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Opinions of Thursday, 25 June 2020

Columnist: Kwame Twumasi-Fofie

The coronavirus law: How did we get it wrong again?

I recall one day I got to Kotoka International Airport and saw a notice in front of the Arrival Hall warning people not to park there. “NO PARKING - SPOT FINE C50.00!”. There was no way anyone close to me could have failed to observe my shock on seeing this warning sign.

But don’t get me wrong, I panicked not because I had parked my car there and was scared I was going to be slapped with the fine or that I was contemplating to do so. Again, don’t get me wrong that the amount was today’s Ghana Cedis.

In fact, this was way back in the 80s when we were still transacting business with the old New Cedis as against the current third generation Ghana Cedis. But considering the amount of money I had in my pocket then as a young ‘Burger’ in town, the question that came to my mind was “so how many Ghanaians walk about with C50.00 in their pockets to be able to pay the fine if they fall foul of this order?” And let’s face it; who sets a trap unless he knows it will one day catch an offender? In the same vein, who keep watch in their own kitchen with a sharpened machete when the likely culprits they expect to catch are their own children? After all, conventional wisdom is that you don’t punish to kill but rather, generally to deter or reform wrongdoers.

Now this is the background to my worry. In Switzerland where I was living at the time, and where the general populace is so scared of their own version of our Police (MTTD), the fine for parking at a “No Parking” was CHF20.00 and CHF40.00 (Swiss Francs) for “No Stopping”. But even then, the fine was not supposed to be paid ‘on the spot’ but rather within 14 days. In other words, the Police would leave a ticket on your windscreen (or hand it over to you if you were caught right there).

And by the way, the ‘average’ worker in Switzerland at the time was earning not less than CHF2,000.00 month, in other words, was in a position to pay the fine 10 times over from his regular monthly income. On the contrary, not many Ghanaian workers in those days were earning C50.00 a month, not to talk of walking around with that much in the pocket or handbag to pay even a hospital bill if that became necessary.

Sadly, Covid-19 is here with us and I think the government is doing its best to fight it, with perhaps the attitude of Ghanaians being the biggest challenge. To aid it in the fight, of course, the government requires some arms and ammunition, in this case, the requisite laws. In support of the government, therefore, I was about to applaud them for having enacted the law until I read it.

GHC12,000 – GHC60,000 And Four Years In Prison?

But wait. Is what I’m reading true – that the penalty for being found guilty of breaking the Covid-19 restriction laws is GHC12,000 – GHC60,000 or four to 10 years imprisonment or both? H-A-B-A-H, ‘Alabraka’! (apologies to Massa Kwesi Pratt Jnr.) Where does anyone expect any normal Ghanaian citizen who falls foul of this law to get this money from? And it is not even either one or the other.

It would be well within the law for a court in Ghana to sentence a Head Porter, Mason, Carpenter, Taxi Driver, a Farmer or Civil Servant to pay, for example, a fine of GHC40,000 and in addition, eight years in prison just because for one reason or the other he/she happened to have found him/herself at the wrong place at the wrong time. With all due respect to our law-makers I, a citizen, not a spectator, don’t think it is right.

Is This a Special Law For the Poor?

A lot has been said about the apparent unfairness in the type of laws in this country and how they are applied. For example, on Ghanaweb.com of 18th May, 2020, is a story of an Accra circuit court sentencing a 21-year-old head porter to 17 years in prison for attempted robbery and causing harm to a fire officer.

“Daniel Amevor, the convict, appeared before court for attempting to rob a Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) personnel of his mobile phone and money at knifepoint”. I don’t know Mr. Amevor, the convict in this case, just as I don’t know any of the three gentlemen, including a former Director-General of the National Communications Authority (NCA), Mr. William Tetteh Tevie, who were recently convicted for causing a US$4 million financial loss to the State. But let’s compare the sentences – 17 years for ATTEMPTED robbery of a mobile phone and money for one person and a total of 16 years shared among three persons (six (6) for one and five (5) each for the other two).

How about that for equal justice for all? But I couldn’t possibly finish this piece without giving a personal example of how the law works in Ghana. Only a few years back my own younger brother’s life was cut short by a tipper truck driver driving without a valid driving licence, and operating an unregistered vehicle for commercial purposes.

At the end of the trial lasting several months both the driver and the owner of the vehicle he was operating were convicted and sentenced. But can you guess their sentences? They were each sentenced to a fine of FIFTY (50) penalty units i.e. six hundred Ghana Cedis (GHC600.00) plus a jail term of six months. Real justice, isn’t it, when compared to what is in store for would-be offenders of the law on Covid-19 restrictions.

Who Is This Trap Expected To Catch?

Let’s face it, the likelihood of this law ‘catching’ a Minister, a Member of Parliament, a Judge, a Senior Civil Servant or Police Officer, is very remote. They will always have a reason to be where they are caught. In case you’re in any doubt about what I mean let me refer you to the reaction of that Honourable Member of Parliament (MP) when he was stopped by the Police for committing a traffic offence i.e. driving on the wrong side of the road. According to him, being an honourable law maker, he was entitled to break the law because he was on his way to go and make laws for Ghanaians. And to date I don’t know what happened to him.

And just in case it hasn’t dawned on us, this Covid-19 law is an example of the reasons why we are not likely to make any meaningful progress in the fight against corruption any time soon. Who cannot see the temptation here for a frightened suspect, faced with the possibility of going to prison for up to ten years, to plead with a law enforcement officer to show leniency in exchange for GHC1,000, for example? And of course, for a vast majority of Ghanaians, raising even GHC1,000 could only be done through a loan to be guaranteed by Abusuapanin.

After all, aren’t we living in a country where the government’s own approved minimum monthly wage is GHC690.00? We know that very few Ghanaian workers earn more than GHC5,000 a month and they are in the high professional bracket. These don’t include Nurses, Teachers, Seamstresses/Tailors, Artisans and many Civil Servants and farmers.

So which Ghanaians do we expect to be paying these fines which are higher than the annual income of many? Or have we perhaps expanded the prisons that much to accommodate the likely influx of convicts? I rest my case.

Kwame Twumasi-Fofie

kwametwumasifofie@yahoo.com

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