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Should we abolish per diem as we know it?

Mon, 18 Jun 2007 Source: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

If there is any public official in recent times who has abused the per diem system in Ghana, it has to be president Kufour. Our president will not spare a moment to attend any mundane meeting that even office clerks might not consider going. Call a meeting for grasscutters overseas and Kufour will worm his way over there. This is not to say that the president should not travel at all. We all understand that the president must travel to get his work done. It is the intensity of his foreign travel that animates our well founded suspicion that he is abusing the system. Even when the country is convulsed with daunting problems, the president will find a way to sneak out for a couple of weeks. For the most part, there is nothing to show for these travels. I am certain that most Ghanaians are outraged by the blatant abuse of the system by the president. How do you stop this kind of feral abuse in our current political contraption? I am not sure what makes the president want to travel all the time. I will leave the speculation to the gallery.

Let me be fair to note that Kufour did not invent the per diem regime. Rawlings and his predecessors also benefited from this per diem canard. However, it is the wanton abuse of the system by Kufour and his men that has made him the poster boy for per diem. I am told that one of the first moves of Kufour’s government was to hike the per diem amounts! Is this true? Indeed, it has gotten so bad and offensive that, some refer to our president as Wofa per diem. Is the president cheapening the office by tapping inordinately into the per diem scheme? Do we have the resources to sustain the per diem system even as we borrow and beg for everything? Is this sheer opportunism? Can the president exercise a sense of balance here? Can our NPP friends tell us how much the president has netted from per diem since he took office? I can’t wait to read the figures! The abuse of the per diem system by the president and his men symbolically sends a stinking message to all public officials. If the president is behaving in this way, what do we expect of other officials?

How did the per diem system get into our work culture and who invented it? Do we really need it at this point in time? Well, a look at British colonial rule will reveal some clues. It used to be that people did not particularly care about working in places like Africa and others. To entice such recalcitrant civil servants from bucking against the wishes of government, a sweet pot of incentives were introduced for British public servants. To work outside Britain was seen as a huge sacrifice that must be recognized and rewarded. So, like most of our practices in Ghana today, the per diem system has come to stay. Contextually though, does it make sense to sustain this system? Take the case of the president of Ghana. He eats, drinks, and plays for free. He has free water and electricity. His security and petrol is free. His travel too is free. Even his taxes are constitutionally mandated to be free. Now, with this glaring yet batty free bonanza, why do we have to pay him thousands of dollars for each travel? Does it really make sense? What are we paying this colonial per diem for? Does it make sense to keep piling it on for the most privileged person in the land of Ghana? I am sure you all know that the payroll and benefits of public officials is said to be about 2/3 of our budget. Now, if you add the fact that our budget is pillared by loans and grants, you can understand why we are in a mess. We have not even discussed end of service benefits for the president. We’ve also have not touched on what the ministers are hauling away unnoticed. Do you now understand why the freedom of information act is in a limbo?

Do you remember the dustup between the government of Rawlings and the NPP over what cars and houses, among others, Rawlings can keep? Did it give you a clue of the greed that has besieged our public officials? Did it inform you about the end of service benefits and perks that has ballooned out of hand? It is so bad that even the self appointed holy worrier is scrambling for part of the loot. Just look at how fat Rawlings continues to get and tell me if the ex-president and supreme dictator of Ghana is disadvantaged even as he is out of office. As if the haul is not enough, the wife of Rawlings wanted us to foot a stiff medical bill even after her husband left office. Oh what greed! And, we continue to supply air tickets, provide housing, cars and many more perks to this family. For all the latter, we get boom speeches in return! Haba Oman Ghana! Who is funding this bill? Is it the over used taxpayer or through loans? Here you have a Flt Lt who came to office on the wings of a bloody coup. He ascends the post with only a helicopter seat to boast of and a tall bill for gari and beans that he bought on credit. Now, he has the chutzpah to tell us that the water in his toilet tank is cleaner than what most of our poor folks drink. Yet these same dirty water drinking poor folks are being forced to pay for his upkeep? Oh what kings we have! This sure does not make sense one bit. Yes, you will pay for the upkeep of Kufour too! God forbid that he travels with the same intensity! Asem beba!

Let us be realistic and admit that when people travel on behalf of the state, they must eat and find a decent but not lavish place to stay. For that, I don’t have any qualms if the government picks up the tab. However, we can do this in a much more reasonable way so as to take the profits out of this per diem scheme that is being brutally abused by the president and his men. Here is what I propose that we do. Let us make a certified list of hotels in every country that our public officials visit for work. Let us also provide a capped amount for food. Also, let us provide reasonable money for on land travel. With all these provisions, I make the case that we don’t need the colonial per diem system. Once we take the profits out of travel, most of this useless travels will grind to halt. Working for the people should never be a clever way to take from them. We should begin to kill this notion that people go into government in Ghana to make money. I am not against paying people well for the work that they do. What I don’t support is this kinds of elitist scheme designed to suck the blood of the poor taxpayer. Have you followed the kind of allowances that our public officials continue to enjoy? As it stands, most of these top public officials are paid relatively better. Their allowances would make John Sununu want to work for our government. So why provide ways to make them money they don’t deserve? Keep in mind also that Ghana is still a HPIC country no matter what these western apologists say. We continue to thrive on loans and begging. We must never forget the context that forces some of us to say enough is enough. Context is everything!

Let me suggest that using the per diem system as a data point, we must all call for serious reform of our colonial civil service system. I mean far deeper reforms that Nduom is willing to tolerate. We must sand off all the colonial remnants and in place, stake commonsense solutions that reflect our reality. Ghana is not an empire awash with slave wealth like the British Empire was. We cannot continue to nurture an elitist civil service that is quite unproductive but almost drains our scantily filled coffers. I am sometimes really surprised when I look at some of the systems that we tolerate, even as we struggle big time to keep our finances in order. Why can’t we for example, cap the budget for the president’s travels? In so doing, it will force the president to prioritize his travel and use our foreign service wisely. If he should run out of money, he can submit his travel plans to parliament on a case by case basis. Of course I am assuming that we have a parliament that works! How about that? Look, when Donald Trump, the multi-millionaire run into financial difficulties, was he not put on some kind of financial diet? Did it not help? Ghana is in a far more crippling financial conundrum and we need a financial diet big time. A diet that will help our government lose weight. Now you know why Grove Norquist wants to drag government into a bath tub and drown it. Don’t we all get fed up after a while? Oh these shameless dysfunctional elite!

My brothers and sisters, we have to cut our government to size and the first step should be the removal of all these unearned colonial perks given to us by the British and nurtured by the vampire elite. Government work should not be a money making venture. Government work should be selfless and an attempt to serve the suffering masses. The last time I checked, the constitution does not mandate all these decadent perks and with a stroke of a pen, the president can revoke a lot of this dross which would move the country closer to financial responsibility. I doubt if this president will consider this ideas. Just like the limitless Supreme Court, the president, unfortunately, sees this as another opportunity to feather his cap. Perhaps, this is another opportunity for the NPP to shamelessly blame the NDC for setting up or continuing these systems. Should I continue to cry for the country I love so much? I hope as the 2008 campaign unfolds, we make real civil service reform a centerpiece. We must force these highfalutin candidates to give us their views on per diem and how they intend not to abuse it. Call your parliamentarian and complain!

Enough is enough!

Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman
(Also known as the Double Edge Sword)


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka