General News of Friday, 25 April 2014


Comment: Judgement Debt Commission – An albatross around Mahama’s neck

“Ghana’s Judgement Debt Commission is a Waste of Public Resources”. That is the motion that legal luminaries Egbert Isaac Faibille and Ernest Kofi Abotsi debated at the maiden Joy FM Debates on Thursday 10th April.

I am against the motion, although I think Lawyer Faibille who spoke for the motion made some of the most convincing arguments I have ever heard against the setting up of the Judgement Debt Commission; particularly his point that the causes of judgement debts are so obvious to the naked eye that it does not require a special commission to unravel. Well, his argument makes sense to a large extent because collapsing the commission would save us thousands of Ghana cedis which is going into “table dusting” and “tea drinking” to make its work possible.

But we need to learn from our past mistakes, and we don’t learn by just assuming that we know what the problems are. If we really knew what the problems responsible for the inordinate judgement debts are, we would have fixed them by now. The fact that it continues to threaten our economy is an indication we do not know as much as we claim we do, and the recommendation of a special commission as that of Justice Appau is necessary.

Sitting through the hearings of the Judgement debt Commission, you cannot help but draw a conclusion that the incurring and payment of wrongful judgement debts is not just a result of loopholes in the management of the public purse, but a deliberate and conscious effort on the part of smart brains to swindle all of us.

For example, government demolishes houses to make way for a road construction. Compensation is paid to affected persons. Someone who was unaffected puts in a claim for compensation. The state agency responsible declines his request. He goes to court to seek judgement debt. Government puts in no defence. A default judgement is awarded.

Months later, hundreds of thousands of Ghana cedis is paid to him. Unchallenged. From the Attorney General’s Department, to the Roads Ministry, to the Finance Ministry, to the Controller and Accountant General’s Department. This obviously raises a critical question - Of what use are the persons who have been employed there to watch our backs?

Look at this scenario too. A “so called” businessman makes a claim that he has executed a project for government and demands payment. Government denies he did any work. He goes to court. No one shows up in court to defend that state. A judgment debt is awarded and government pays millions of cedis to the individual. We all know the payment of judgement debt in itself is not a wrong thing if it is awarded fairly and squarely. But Isn’t it exciting how inefficiently those we pay to protect our interest as a state are managing and disbursing our meagre resources?

The Judgement Debt Commissioner has vented a lot of spleen on various state actors who have been responsible for the incurring and payment of undeserved judgement debts throughout the sittings. How I wished he had the power to himself go after the persons who have been beneficiaries of such amounts and recover the money from them.

Or had the power to punish those whose negligence, inefficiency and complicity has been responsible for the kind of reckless dissipation of public resources we have seen in some judgement debt payments.

Unfortunately, his commission is that of an enquiry, at the behest of the president. The best Justice Yaw Appau can do is recommend sanctions against individuals and institutions for the president to take a decision on whether to accept and enforce them or not. Fortunately, when President John Mahama addressed parliament in his last state of the nation’s address on February 26 this year, he reiterated a commitment that he has stated on several occasions. “We eagerly await his (Sole Commissioner Justice Yaw Appau’s) report and would work with it to ensure that we get rid of this huge drain on our public resources.”

If only he would live up to his word, posterity would judge his decision to set up the commission as one of the most rational moves he made throughout his years as president. But if he doesn’t, another case of throwing good money after bad money, and causing financial loss to the state on top of losses resulting from judgement debt, would have been created. So the work of the commission remains an albatross around the president’s neck; a test of his commitment to accept the responsibility to enforce accountability that leadership has bestowed on him. He should not let this one too be “business as usual”, as has been the case with the Ghana @ 50 Commission and the several committees we have seen set up.

Being action oriented is not how things have been done in the past, but it would be the right thing to do, and I expect the president to show us all that he cherishes the populace’s goodwill more than that of ‘special interest folks’. Nevertheless, I think whether the President takes the report as a “sacred” document and act on it vigorously to the latter or not, the commission has managed to chalk some good successes already with its ongoing work. First, to the extent that in future, there would be a single document that can be referenced on the causes and prevention of the payment of inordinate judgement debts after the commission submits its report, even if no action is taken on it, the experiences would be there to learn from. Also, to the extent that legislators and political bigwigs can be grilled and queried almost to tears embarrassingly, because a justification is needed on the propriety or otherwise of the payment of millions of dollars in judgement debt, is enough caution to all public servant.

To the extent that there has been a sustained public discussion on the issue of the Judgement Debt on daily basis, from the pubs to the lecture halls to the streets and on the radio because of the work of the Commission, I think the investment is worth it.

Kudos to Justice Yaw Appau and his team at the Judgement Debt Commission for a good work done thus far, and we look forward to seeing the content of your report and the use it would be put to.

The author, Joseph Opoku Gakpo is a journalist with Joy FM in Accra