Opinions Wed, 20 Apr 2016

MANASSEH’S FOLDER: Of integrity, lawyers and corruption in Ghana – Manasseh’s speech to law students

I have been asked to speak on the topic: “The Lawyer: A Key Player in Ensuring Integrity in Ghana’s Legal System”. However, I will want to alter the topic a little. I want to speak on “The Lawyer: A key player in ensuring integrity in Ghana.” I do not want to limit my presentation to the role of the lawyer in ensuring integrity to the legal system.

My three decades on this side of planet earth has taught me that the role of the lawyer in ensuring integrity goes beyond the legal system.

If I asked you about one corrupt group of people whose corruption has sunk and still threatens to sink this nation deeper, I am sure you would begin to think about the usual suspects – the politicians. But politicians who are corrupt are just a collection of other corrupt professionals.

Until recently when national service personnel started getting elected into parliament and getting ministerial appointments, all our politicians were professionals from different fields of human endeavour.

And I can say that lawyers are one professional group that dominates in all the three arms of government.

On top of my head, I can say the Minister of Defence, Dr. Benjamin Kumbuor, is a Lawyer. The Minister of Environment and Science, Mahama Ayariga, is a lawyer.

Minister for Employment and labour relations, Haruna Iddrisu, is a lawyer. The minister for Roads and Highways, Inusah Fuseini, is a lawyer. The Minister of Justice and Attorney-General is a lawyer, Marrietta Brew Appiah-Oppong, is a lawyer. The Minister for Gender and Social Protection, Nana Oye Lithur is a lawyer.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, Hannah Tetteh, is a lawyer. The minister for Lands and Natural Resources, NiiOsa Mills, is a lawyer and former President of the Ghana Bar Association. There is no any single profession that has more representation on the ministerial list than lawyers. Two of the four Presidents in Ghana’s Fourth Republic have been lawyers.

Most of the influential parliamentarians on both sides of the house are lawyers. In the judiciary, almost all the judges were once lawyers. In effect, lawyers are a single professional body that that dominates the three arms of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. So if our society appears irredeemably corrupt, no one can write a credible story of that corruption without the role of the lawyer.

Lawyers in the history of our nation were known to be selfless, patriotic and of high integrity. The foundation of the Gold Coast and independent Ghana was built on the sacrificial sweat of lawyers such as John MensahSarbah and others who saw the need to use their legal prowess to liberate their people.

I am not sure J.B Danquah whose landmark case, In Re-Akoto, which has been immortalized in the legal education in Ghana took up the case because of money. These days, however, we seem to measure how successful a lawyer is based on their wealth.

I am an anti-corruption journalist and I can tell you that lawyers are part of the reason corruption is thriving in this country. In recent times when corrupt individuals and companies get into trouble, lawyers are those who defend them.

They do not only defend them in the court of law. It is fast becoming a norm to see lawyers playing the roles of public relations officers.

Apart from issuing threats against the media and groups that stand up to fight such corrupt entities or individuals, some lawyers are prepared to lie to defend their clients.

In so doing they sometimes find themselves having to defend the indefensible, and with legal jargons, some of them offer explanations that are alien to common sense and disrespectful to the conscience and reasoning of their audience.

I have a number of friends who are lawyers and sometimes when I talk to them, they tell me some of the rot that goes on in the legal system. That rot goes beyond the judges.

Some lawyers do not only encourage the payment of bribes to judges but they also shortchange their clients when the money on the other side is bigger than what their clients have to offer.

In order to secure a judgment in their favour, some lawyers encourage their clients to lie, thereby making it difficult to dispel the notion that lawyers are liars.

There is nothing wrong with defending or accepting to hold a brief for even self-confessed criminals. But there is everything wrong with lying to set them free.

For me, he who lies to defend a thief should never be left out if the roll call of thieves is conducted.

My dear friends, I have not come here to attack lawyers. I am only recounting what I hear from lawyers. Some of you may have heard it too. And some of you will soon witness it. The fact that you chose this topic for the symposium means there is a problem with integrity in the legal system, which we must address. And the fact that I am talking about lawyers does not mean my own profession is clean.

I am aware journalists are among the most corrupt set of individuals in this country.

What this means is that the so-called fourth estate of the realm, which is supposed to be watch dogs over the three arms of government is found wanting.

And if the gamekeepers who are supposed to keep the wildlife safe become hunters, then the animals are in serious trouble.

That is why Ghana has bled and continues to bleed so profusely. The focus this afternoon, however, is on lawyers and how they can help ensure integrity in Ghana.

We have great minds in the country. We have very hard working people. Our problems are well-defined. We know how to solve them. We have the resources to walk ourselves out of the long night of gloom, doom and the mess in which we have been stuck for decades. What we lack are men and women of integrity to steer our sinking ship of despair onto the shores of hope and prosperity. Men and women of integrity in Ghana today are scarcer than 21-year old virgins in the 21st century.

