Three Happy Cheers for President Mills, but…..

Fri, 19 Jun 2009 Source: Bokor, Michael J. K.

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor,

E-mail: mjbokor@ilstu.edu

June 13, 2009

Intriguing things continue to happen these days. Is Ghanaian politics still considered as a “dirty game” or a “game full of nonsense for which anybody who wants to participate in it must have a big stomach for nonsense”? Your answer should be as good as mine. I leave it to you.

Here is my answer, anyway. In our part of the world, politics has become a gold mine that attracts all manner of people, most of whom know very well that they are not well cut out to wield political power and use it for the benefit of Mother Ghana and her citizens. But they can’t shun politics because its enticements are too tempting for them to shy away from. Thus, they do all they can to become “professional politicians” who roam the corridors of power for opportunities to make hay while their political sun shines.

Take a cursory glance around you or take a peek into the political history of our country and consider carefully the caliber of our politicians; and you shouldn’t be surprised that most of them are people who failed in their chosen careers but have “made it big” in partisan politics.

Against this background, it is more than shocking for one to be told that “President John Evans Atta Mills does not intend to receive per diem on his travels.”

His is a rare occurrence but not new to some of us. To a limited extent, the precedent had already been set by Mr. Harry Sawyer who, as a former MP for Ashiedu Keteke in the Third Republic and the Minister of Transport and Communications, took the firm decision not to collect his monthly salary. By rejecting such entitlements, he shocked almost everybody except himself. I don’t have any record of anybody other politician doing so until what President Mills has done.

You can’t miss the import of this open demonstration of selflessness. To me, it indicates that President Mills has made good his intention to be thrifty in public spending on himself. This decision, which is already being twisted by his political opponents and used for mudslinging, is a clear demonstration of President Mills’ natural quality of humility and moderation. He has already given some of us the clear indication that he doesn’t see political office as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement or property-owning.

It is known that President Mills similarly declined his allowances while he served as Vice President during the Rawlings-led National Democratic Congress administration. In that capacity, he chaired the Police and Army Councils but did not collect his allowances. Instead, he directed that the allowances and those from all other committees that he chaired should be donated to the Osu Children’s Home. A good example of a selfless leader.

Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, Deputy Information Minister, told Joy FM that the president hopes, by his example, to convince his Ministers that the times are hard and that they need to abide by his admonition for modesty in public spending.

The real issues for me begin from here. Let’s focus on this issue of per diem allowances, which is the hot cake in public discourse. Is there any REAL enforceable regulation at all on this issue of per diem? What does such a regulation say about who the prospective and actual beneficiaries are? Curtailing profligacy in public spending (including the per diem allowances) can’t be achieved through mere admonitions and appeals to people’s conscience. Ghanaians didn’t appear to be openly concerned about this problem of per diem allowances until ex-President Kufuor glorified it and threw it into the limelight. His political opponents even nicknamed him “Wofa Per Diem” because of his senseless foreign trips and allegations of appropriation of public funds in the name of “per diem,” which aroused deep public interest (or recrimination). Rumours were rife that he was taking as much as 5,000 dollars a day. His damage controllers debunked such rumours but none of them told us the truth. Take, for instance, his spending two weeks in the US only to return to Accra and speed off to Brazil the following day to spend another 15 days. If, indeed, he was raking in that much in per diem allowances, those two trips alone would make him rich. And if you put together all that he fetched on the nearly 200 foreign trips that he undertook in his two terms in office, you can safely conclude that indeed, he gained bounteously from the per diem concession.

Remember that he was not alone. Members of the large entourage at his beck-and-call also had their share of that part of the national cake! Indeed, the ordinary Ghanaian tax-payer has a very BIG heart!

Another example comes to mind, and it has its own twist. The beleaguered former Speaker of Parliament, Ebenezer Begyina Sekyi-Hughes, was also reported to have gone on several foreign trips, sometimes with his wife, for whom he claimed per diem allowances. Is that justifiable?

Let’s take another example from the allegation against Alhaji Muntaka Mohammed-Mubarak, the now-on-leave Sports Minister, that he twisted arms to be paid more than the stipulated maximum amount of per diem allowance.

Things have fallen apart and the center cannot hold any more. This loophole in the system called “per diem” allowance is a source of serious concern. Now, we all know that “per diem” is a very viable opportunity and another name for white-collar thievery.

Freedom of information is a necessary aspect of good governance, which demands that the citizens be told what they need to know as they contribute their quota toward sustaining democracy.We demand answers to many questions, some of which I state here: How much does Ghana spend a year as per diem allowances for public officials? How much is the President entitled to? How about those on the lower rungs of the political ladder?

In a sense, what is the exact amount of money that a government official on official duty is entitled to as per diem allowance? Should he/she automatically spend all that money or return the remainder to chest? Who monitors all these transactions to ensure that the right thing is done? Is there any punishment for any defaulter? Who administers that punishment, and what form of punishment is meted out, anyway?

It doesn’t have to take the President’s repudiation of this per diem allowance for us to conclude that something drastic has to be done to control public spending, especially in situations where the beneficiaries of the per diem concession are already aware that the state will take care of all their expenses (board-and-lodging) while on official assignments.

Okudzeto has explained that “President Mills, by virtue of his position as President, is well catered for on his travels abroad by his hosts and does not see the need to take per diem he believes he does not need.”

Which of those public officials on an official assignment that takes him out of his office (in Accra) is not well catered for by those he visits? I know that even in the case of the Ministers, Chief Directors, etc., whenever they go out of station to visit any institution within their purview, they enjoy all the services that they need. Their hosts (subordinates in those institutions) always make allowances for them (board-and-lodging), which implies that they will have no need to spend their own money or anything by way of per diem on the essentials of life (food, etc.). Yet, some of them return to post and claim out-of-station allowances in addition to the per diem allowances that they took along with them on the visits!

Those who have ulterior motives even go on a shopping spree, especially if their assignment takes them overseas; hence, their craving for per diem allowances. Just imagine those who take time off their schedule to visit the malls in the big cities of the foreign countries they visit. They buy all manner of items, some of which they come back to Ghana to retail for personal gains. I have always insisted that politics in Ghana has become a goldmine because of such weaknesses in our system, which the numerous political Oliver Twists exploit.

Still, Okudzeto said “the President believes he should be able to finance little comforts from his own pocket and will not ask Ghanaians to pay for such expenses.” If he can do so, why can’t all others that he has appointed do so? Or, does President Mills assume that because he has decided to reject the per diem allowances, all others will follow suit? He must be joking! The problem cannot be solved through this piecemeal approach by which the individual beneficiary of the per diem allowance is allowed to decide whether to accept it or not. There must be a clear policy on this issue and it must be enforced to its letter and spirit. No haphazard approach will satisfy anybody. President Mills may single himself out to reject the per diem allowances but if his appointees and all others who go for it do things anyhow, his singular concession will amount to nothing.

As the economic situation continues to torment the people and political muscles begin being flexed, one would expect the NDC government to be circumspect in how its functionaries conduct themselves in office, especially having already told the whole world that they could do better than the Kufuor administration. The ordinary tax-payer cannot continue to be exploited without complaint.

Ghanaians are aware of the benefits of constitutional democratic governance and have demonstrated their enthusiasm for it; they have also given clear indications that they will do all they can to nurture it into a viable political dispensation that will ensure stability and development of the country. What they will not tolerate is the free-for-all situation that allows those with political connections to fleece the economy through white-collar thievery while the mass of the people continue to live in narrow circumstances.

Columnist: Bokor, Michael J. K.