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Opinions of Saturday, 13 August 2011

Columnist: Africawatch magazine

Ghana: The never-ending drugs saga

*Why do respectable Ghanaian politicians and other officials (including those in the security services) involve themselves in the drug trade? Now, the executive secretary of Ghana’s Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), Yaw Akrasi Sarpong, has warned that NACOB will go after politicians who may try to use “narco money” to fund their election campaigns next year. “We are following on a very interesting trend,” Sarpong said. “The warning is this: If any politician dares us and uses narcotics money for politics, that person will be sorry. Whether you are an NDC or NPP or CPP, or whatever, you will be sorry.” As expected, his warning has sparked a nationwide debate. Associate editor Rosemary Atiemo reports.*

Ghanaian politicians and other public figures have come under increased scrutiny from international security agencies in recent years following the arrest of one of the country’s high-profile politicians at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York for possession of a controlled substance while on an official visit to the United States. The Ghanaian authorities, fearing a severe political backlash at home and abroad, refused to revoke the man’s diplomatic immunity and instead pressed to cover up the case.

That, however, did not stop the case from reaching a few more ears both in Ghana and the U.S. As usual, the opponents of the politician put their own spin on the story, claiming the man was arrested for attempting to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. His supporters, however, countered by creating the impression that the case never happened and that it was all part of a smear campaign against the politician.

Africawatch’s investigations into the case have proved that it did occur. The high-profile Ghanaian politician (name withheld) was nabbed at JFK Airport for a narcotic offense. He was not carrying cocaine as claimed by his opponents. But he had in his possession a small quantity of marijuana. Upon interrogation by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, he said the marijuana was for his personal use. This embarrassing case has since been one of the darkest secrets of one of Ghana’s major political parties. Prior to this bizarre episode, Frank Benneh, a former diplomat stationed at Ghana’s embassy in Switzerland, who had served for 21 years in the Foreign Service, was arrested in 1996 for dealing in cocaine. The Ghanaian authorities invoked his diplomatic immunity and Benneh was deported to Ghana. He was tried in Accra and convicted, but, strangely, he was never sentenced. Since then, Benneh seems to have fallen on hard times and is often seen roaming the streets of Accra.

In 2005, a New Patriotic Party (NPP) member of Parliament for Nkoranza North, Eric Amoateng, was also arrested in the U.S. on charges of drug trafficking. Amoateng was sentenced to 10 years in prison, after pleading guilty.

Such drug cases have tainted the image of Ghana and have given credence to reports that the West African nation has become a major transit hub for illegal drugs flowing between the Americas and Europe. More worrying is anecdotal evidence that suggests that conspirators in Ghana’s political circles help illicit trafficking operations. Although the extent of this complicity is unclear, both the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the opposition NPP are engaged in full-throttle debate over how deeply the other is involved. This followed a bombshell dropped by Yaw Akrasi Sarpong, executive secretary of Ghana’s Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), a state-run institution tasked with controlling the trafficking and use of illicit drugs in the country. Sarpong warned that NACOB would go after politicians who may try to use so-called “narco money” to fund their campaigns for the 2012 general elections.

“We are following on a very interesting trend, and I think it is at the level of gathering and analysis,” Sarpong said. “The warning is this: If any politician dares us and uses narcotics money for politics, that person will be sorry. Whether you are an NDC or NPP or CPP, or whatever, you will be sorry.”

His warning sparked a nationwide debate.

There were harsh criticisms from members of the NPP who thought they were direct targets of the statement. Why they thought so, nobody had a clue. Sarpong, however, refused to withdraw the statement, saying he wouldn’t be pressured by anybody on how to run NACOB. He even boasted that NACOB had a list of politicians suspected to be benefitting from drug-related money. His critics in the NPP have dared him to publish the list, expressing doubts that it exists at all. However, the NPP Member of Parliament for Assin North, Kennedy Agyapong, a flamboyant and boisterous politician currently buffeted by a storm of allegations of drug trafficking, says he thinks NACOB is coming after him. “They [NACOB officials] have picked a boy at [the] prisons called Boateng to set me up. He claimed that I dealt in drugs and that I had an underground house at Kasoa where I was hiding cocaine and where my girlfriend was living as well. NACOB has to do its investigations well and not rely on hearsay to make such statements that only go to ridicule themselves,” he told an Accra radio station.

Another NPP politician, Dr. Nyaho Nyaho-Tamakloe, Ghana’s former ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, weighed in: “[Sarpong] is not only a coward hiding behind the walls of political power and trying to spew mischief, but also a wolf in sheep cloth who has exposed the NDC in him, all too clearly.” Sarpong, according to Nyaho-Tamakloe, “has stepped on very dangerous grounds and brought the name of the office he occupies into disrepute. Now people will look at NACOB with a certain level of skepticism. People will be asking what NACOB’s core duties really are – whether they engage in street propaganda or to pull the brakes on the activities of drug lords and carriers.”

This kind of politics, Nyaho-Tamakloe said, would “not only paint Ghana as a country that doesn’t have a clue about how to deal with its drug-related issues, but also as a nation where everything, including drugs, is politicized. I wonder why he [Sarpong] is still at his post.”

NDC support

The NDC government, meanwhile, has backed Sarpong’s statement and issued a barrage of counterclaims against the NPP.

Felix Kwakye Ofosu, a member of the government’s communication team, told Africawatch that he was surprised by the posture of the NPP and claimed that NPP officials seem to always run for cover at the mere mention of cocaine. “The NPP isn’t sending the right signals out to Ghanaian voters and this is dangerous for them,” Ofosu said. “I mean, come on. Why should all hell break loose when the issue of cocaine – and how nice they made it look during their era – comes up? The Mills government is committed to fighting this canker and we are stopping at nothing to ensure that we rid this country from the filth created by the NPP.”

The debate about illegal drugs took an unexpected twist in recent weeks when new revelations emerged about Yaw Amfo-Kwakye, an aide and cousin of Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the NPP’s presidential candidate for next year’s elections.

In a discussion program on an Accra-based FM station, it emerged that Amfo-Kwakye was once jailed for five years in Britain for the export of narcotics to that country. Amfo-Kwakye reportedly tried to sell the drugs to a Greek national, after transporting them via the now-defunct Ghana Airways. A member of the Akufo-Addo family, Nana Asante-Bediatuo, a legal practitioner in Accra who called in to the program, noted that Amfo-Kwakye served his time in prison and had since repented and reformed. Therefore, bringing up the matter years later served little useful purpose, Asante-Bediatuo said.

Since returning to Ghana, Amfo-Kwakye has assisted Akufo-Addo in many capacities. For example, he worked with Akufo-Addo at the Statesman newspaper, and was an aide to Akufo-Addo when he served as foreign minister.

All concerned

But despite the sensation it caused, the Amfo-Kwakye matter, mostly because it happened so long ago, seemed like a sideshow to the debate generated by Sarpong’s statement.

Parliament’s minority leader, Osei Kyei Mensah-Bonsu, the NPP MP for Suame constituency in Kumasi, told Africawatch that it wasn’t right to issue a blanket criticism against all politicians just because a few may have been involved in the drug trade. People in other fields also have engaged in drug-related crimes, he said. “We know some clergymen, chiefs and musicians who have been involved in this before,” he said. “Will anybody say that because some clergymen, chiefs and musicians have been involved in the past, then every member of those societies is a drug trafficker?

“I think we should be careful about how to comment on these matters. If somebody has been involved before and realizes his folly and reforms, do we have to keep reminding him that he is an outcast?”

Mensah-Bonsu cited examples of prominent persons who reformed after transgressive behavior.