As young men and women who will soon be lawyers, judges, magistrates, MPs and Ministers, how can you help restore integrity and some modicum of sanity in this blessed but seemingly accursed land of ours? You can do so by learning from your predecessors who upheld the nobility of the legal profession and used their influence and knowledge of the law to advance the cause of humanity.

Public interest litigation by the fine legal brains we have in this country can help stop the executive from messing up with the destiny of this nation. It is refreshing that lawyers like Ace Ankomah [a co-panelist] have joined pressure groups such as OccupyGhana. I only hope they will not become like the Committee for Joint Action if the NPP wins power.

My fellow Ghanaians, nobody or no system can force integrity on you. In countries where systems work; laws are made to punish corruption. Here in Ghana, there are laws but they rather protect those who are corrupt. The sad reality in Ghana is that it is more dangerous to be a man or woman of integrity than to be corrupt.

At the national level, there is so much incentive for people who loot the country with impunity. We have a President who misses no opportunity to tell us that he is committed to fighting corruption. But our wise elders have taught us that no man tills the land with his tongue. For me, I cannot take the president seriously on fighting corruption when I look at the hundreds of Millions of cedis that have been stolen through SUBAH, GYEEDA, SADA, and other scandals and the fact that the culprits are still free men and women.

I cannot help but liken the impotent promises of the president on fighting corruption to the words of a drunkard who speaks but does not know what they are saying. Sometimes I believe he is misinformed. The frightening impunity with which public funds are these days will surprise even the devil.

President Obama told us when he visited Ghana in 2009 that “Africa needs strong institutions and not strong men.” We took his words and started quoting him as if it is a password to heaven. But Obama was not entirely accurate. Ghana has strong institutions. But we need strong men and women to make those institutions work. By strong men, I am not referring to men with stocky bodies like that of GodfredNsafoa.

Lanky ones like Ali Gafaruare strong men in this context. [Gafaru and Nsafoa are students of University of Ghana Faculty of Law]. What they need to fit into this description are clean conscience and integrity. To a large extent, Ghana’s judiciary is independent, but an independent judiciary is meaningless if the judge is prepared to sell justice to the highest bidder.

You will soon be lawyers. And the question is: what is your role in ensuring integrity in Ghana? To be able to ensure integrity, you must first be men and women of integrity.

You cannot give what you don’t have. And that does not come by chance. It is a deliberate decision you must make. In making that decision you must take the advise Christ Jesus gave his disciples in Matthew 16:24 of the Holy Bible: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Being a man or woman of integrity is a life-long decision, which has both positive and negative repercussions. For this reason, it must be anchored on a strong foundation. Permit me to share with you some pillars you need to know if your anchor of integrity will hold in the stormy life of corruption and a fierce battle for survival in which we find ourselves.

One strong pillar is religion. Karl Marx teaches us that religion is the opium of the masses. But I see religion as a restraining force that reminds us of the limitations or our mortal beings and teaches us values that no form of education can teach. Religion helps us to overcome the destructive excesses of knowledge and science.

I am a Christian and I know my religion frowns on stealing, cheating, dishonesty and unfair acquisition of wealth. Islam frowns on that as well. And I know the day our politicians, judges and other public office holders will be asked to swear by AntoaNyama, some will reject their positions even if they are traditionalists.

Our religions teach us all the godly virtues that will make our lives whole. Unfortunately, however, in Ghana, we are very religious but ungodly. If we will take our religions beyond our Sunday or Friday cloaks and apply the godly principles to our lives, we will have no difficulty living as men and women of integrity.

Another strong pillar on which to anchor your integrity is patriotism. We must love Ghana. You must live your life as if the success or failure of this nation depends solely on you. America is great because they love their country.

We can never be great if we think only about our personal interests. We must be prepared to die a little for this country. Let no one deceive you that this country is not worth dying for.

All the countries that we think are worth dying for were once hopeless nations whose citizens died for it to become great. Most of the people whose blood and sweat became the building blocks for such great nations did not live to enjoy their fruits.

America has the strongest army but after the world wars, I don’t know of any nation in the world whose soldiers have died in battle more than American troops.

Patriotism is not about loving your country when it is convenient to do so or when you think your nation has something to offer you. Patriotism is an unconditional love for your country. We must first be patriotic, build this nation before we start asking for what it has to offer.

You cannot seek shelter where no building has been put up. We should not be in a hurry to leave Ghana. Now getting a visa to escape from Ghana is a miracle people fast and pray to receive.

There is nothing nobler than living in your own country. Ghana is the only nation you can enjoy all the benefits of a citizen. Even if you go to Europe, America or Asia to naturalise, the colour of your skin or the shape of your nose will set you apart. And there is nothing dehumanizing than living in perpetual racial discrimination.

Mr. Chairman, to be able to live incorruptible lives, one must pay heed to what Ecclesiastes teaches us about vanity. When the moment of truth comes, whatever we use foul means to acquire will be left here.

