Opinions Sat, 24 Sep 2011

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The reign of the bandit

...and the phantom’s blood feast on the highways

George Sydney Abugri

By the time the ruling party and the largest opposition party are done with their frantic obsession with political power, there wont be a single voter left in Ghana to cast a ballot for either of them, because by then, the 25 million of us would have been very dead, Jomo, killed one and all by armed robbers and gory road accidents.

Going by the official statistics which appear to be very gross underestimates, an average of six people are killed in road accidents in Ghana everyday but then, once every so often, the casualties in a single accident range between 20 and 50.

It could not get any more gruesome, what with human body parts usually strewn along and across highways as if the travelers had been set upon and terribly mauled by a thousand hungry lions.

The journey from Accra through Kumasi, Techiman, Bamboi, Bole, Sawla and Tuna to Wa the Upper West Regional capital can be for the first time traveler on the route, a nightmarishly long and tortuous one, some of it through forbidding bushes and desolate Savannah woodlands. It is the same with the journey from Accra through Kumasi, Techiman, Kintampo, Yapei, Tamale and Walewale to Bolgatanga the Upper East Regional capital.

As lately as 1990, travelers along both routes went to sleep soundly in the bushes along the highways, their lives and luggage as safe as the proverbial houses. If this sounds a bit weird or incomprehensible, let me explain:

Thanks to the terrible riding quality of both highways at the time, passenger buses belonging to the State Transport Corporation and other transport companies sometimes broke down late at night, right in the middle of the bush.

Then an amazing scene right out of a road travel adventure movie would unfold: Men, women and children, many of them total strangers, who may only have struck up acquaintances on the bus, would spread jackets, cloths, blankets etc on the gravel of the un-asphalted road and go to sleep till day break.

In the course of the night and at dawn, some would keep sneaking into and out of the dark bushes, to do what nature says all mortals must do.

One day in 1994, I found myself lying on the ground beside a mechanically disabled STC bus bound for Wa from Accra; It was between 20.30am and 3.00am. All around me were travelers from the bus who were sound asleep. Morning seemed a trillion light years away and unable to sleep, I crossed the road to the other side and after a moment of hesitation, plunged into the bush.

I took a few steps into the bush, my courage lifted by showers of moonlight streaming down. No baboon howled at me. No neon-eyed beast crashed out of the bushes to attack. {The activi¬ties of poachers had driven wildlife deep into the bush.}

I recall emptying my bladder, then standing a while listening to the nocturnal sounds of the woods, before retracing my steps to the bus. No armed bandits lurking in the shadows to attack and rob helpless stranded travelers. As a matter of fact, most travelers had never heard of highway robbers.

Less than three decades later, scarcely a day passes without armed bandits attacking convoys of long distance buses on those routes, robbing and sometimes raping and killing travelers.

If that is bad news, here is the real news, Jomo: Armed robbery and other violent crimes are expected to increase progressively at the rate of 20 percent a year and that estimate I gather, is a conservative one!

On the basis of these projections and given the increasing sophistication in the activities of armed robbers, you might expect that the contrast between public safety even in these days of endemic violent criminal activity and public safety in the next 20 years, will be even sharper than the contrast between public safety in the days of our experiences with disabled vehicles on the north-bound highways in the early 1990’s, and public safety today.

Two-and-a half out of every three Ghanaians have either been victims of armed robbery or been in very close proximity with one or several of them.

Ordinary citizens, Ministers of State, Members of Parliament, leading political figures, leading clergymen, diplomats, medical doctors, businessmen, celebrities, students etc have all been victims of armed robberies.

Banks, shops, homes, supermarkets, petroleum dispensing stations, boutiques forex bureau ect have been under attack by robbers. How all this can be going on as if it were all normal is the puzzle.

Here are some of the likely reasons why armed robbery in Ghana has persisted for so long: Having touted Ghana internationally as one of the safest countries in the world, the authorities are unable to admit that there is indeed a phenomenal internal security crisis in Ghana and that most people live in constant fear for their lives. That would scare away investors and trade partners.

The authorities are reluctant to admit that while there is armed robbery in many countries, ours is a case of terrorism requiring very urgent and drastic action which transcends normal law enforcement.

Those who have the power to order such drastic action and lend it the official and special logistical support required for full scale war on the terrorists, are guarded 24/7 by armed personnel and cannot appreciate the level of danger ordinary people face.

The wealthy in society have in their fear, barricaded themselves behind sky high walls topped with electrified razor fences and heavy security installations. So barricaded in are so many people, that in the event of fires, rescue operations would be easier said than done.

The singular, unbelievable ruthlessness of this generation of armed robbers chucks the purported link between unemployment and armed robbery right out of the window. How do you explain the fact that robbers who encounter no resistance from their victims and easily rob them, go to the extent of raping and killing their victims, sometimes raping mothers in front of their spouses their children.

Such crimes are so heinous that they weigh very heavily on the conscience of society. Makers of the law felt that such people must necessarily be kept permanently away from society for society’s own safety. That is how the death penalty came about.

From livestock and domestic animals like dogs and pigs to the big wild cats of the jungle like the lions and tigers, animals do not behave that way and it is a widely held view that any human who engages in behaviour unbefitting of even beasts, forfeits all claim to any human rights

I cannot prove it but it is dead certain that most armed robbers after having spent years robbing people of thousands of dollars, pounds and cedis and spending the money on drugs and pleasures, cannot even if they tried, sweat for their daily bread anymore.

Hit them with everything: Call up the infantry, navy, air force, commandos, police, patriotic machomen, hunters, game wardens, Asafo Companies, community volunteers and let them sweep the country from coast to northern borders, and let us see how many bandits will be left standing.

Although public safety in Ghana has already been so alarmingly compromised, the bloodthirsty god of our highways is in even stiffer competition with the armed men terrorizing the nation and its citizens, to bring public safety down to zero.

The daily massive slaughter on the roads and highways is typically followed by widespread expressions of shock and grief and a ritualistic repetition in the media by road safety experts and the police, of the key causes of road accidents.

No sooner have they put the last full stop to their discussion of the crisis, than news of another road crush usually comes through. Civil society might consider helping voters to make public safety in Ghana an Election 2012 campaign issue! Website: www.sydneyabugri.com Email: georgeabu@hotmail.com

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

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