WHEN Ken Ofori-Atta left Ghana as a high school student in 1980, ''home'' was a painful memory. Decades of political chaos and economic mismanagement left the West African nation a skeleton of its former self.
Lt. Jerry Rawlings took over the reigns of power in 1981, and again on New Years Day 1982, with a pledge to restore order and clamp down on unscrupulous ''profiteers.''
For a decade, Mr. Ofori-Atta emersed himself in his studies in the United States, earning an undergraduate degree in economics from Columbia University, and a master's degree in management from Yale University. Then, he landed a job on Wall Street with Salomon Brothers Inc., an investment banking firm.
In 1990, Ofori-Atta made his first trip back to Ghana. What he found made him think twice about remaining in New York.
Despite his revolutionary fervor, President Rawlings had led the country through an economic recovery program sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, involved massive devaluations of the currency; lifting price controls; laying off 45,000 government employees, and an ambitious privatization program involving the sale of more than 300 state-owned enterprises.
As a result, Ghana was gaining a reputation as a unique African economic success.
The Ghana Stock Exchange (GSE) had just opened its doors, with 11 listed companies.
''I saw a niche,'' recalled Ofori-Atta in an interview in his Accra office.
Months later, the dapper young business executive was back with a Ghanaian colleague from Yale and another who had been working for the international accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick in Washington. They formed Databank, an equity-research, stock-brokerage, and financial-advisory service company with Ofori-Atta as executive chairman.
The company, which boasts 18 professional staff (many of them Ghanaians returning from abroad) has since helped broker major privatization deals and facilitate the entry of reputable overseas fund managers into the stock exchange.
''To the extent that I decided to try my luck in Ghana rather than anywhere else, you might say there is an umbilical chord,'' Ofori-Atta remarked. ''But more than anything I saw an opportunity. I saw that I could be doing what I was doing in New York in a place where that would have greater impact; where I could be more successful and more fulfilled.''
More than a million of Ghana's 16 million people are estimated to be living abroad; many in high-profile international and private-sector jobs. It is estimated that Ghanaians abroad repatriate $300 million annually to family and friends at home.
Evidence that even a trickle of these expatriate Ghanaians are returning home is one of the most positive signs yet of a change for the better.
Still, much remains to be done as youngsters accost drivers at street lights in this bustling capital city, selling everything from apples to dog collars.
As the World Bank notes in a recent report titled, ''Ghana: 2000 and Beyond,'' with a per capita income of $390 a year, the country remains among the poorest in the world.
Although the economy has been growing at 5 percent a year, the population has been growing by 3 percent, leaving a net increase of per capita income of only 2 percent. That's high for black Africa. But many of Ghana's poorer citizens have been badly hurt by cuts in food subsidies; increases in health and education costs; as well as massive retrenchments in the public sector.
To achieve its ambition of doubling income by 2007, Ghana's 50th anniversary of independence, the economy would have to grow by 8 percent a year, says the World Bank, which -- with the IMF and Western donors -- has been pumping an average of nearly $1 billion annually into the recovery effort.
More private investment
Such levels of aid are unlikely to be sustained beyond the next few years. ''It is important to donors that Ghana be a success,'' commented a Western diplomat. ''But this is not a blank check.''
What is required, according to the World Bank, is that private investment -- now increasingly cited as the ''missing link'' in sustaining Ghana's economic miracle -- increase from 8 percent to 15 percent of gross domestic product, with foreign investment rising from its present negligible level to 5 percent of GDP.
Even then, private investment as a proportion of GDP would lag behind countries such as Thailand, which Ghana sees as a role model, where the figure stands at 32 percent.
''Up to now, the public sector has led growth in Ghana,'' the country's well respected Finance Minister Kwesi Botchwey said in an interview. ''We are at the end of that road and have to change course. Henceforth, the private sector must be at the cutting edge.''
Since the start of the recovery program, new investment in this West African nation -- referred to during colonial times as the Gold Coast -- has largely been confined to the gold-mining sector. Ghana has received some $1.5 billion in new investment from British, Canadian, Australian, and, most recently, South African firms.
But investment in the non-mining sectors has been hovering at $35 million a year.
An element of distrust is still evident between business and government, despite elections in 1992 that legitimized Rawlings and restored civilian rule.
At a rally last year, Ghana's president -- who still appears from time to time in his military fatigues -- upset the business community when he accused three top businessmen of supporting the opposition, and called for the boycott of their products.
This led to an outcry in the newly invigorated news media, and partial retreat by the president.
''There is still the underlying suspicion that Rawlings is not fully comfortable with the idea of profit,'' says a Western diplomat in Accra. ''What is needed is for the president to get down off the fence and say unequivocally that he is for the private sector.''
Charles Mensah, executive director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, is critical of the government for granting a 60 percent wage increase to government workers on the eve of the elections. This has contributed to mounting budget deficits -- which had been brought under control during the early reform years. The result is that inflation, which had been brought down to 10 percent, has climbed to 25 percent, leading to high interest rates and a squeeze on credit.
Eddie Imbeah Amoakub, executive secretary of the institute, complains that many firms in the textile and garment industry have closed as a result of trade liberalization policies that have led to an influx of cheap imports, including secondhand clothes.
Mr. Botchwey maintains that the public-sector salary increase was necessary to prevent massive labour unrest that would have disrupted the elections. But the minister stressed that such a measure would not be repeated in the run up to the 1996 election: ''We've learned our lesson.''
Botchwey points to tangible measures the government has taken to assist the private sector, including setting up a business advisory group, which Ofori-Atta sits on.
After a slow start on the privatization program -- which threw into question the government's commitment to the private sector -- early last year Databank, along with other brokers, helped arrange the floating of 25 percent of the government's 55 percent holding in Ashanti Goldfields (one of the world's most lucrative gold mines): 20 percent on the London Stock Exchange and 5 percent on the Ghana Stock Exchange.
This proved a welcome jump start for the nascent exchange.
A year ago, Databank also brokered a deal in which the government sold $25 million worth of its shareholdings in other companies to a group of foreign investors including Foreign Colonial, Baring Asset Management, Emerging Market Management, Salomon Brothers, and Genesis and Buchanan.
Ghana might still be far from becoming Africa's first economic tiger, but Ofori-Atta is optimistic. ''We have everything,'' he reflected from behind a desk stacked high with paper -- phones and fax machine ringing in the background. ''We have resources. We have people. We have goodwill, and the possibility of a lasting democracy. Confusion? Plenty. We have it all!''