a cause for special notice. In Ghana, however, it is all common occurrence that speaks volumes about the state of the economy these days.
Even locally made matches are hard to come by When you do find them, they sell for 800 per cent or more above the government set price. And it isn't just matches.
A box of sugar can cost $7, a dozen eggs anywhere from $3.50 to $5, a yam up to $3, a scrawny chicken from $10 to $20, toilet paper up to $2 a roll and a single Ghanaian-made light bulb $3 or more - more that is if you can find any of these items.
The astronomical cost of these everyday goods is just one reflection of Ghana's runaway economy fueled by massive government overspending and high cocoa prices. The latest cost of living figures, those for June 1977, showed a 145 percent increase over the same month the previous year, and the government economists reckon the average inflation rate for the first six months of 1977 at 90 percent.
Indeed, Ghana may well be on the verge of becoming Africa's first country to post a three digit inflation rate, putting it in a special league with some Latin American nations long used to such head spinning figures. On this continent of newly independent countries, it is a new phenomenon, thus making Ghana an object of special interest and study to Western and African economists.
"The state of our economy cannot be explained in terms of any known economic model," replied a top Ghanaian bank official when asked why a simple breakfast at the state-run Continental Hotel, where prices are supposed tobe controlled, costs $11.
Nor could he explain why at a time of unprecedented cocoa earnings there was an acute shortage not only of basic consumer items but also of the imported raw materials needed to keep many of Ghana's factories going.
Ghana has long been a fascinating study in the interplay of African economics and politics since economic chaos has repeatedly been a prime factor leading to coups over its 21 years of independence. One of the chief accusation leveled by the Military against Kwame Nkrumah, the nation's first reowned leader ousted in 1966 was his mismanagement of the economy and embezzlement of public funds. Kofi Pusia, leader of the next civilian government was deposed by outraged officers just days after he devalued the Ghanaian cedi by 40 percent to extricate himself and the nation, from its economic quagmire.
The feeling among some outsiders here is that the state of the economy once again threatens government stability even though the military rather than civilians presently rule. "Someday, somehow," somewhere, something is going to happen," remarked a long-time Western resident marveling at Ghanaian willingness to suffer in silence the spiraling costs and periodic scarcity of key food items.
"Maybe a revolution," he added in an afterthought.
The sense of a deepening malaise has been made worse by the reappearance of flagrant corruption in and out of government circles and centering, it seems, around the scramble for import licenses.
Reports circulating in diplomatic circles say it generally cost 20 percent of the value of the imported goods to secure a license, the kickbacks going to key military and civilian officials at the Castle, the seat of Ghana's government.
One Western economist estimated that as much as $175 million ear-marked for capital development goods was misspent on luxury consumer goods last year, between a fifth and a fourth of the country's total foreign exchange carnings.
"Ghana is ruled by money today." said a young Ghanaian civil servant in open disgust.
The outspoken Palaver Tribune, an independent weekly, spoke with deep concern in a recent editorial of the "greed, avarice and the mad rush for ill-gotten wealth which completely inundated the people of this country the past year." Some Ghanians, it added, were "behaving as if the country is a gold mine on the brink of exhaustion and that if they did not acquire their share in good time there would be noting left to loot."
No Ghanaian leader has ever succeded, if would seem, in mastering the violent ups and downs of world cocoa prices. It is this one key export that accounts for 60 percent or more of Ghana's hard currency earnings - and thus for its eyelic prosperity and doldrums.
In times of fat, like today, cocoa money flows to all kinds of extra economic activities, like buying expensive cars and luxury good and padding private bank accounts here and abroad.
When loan times set in, governments and borrow and as often as not fall, leaving behind economic chaos and huge debts for the next regime to sort out.
And so it has been for the present military government of Gen. Kutu Acheampong, with the unusual twist that it is presently awash with cocoa money. When the general took over six years ago, Ghana's international creditors were howling at the gates over its failure to pay back some 813 million cedis (about $707 million) in short, medium-and long-term loans.
The debt issue was practically the first on the new National Redemption Council's long agenda of wrongs to right, followed by massive government mismanagement of the agricultural sector and huge deficits in the country's balances of payments and trade.
During the firts two years of his rule. Acheampong and his officer colleagues reversed these trends, even as they boldly revalued the cedi. A new debt repayment plan was worked out with creditors, $230 million were, paid off by last year. The deficits were reduced and in some cases turned into positive balances and in 1974 the nation became largely self-sufficient in food thanks to the government's effective Operation Feed Yourself campaign.
Since 1974, however, there has been a slide back into the old morass despite the fact that cocoa prices are at an all-time high. Last year, Ghana earned nearly $800 million from cocoa alone and this year expects to get about $875 million.
Yet the military government has run up nuge budget deficits, reaching nearly $800 million, or 40 percent of all expenditures this past year.
partly because of these deficits, the cedi has become worthless. Openly traded for the ailing U.S. dollar at seven to 10-to one on the streets of Accra.
At present, the government seems paralyzed about what measures it should take. Its only action so far has been to relieve the suffering of the working class from inflation by doubling the minimum wage to about $4 a day.
It has also stepped up its "war" against cocoa smugglers who shipped an estimated 50,000 tons last year and initiated a crackdown on traders charging outrageous prices for basic items.
But Western economists regard these actions as only treating the symptoms.
Acheanipong and his economists blame their problems on a three-year drought; the smuggling the five-fold increase in the cost of imported oil and the greed of Ghana's tough market women who hoard goods until the prices have skyrocketed.
At this point, the government is obviously not in a mood to run many risks. On March 30, the country votes on a proposal that would provide for continued military participation in the government.
Western diplomats are pessimistic that any serious austerity measures will be introduced soon. Whether the present cocoa boom can carry the military through or will be it undoing is a question increasingly being asked in both diplomatic and Ghanaian circles.