When that afternoon his the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Ghana Armed Forces, Excellency Professor John Evans Atta Mills, suddenly became known as “the body,” it was clear that not even a cedi of his ex-gratia would get to him. None of us sitting in this hall can guarantee that they will be alive tomorrow.

And if any of us were given the opportunity to live today as our last day, I am not sure stealing from the state our duping our colleagues would ever be part of our plans for the last 24 hours on earth. Even if your aim is to amass wealth for your children, let me remind you that a good name is still better than wealth.

If you ever set up your company and two young men who are equally qualified for a job you advertised came to you and you asked of their surnames and they mention Woyome and Martin Amidu, which one are you likely to employ, with all other factors being equal?

The last pillar on which you can build an enduring anchor of integrity is to know the purpose of your existence. Has it ever occurred to you that many people have given up trying to get admission into the law school?

Has it ever occurred to you that some of those who are bounced every year are more intelligent and could become better lawyers than you?

And has it ever occurred to you that some of those who finish their LLB will never be able to go to Makola and be called to the bar even though they stand a better chance than you? If that is the case, why are you able to go through?

I believe God has a purpose for all his children. Sometimes it is not for your own sake that God has brought you this far. Maybe there is a poor widow whose land is being stolen by an influential and constitutionally protected thief. This widow cannot afford the services of a lawyer. God may have granted you access to the law school to help that poor widow next door.

One biblical story which inspires me and which I often relate to is the story of Esther. When the Jews faced annihilation and Queen Esther gave reasons why she could not intervene for her people, Mordecai sent her a strong word:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Esther could have been killed if she appeared before the king without being invited. But she said they should pray for her and that she would go, saying “If I perish, I perish.”

Esther intervened and her people were saved.

Your purpose on this planet is not just to make money for yourself and your family. You may be the savior this nation is longing for. So don’t cut your dreams short by soiling yourself with the filth and living with perpetual guilt. See yourself as a man or woman with a greater purpose or calling. In this way, you can live a clean life of integrity.

Mr. Chairman, it is not true that all Ghanaians are corrupt. Let us not accept the tag of corruption and be like everyone else. Those who are corrupt should not be allowed to roast “momoni” and push it into our mouths. Being corrupt is a decision. Living with integrity is also a decision. It is also a lie that everybody has his price at which they can be bought. If you decide to live with integrity, there is a price to pay.

But there is also a prize to receive. From my experience as an anti-corruption journalist, the prize of incorruptibility far outweighs price you pay for being corrupt. It is true that our system is structured to favour the corrupt against the clean. But I insist there is no good reason to be corrupt. Poverty and hardship or the fear of them are not a good reason to be corrupt. If there were any such good reason, I would be justified in being corrupt.

I was born and bred in a family where poverty was a concrete noun. Growing up, I could see, smell, breathe, taste and touch poverty. Getting into journalism and seeing money tossed in my face, could have decided to change the fortunes of my family. I was riding a small motorbike when someone offered me a car as a bribe to take his name out of a story I was doing. I do not have a plot of land, but I turned down offers that could have given me a house in Trassaco valley if I was prepared to part ways with my integrity.

Often when rich and successful personalities are interviewed, they are often asked how they made their first One Million Dollars. But making millions of dollars should not be the most fulfilling achievement we should all aspire to.

Apart from my prize package for winning the journalist of the year, I am yet to make my first 10,000 cedis but I take pride in the fact that stories I have done have helped to stop the stealing of hundreds of millions of cedis from the state.

So what are the benefits? I have my conscience intact. The honour of addressing you this afternoon is one of the joys I derive from deciding to practice my journalism with integrity and dignity.

If I should die today, I will be happy that my life has not been wasted. I will be happy that my career as a journalist has helped my country and my society in a positive way.

And let me add that being a man or woman of integrity does not mean you will die poor.

In God’s own time he will reward those who stand by these godly principles. And even if you stand by your principles and die poor, you will go with the experiences of Mother Pollard.

Mother Pollard was an old African American civil rights activist. Following the arrest of Rosa Park for refusing to vacate her seat for a white passenger on the bus, the civil rights movement in Montgomery decided to embark on a year long boycott of public transport and transportation ran by the whites. Since many of them did not have vehicles they decided to walk. On a cold morning autumn morning in 1956, an elderly illiterate woman was embarking on her four-mile journey to work. The difficulty with which she plodded wearily led a passerby who asked with sympathy if her feet were tired.

Mother Pollard’s answer was simple: “Yes, my friend, my feet is tired, but my soul is rested.” Ladies and Gentlemen if you ever commit your life to integrity, and live by the dictates of your good conscience, you will come up against challenges. But you can always be assured of a “rested soul” no matter how turbulent the tides of life roll against you.

God bless you for the attention.

This is a speech Manasseh Azure Awuni delivered to at asymposium organized by the Law Students’ Union of the University of Ghana Law School. Other speakers at the symposium were Mr. Ace Ankomah, a lawyer and the Metropolitan Archbishop of Accra, Most Rev. Gabriel Palmer Buckle.
Columnist: Manasseh Azure Awuni