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Opinions Thu, 23 Oct 2003

Mahama's Hammar: The President is in Dilemma

In the euphoria of his inauguration as President, Kufour declared quite powerfully that his government would have ‘zero tolerance for corruption.’ This was met with wide acclaim considering that the phenomenon of corruption is one that has dogged this nation’s fortunes since the dawn of independence. There were several jokes coined around the declaration, with one speaking of a frustrated party executive who complained that the President set the corruption bar too low. He should have at least set the bar at 5% tolerance.

The government has been accused by its critics of paying lip service to the policy of zero tolerance for corruption and the Minority has been vociferous in stating that since the president made the declaration at the independence square, the phrase has dropped out of his lexicon. They have accused government of selective justice and applying the ‘zero tolerance’ policy only in respect of persons who do not belong to his party.

Recent happenings however have questioned the sincerity and commitment of President Kufour and his government in the fight against corruption. The Minister of Justice and Attorney General Papa Owusu Ankomah declared somewhere in Takoradi several months ago that there was no corruption in the NPP administration. He said all the allegations of corruption were orchestrations of political opponents. He challenged the media and any persons with evidence of corruption against any public official to come forward.

It was most disheartening to hear an Attorney General who is a critical cog in the anti corruption machinery make such a declaration. Papa Ankomah was rightly savaged in the media. A frustrated Ghanaweb contributor declared that he probably lives on another planet if he sees no evidence of the graft and corruption around him. He was subjected to various choice descriptions including that of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Unfortunately the President appeared to take his cue from the AG when he declared subsequently that he would not act on newspaper stories and mere allegations against public officials. He repeated the AG’s call and said any person with concrete evidence against any public official must make a report to the appropriate authority for investigation. The sad testimony here is that the President and the AG do not recognize that most cases of corruption that are unearthed all over the world start off first as mere allegations by word of mouth or in the media.

When the relevant authorities pick these up, investigations ensue to find the evidence. Any material presented by the media or individuals alleging corruption against a public officer remain mere allegations until established by a process of investigation. How quickly the authorities react to such allegations determines the level of tolerance for corruption. Recently during a routine sweep of his office, a bug was found in the office of the Governor of Pennsylvania. It turned out that the FBI had planted it there because he was the subject of surveillance as a result of allegations of corruption made against him.

Sometime in the year 2000 as Minister of Communications I attended a seminar organized by CHRAJ. Maverick diplomat Craig Murray was seated next to me. He was not billed to speak, but sometime before the programme ended he asked for the opportunity to do so. He launched into a tirade about corruption in Ghana and at a point asked a rhetorical question requesting that anybody who did not believe that corruption existed in Ghana should raise his hand. Of course I did not raise my hand because there was no doubt that corruption existed in Ghana.

I was subsequently caught in crossfire between the media and my own government. The media took my lack of a challenge of Craig Murray’s statement as a tacit admission that our government was corrupt. I took flak from my colleagues in government for not having challenged Mr. Murray. But as I explained over and over again, if I made reverse accusations about corruption in Britain and asked rhetorically that anybody who did not believe that corruption existed in Britain should stand up, Mr. Murray would also not have stood up. Corruption exists in every country and probably can never ever be eradicated. What can be done is to use legislation and other constitutional institutions to reduce it to the barest minimum.

The point about handling perceptions about corruption is not to go on the defensive as the President and members of his government have done since the publication of the last Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Some have even questioned the validity of the report and the methodology used to arrive at its conclusions. I faced a similar situation as Deputy Minister of Communications.

Sometime in early 1998, a little known organization in the UK, Control Risk Group published a report claiming that Ghana was the 20th most corrupt nation in the world. Naturally the hostile local private media picked it up and went into an orgy of attack at government.

The initial urge was to question the validity of the report. However reason prevailed and we instead wrote to Control Risk informing them that we had received information about their report. We asked them for additional information as to their findings in order that we could take appropriate remedial action. We also asked for any recommendations they might have in respect of dealing with the perceptions of corruption. Using our mission in UK we located their offices and found to our surprise at the time that it was a very little organization. We were naturally doubtful of their capacity to efficiently conduct such a survey.

