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Opinions of Monday, 25 November 2013

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Are Ghanaian MPs worth mobile phones?

The two arms of government in Ghana, the Executive and the Judiciary are perceived by the public to be corrupt. There are good reasons for this perception and one does not need to go far to find the reasons. The Executive is alleged to be in the midst of various corrupt acts such as Woyome, Waterville, ISOFOTON, SADA, GYEEDA, GRA, SUBAH etc. The Judiciary also stand accused of various acts of bribery by judges to give judgements in favour of lawyers who pay bribes on behalf of their clients.

The latest corruption allegation against the Judiciary is Vickileaks, that has compelled the Chief Justice to set up a Judicial Committee to investigate whether Nana Oye Lithur influenced Supreme Court Justices who heard the presidential petition. Until now, the Legislature could not collectively be accused of corruption, even if some (dis)honourable members were corrupt.

This perception came to an end this week when it was reported that a Chinese company has given each of the 275 MPs a mobile phone after a loan agreement between Ghana and the company had been rejected by the House. Shortly after that the same agreement was approved by Parliament (see “MPs in phone scandal”, Ghanaweb, November 22, 2013). In this article, I want to discuss if an MP in Ghana could be bought with mobile phones and corruption in general.

According to the original report by the Ghanaian Observer, Parliament threw out a report of the Joint Committee on Communications, Defence and Interior on the supply contract for dedicated security information system between the Government of Ghana (represented by Ministry of Communications) and ZTE Corporation of China on the basis that it was full of errors. The NPP MP for Assin Central, (Dis)honourable Kennedy Agyapong also raised issues on the floor of the House about the records and questionable character of ZTE Corporation.

However, when the errors in the report were corrected and returned to Parliament, branded ZTE mobile phones were strategically put into the pigeon holes of all 275 MPs by the Ministry of Communications as a gift from ZTE Corporation. Subsequently, Parliament approved the contract for government to acquire a US$129.9 million security information system that will enable security agencies monitor the entire nation and respond swiftly to security emergencies.

The above report, if accurate, is Parliament’s Day of Shame in the fight against corruption in Ghana. In fact, when I read it, I asked myself a number of questions: Can Ghana’s August House be bought with mobile phones? Do the (Dis)honourable Members know and understand what is conflict of interest? How can the Legislature fight against corruption, especially within the Executive by this behaviour and how could the minority partake in this act when they held placards in the House regarding Executive corruption during the presentation of the 2014 Budget last Tuesday? Since no MP has denied the report, I assume the report is true and accurate.

From the report, it appeared the agreement was rejected because it contained errors, though the nature of the errors are unknown (whether typo, administrative or legal). We can assume that with the errors corrected, approval would have been given without the mobile phones. The question is, why did ZTE Corporation consider it necessary to present mobile phones as a gift to the MPs at such a critical time? The answer is simple? Kennedy Ayapong raised the records and questionable character of ZTE in the first debate of the committee report, which was not addressed by the Ministry of Communications.

ZTE sensing danger that a lucrative contract could be lost if their records and character were probed by Ghana’s Parliament, decided to bribe the MPs in the hope that this matter will not be a hindrance and that is exactly what they achieved. 275 branded mobile phones for $129.9 million. OMG? Is this what Ghanaians get from their MPs? Are the MPs so poorly paid that they cannot afford the cost of the quality of mobile phones given to them by ZTE?

The blame lies heavily on the Executive, through the Minister for Communications who agreed for ZTE to use the ministry as a conduit to bribe the Legislature. The Minister should have been bold to tell ZTE that it is unethical for them to try to influence a parliamentary decision. Second, he should have told ZTE that due to a serious case of conflict of interest, it would be inappropriate for MPs to be given the mobile phones.

Instead, the minister went along with ZTE and ensured that his ministry carried the phones to parliament and put them in MPs’ pigeon holes. In fact, it would still have been wrong had the phones been given to MPs after the agreement had been approved. Did it not occur to the minister, his advisers and senior civil servants that such gifts breached the recently introduced Code of Conduct by the Presidency?

If MPs got mobile phones for doing work they were elected and paid to do, what did the Executive and senior civil servants who negotiated the agreement get from ZTE? Your guess is as good as mine? Is it not interesting that some of the minority MPs claim they will not use the phones because they suspect some spying equipment might have been installed by the Chinese? But why keep the phones if they would not use them? I wish those MPs had taken the decision not to use the phones because in their view, it was bribery, wrong and unethical, and actually returned the phones. Instead, they did not see anything wrong with the gifts but are more concerned about their personal interest of being spied on and potentially being exposed rather than protecting the national interest.

This is a case of clear conflict of interest which occurs when an individual or organisation is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act, in another, often for personal or organisational gain. According to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority for England Handbook, conflict of interests means any situation where one owes separate duties to act in the best interests of two or more parties in relation to the same or related matters, and those duties conflict, or there is a significant risk that those duties may conflict. Again, one’s duty to act in the best interests of any party in relation to a matter that conflicts, or there is a significant risk that it may conflict with one’s own interests in relation to that or a related matter.

Form the above, it was abundantly clear, ZTE, Ministry of Communications and Parliament all had conflicting interests with regards to the approval of the loan agreement and sadly all of them breached the conflict interests for personal or organisational benefits.

The behaviour of the Executive and the Legislature is not only disturbing but despicable. They are the ones expected to protect and safeguard the interest of Ghana against foreign interests. Yet, the Executive through the Minister for Communication colluded with a foreign company to bribe Parliament for personal gains. ZTE knowing that if the agreement is not approved by Parliament, it would lose the $129.9 million worth of contract, resorted to bribery for organisation gain.

What is sad is the value of the bribe given to MPs for the contract. We are not told how much each of the 275 mobile phones costs but let’s assume that each is $500. Is it not shameful and sad that MPs could be bought for $500 for their votes? This is not to suggest that had the bribe been in millions of dollars it would have been ok.

Ghana ought to be careful with the numerous contracts signed with Chinese companies because of the tendency of Chinese companies to resort to unethical and even illegal means such as bribes to gain advantage. I am not suggesting that unethical practices are not practised by non Chinese companies but such practices are embedded in the culture of Chinese companies. I am aware that British arms companies were involved in bribery to secure billions of contracts from rich Arab countries. However, the difference is that such companies and officials are sanctioned when the practices are found. In fact, currently, there are laws in UK making such practices illegal. That is not the case in China.

Again, I am aware that foreign companies sometimes use their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies to influence governments to make decisions in their favour. The difference here is that the benefits of CSR go directly to local people such as investment in education, health, provision of good drinking water or electricity supply. ZTE could have spent the money on mobile phones for MPs to provide a school or health centre to a community in Ghana after the approval of the agreement and that would have been acceptable.

This matter shows that when it comes to fighting corruption and protecting the interests of Ghana, NDC and NPP are no different. The only difference, if any, between them is that they belong to different political parties. Even ideologically, I see no differences between the two. On paper, yes, but in practice they are the same. Indeed, the facts on the grounds are that NPP has implemented more social democratic or pro poor policies than NDC.

The real differences between NDC and NPP is which party holds Executive power to be able to engage in corruption and who benefits most from corruption. This should not be surprising because they are all Ghanaians and corruption is endemic in the Ghanaian society. The competition between NDC and NPP is not about which party will perform better and secure a better future for Ghana and Ghanaians, but who can loot more for themselves and their families.

The fight against corruption in Ghana is dead with this shameful and scandalous bribery in Parliament. The reputation of the Legislature is damaged beyond repair and this is a national humiliation in the eyes of the democratic world. As long as the Chinese know that they can bribe our leaders with pittance they will continue to treat Ghana with contempt and rape the nation with inflated contracts. By this behaviour, MPs failed in their duty to conduct due diligence on the contract. For example, there was no indication that the important issues raised by (Dis)honourable Kennedy Agyapong was addressed. The 275 MPs should bow their heads in shame.