The national cathedral was supposed to unite Ghana. Instead, the unfinished project and its ballooning costs have divided the country and become, for some, a symbol of failed policies and presidential vanity.
President Nana Akufo-Addo pledged to build the cathedral before he became president in 2016. He proposed a structure designed by a world-renowned architect, with a 5,000-seat auditorium, a Bible museum, and a garden filled with plants mentioned in Scripture. It would be a place for worship and national ceremonies: inaugurating the president, holding state funerals, and conducting national thanksgiving services.
Now Akufo-Addo is half way through his second four-year term, and construction is still ongoing. Costs have risen from an initial budget of about $100 million to four times that amount, and the country is struggling with an economic crisis with 50 percent inflation. Allegations of misappropriation of funds have only deepened public skepticism.
But Akufo-Addo is not turning back.
“The National Cathedral will be a unifying monument around which to elevate shared conversations on faith and on national transformation,” he said, according to the cathedral’s website. “It will also serve as a rallying platform to promote deep national conversations on how, collectively, we can build the progressive and prosperous Ghana we desire.”
In recent days, however, some of the public criticism has taken on a decidedly religious hue. One outspoken member of parliament opposed to the project, Sam George, cited the New Testament during debate over additional government “seed money” earlier this year.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” he said, quoting Luke 14:28. “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.’”
Ransford Gyampo, professor of political science at the University of Ghana, says the country has misplaced priorities. The government shouldn’t put a building project ahead of things like the development of a school lunch program. He makes the argument in explicitly religious terms:
“God will not be happy with us,” he told Al Jazeera. “Who said God lives in cathedrals?”
But many of Ghana’s 23 million Christians do support plans for the cathedral, which will occupy a prime piece of real estate not far from the country’s parliament. Churches across the country—including Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, and many Pentecostal congregations—have contributed more than 2.2 million Ghanaian cedis ($195,000) to the building fund.
The prominent Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council (GPCC) has echoed the president’s arguments, saying the cathedral will be a monument that represents all Ghanaians. About 70 percent of the country is Christian. Eighteen percent are Muslim, 5 percent practice indigenous religions, and 6 percent say they have no religious identity.
The project’s board of trustees is also headed up by theologian and televangelist Kwadwo Opoku Onyinah. He has repeated that he is committed to working hard to complete the building.
"We are here to do what God has asked us to do,” he said.
He also used his and the board’s personal reputation to counter the allegations about corruption that have surrounded the initial phase of construction.
“We are not seeking fame or name,” Onyinah said. “We are not asking for money.”
Not everyone is convinced the cathedral is God-ordained, though. Younger Christians, in particular, seem skeptical of the idea of a national cathedral.
Jojo Quansah, a media and telecommunications consultant who is Pentecostal, said the project was flawed from the start. The country doesn’t lack churches, he said. It lacks development. Women in some parts of the country have their babies in hospitals without beds, and some children still attend school not in classrooms but under trees, he pointed out.
“If the state has excess money to burn, they are better off spending it on making more people’s lives better,” he told CT. “In Matthew 25:31–46, Christ made it absolutely clear that for any leader purporting to profess Him, their best foot forward is how they positively impact ‘the least of these brothers and sisters.’”
Like many Ghanaians, Quansah was scandalized when existing buildings, including a passport office, a diplomatic residence, and a block of office buildings, were demolished to make way for the cathedral.
“To think that we demolished pretty okay state buildings to claim land for the cathedral, when we are struggling for growth in several areas of our economy, is miles away from any consideration of Christianity,” he said.
Quansah is also skeptical of the secondary argument for the cathedral. Promoters say it will draw tourists, turning Ghana’s capital into “a hub for international pilgrimage and tourism.” The designs for the cathedral have been drawn up by renowned Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who was also the lead designer of the eye-catching National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The proposed Bible museum with the cathedral will be larger than two similar museums in the United States. Tourism is Ghana’s fourth largest industry, behind cocoa, gold, and fossil fuels.
But the telecom consultant said the idea that a new church in Ghana will compete with ancient religious landmarks and draw tourists away from Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame “is just funny.” Quansah points out a similar church construction project in Ivory Coast has not worked out so well. The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest church in the world, was designed to accommodate 18,000 worshipers, but only a few hundred attend services regularly.
Ghana’s government has reportedly invested $339 million Ghanaian cedis ($30 million) in the project so far, to kickstart construction. The rest is supposed to be funded by private donations. As the country has been overtaken by economic problems, though, cathedral construction has become less of a priority. The country just received a much-needed bailout worth $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund to be paid over the next three years. It’s money that will need to be spent not on cathedrals but on boosting economic growth.
Construction, meanwhile, appears to be in limbo.
Akosua Asamoabea, a Ghanaian student at a school in the US, saw the construction site in December when she was visiting her family in Accra. It was all boarded up and quiet. The large cranes were still.
Asamoabea, a Christian who grew up in the Baptist church, was upset to see the many buildings that had been leveled to make way for what she termed the “president’s passion project.” And she mourned the destruction of ancient trees that once lined the roads in that part of the capital.
“As long as I have been alive, those trees have existed, and I believe they existed long before me,” the 27-year-old told CT. Now they’ve been felled “for really what is going to be a glorified auditorium.”
She believes that Christians should build churches. But for the government, it doesn’t seem right.
“Young people don’t have jobs or are unable to envision a future in the way that our parents did,” she said. “A cathedral? It doesn’t make sense to me.”