The reply by Control Risk Group to our letter was subsequently published in the Ghanaian media. They refused to disclose any detail about the respondents interviewed for the survey, but assured us that like most studies on perception, it was possible that their findings could be wide off the mark and unreliable. This whole sequence of events subsequently led President Rawlings to seek World Bank support to finance a detailed study on corruption in Ghana. The report which, was completed in the year 2000 was officially released in 2001. Following the initial media interest after it release, it has unfortunately been left to gather dust on the shelves.

Transparency International is a much bigger and better respected organization and its reports cannot be dismissed lightly. It is easy in opposition to take advantage of government’s discomfiture with the allegations of corruption. After all the NPP in opposition took advantage and exploited every allegation of corruption against the NDC Government for political advantage. But the issue of corruption is a more complex and bigger issue than any particular President’s ability to handle single handedly. When I was told NDC Youth Organizer Haruna Iddrisu had written a book on corruption I naturally assumed it would be a literary indictment of the NPP’s record of corruption.

I discovered pleasantly that it was a very balanced and well-researched title on the problem of corruption and how to deal with it. Any future government of Ghana will still be faced with the same challenge of how to deal with corruption. The problem of corruption is one that needs to be handled by the nation as a whole. We have seen the era where drastic punishment was meted out to person’s accused of corruption including capital punishment. It may have stemmed the tide temporarily, but failed to root it out completely.

While the President cannot alone deal with corruption, he has a critical role to play in the fight against the canker. It is necessary to strengthen the anti-corruption institutions such as the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Auditor General’s Dept, Public Accounts Committee of Parliament and other such bodies. In formulating the SFO act, there was serious concern that the Office would be used to witch hunt political opponents. Its powers were therefore significantly watered down. After almost a decade of operation it is probably time to strengthen the organization. For a start the Director can be made substantive instead of acting.

We can also amend the enabling legislation to grant the organization autonomy from the AG’s Dept and make it accountable to Parliament. The SFO must be able to conduct its own prosecutions without waiting for the fiat of AG. The Director of SFO should enjoy security of tenure like judges and the commissioners of CHRAJ and the Electoral Commission. CHRAJ must be strengthened and its enabling legislation changed to cut out bureaucratic procedure and make it able to commence investigations without waiting for formal complaints.

This would be much on the lines of the Public Protector of South Africa, which is currently investigating Vice President Jacob Zumah on alleged dealings with a dodgy businessman. The Right to Information bill and the Whistle Blowers bill which were drafted from as far back as the pre 2000 period and have suffered inordinate delay in arriving at Parliament should be finalized and approved without further delay. Selective justice doesn’t help either. The knee jerk reaction shortly after the TI report of charging Okaija and Nanfuri over the Rheumech project and the preparation to arraign 15 NDC DCEs before court on various charges of causing financial loss perpetuates the belief that zero tolerance is applicable only to political opponents.

Many other cases in which persons of the right political or family colour have been indicted by the SFO or stand accused of worse crimes have been conveniently shelved. Worse still are the new reports being written both by the Auditor General’s Dept. and the SFO to exonerate powerful officials of state from blame in scandals in which they had been previously indicted by these self same institutions.The role of the media is vital. The 1992 constitution gives the media a watchdog role and charges it to hold government accountable to the people. Politicians and bureaucrats all over the world naturally feel irritated by the media breathing down their necks and prying into their handling of public office. But our irritation pales into insignificance set against the public good that the media serves in keeping public officers under the searchlight. One might say “talk is cheap” and it is probably easy to say this when in opposition. I completely agree.

The challenge of public office is so complex that whether in government or opposition we must continue to seek and pray for the strength and resolve to serve our people to the best of our ability. The President has a Herculean task if he is to prove to the nation that he is serious about his commitment to zero tolerance for corruption. He may need to throw some of his lieutenants to the wolves. But most of all he needs to establish an effective system both for preventing and checking corruption. So far he has been in a dilemma on how to proceed with his declaration of zero tolerance for corruption. His inability or unwillingness to clean especially his own stables would remain a blot on the record of his administration

Columnist: Mahama, John