The ordeal of Ghana draws attention both to the economic/political plight of other African countries and to the ways some of them are overcoming it. Indeed, even in desperately troubled Ghana, the two-year-old elected government of President Hilla Limann may only have needed more time to achieve the improvement sought by the latest military coup. By denying the regime this opportunity, coup leader Jerry John Rawlings challenges himself to do better.
Mr. Rawlings, a former flight lieutenant, led one unsuccessful and one successful coup before. After the latter, in 1979, he quickly followed through on promises to restore civilian government. Now, while suspending democratic institutions, he promises to give all Ghanaians a say in running the country. He also pledges to mount a ''holy war'' against corruption and to remain nonaligned in the international community.
These are goals worth working as hard for as the vigorous Mr. Rawlings seems prepared to work. They risk being undercut if he goes in the direction of the strong-man government of Libya's Colonel Qaddafi, whom he is said to admire and who is reported to have lent him support in recent years.
Was the coup now a product of calculation or impatience? Corruption has undermined Ghana for decades. The Limann regime was believed no more corrupt than most of its predecessors since Ghana became the first black African nation to win independence. Last year it was described by the US State Department as having a ''methodical'' approach to Ghana's many problems.
But, going back to the excesses of the original Kwame Nkrumah regime, Ghana's situation is so bad as to break the pattern of most African countries. It is a warning to other countries not to let deterioration go so far. It is an enormous challenge to any leader.
The economic worsening has come about in part because of the fall in the price of cocoa, a commodity in which Ghana once led the world; and because of the rise in the price of oil, for which Ghana is totally dependent on others. Ghana may have a brighter future through discoveries of oil believed to lie offshore. Its cocoa production may be higher than reported because of the quantities drained off through smuggling; fall-offs may be due in part to shortages of fertilizer caused by lack of foreign exchange. But here is a striking example of how countries with few exportable resources such as cocoa could be aided by the stability in commodity prices long sought in the dialogue between the industrial and developing worlds.
Ghana's own policies and mismanagement have also contributed to problems, as in some other countries. For example, by holding down food prices for the sake of city consumers, it withheld incentives from farmers, and food supplies dropped. Zimbabwe, albeit under far different and more favorable circumstances, is an example of the reverse: raising prices and achieving bumper crops.
Mr. Rawlings has his work cut out for him -- to choose from the best examples of other lands and to make Ghana an example in turn.