“Consider the case of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who said that growing up, he almost got himself into drugs, but when he realized that it wasn’t the best for him, he quickly abandoned it,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “I am thinking, what could have happened in Ghana if one of our politicians had been bold enough to toe the Clinton line. What do you think would have happened?

According to Mensah-Bonsu, Sarpong doesn’t deserve to remain in office. “We all know his past,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “Now he claims to have turned a new leaf … So we should judge him by what he has achieved at NACOB. It doesn’t do us any good to just say, ‘Oh, we have a list.’ In fact, his habit of occasionally throwing mud at NPP people is not the best. In any event, NACOB should be a de-politicized institution if only we are committed to fighting the issue of illegal drugs.

“But we have somebody who belongs to the security committee of the NDC as the head of NACOB. Such a person would be compromised if NDC members are caught in the act? So clearly his credibility is on the line. If I were the president, such a person won’t head an institution like NACOB.”

Sarpong unfazed

A staunch NDC member, Sarpong says, “when it comes to narcotics control issues, I don’t mix it with politics, and I am not a propagandist for any party.” His statement came days after the Ghanaian authorities and others had destroyed huge quantities of cannabis, cocaine and heroin that were seized in the country over a period of time. It also followed a warning by the United Nations to West African countries, including Ghana, about the growing sophistication of drug traffickers in the region – and how entry and exit points in the region were becoming safe havens for cartels. U.N. officials asserted that security measures had declined in the region, allowing drug traffickers to flourish, and that drug lords – primarily from Latin America – were more frequently recruiting Africans to work for them. When asked how effectively Ghana was combating the drug trade, Sarpong said he wouldn’t tag the country as a comfort zone for criminals. But he acknowledged that a small, corrupt network of “big fishes,” including some politicians and security personnel, has been involved with drug traffickers in exchange for campaign cash and other rewards.

Cannon fodder

The NPP has arguably suffered most from the drugs name-calling game, with its presidential candidate, Akufo-Addo, having become cannon fodder for NDC attackers. Initially, Akufo-Addo’s strategy was to ignore the NDC statements against him, but some political observers think the silence has hurt him dearly in terms of public opinion. Last year, however, an angry Akufo-Addo responded to the drugs accusations. “I have never tasted or sniffed cocaine. Why are my detractors attacking my personality, saying that I am a drug addict?” he asked.

His critics countered by asking: “What about marijuana?”

In an interview with Africawatch, Mensah-Bonsu fired back: “Would anybody vouch for former President Jerry Rawlings, that he had never tried his hands on hard drugs before?

“I remember the days when [Rawlings] said he had quit smoking, and the chorus that followed was ‘Which smoking?’ Let President Rawlings cross his heart, and tell this country that he has never smoked marijuana before.” Mensah-Bonsu said Ghanaians should stop attacking the character and integrity of their political leaders and judge them by what they have done or could do for the nation. “Regardless of how he came to power, Rawlings deserves credit for contributing greatly to this country, especially bringing stability to the nation,” he said.

Guilty by association?

Of course, it probably wouldn’t be so easy to link Akufo-Addo to drugs if a plethora of drug-related scandals hadn’t emerged from among people associated with him. For example, his brother-in-law Raymond Amankwah, is serving time in Brazil for drug-trafficking offenses.

However, “it doesn’t really make sense for one to say just because a member of the NPP or a close associate was once arrested or deals in the trade, that Akufo-Addo does the same,” said a university lecturer in Accra who requested anonymity. “That is a wrong analogy.”

U.S. Embassy cables leaked in recent months by the whistle-blowing website, Wiki Leaks, portray the NPP government of former President John Kufuor as doing too little to fight against drug trafficking in Ghana. According to WikiLeaks, one document written in October 2007 by the former U.S. ambassador to Ghana, Pamela E. Bridgewater, asserted that drug barons were major supporters of the NPP and that an official from NACOB had told her that Kufuor’s government had no plans to apprehend or prosecute drug lords, even though many were identified.

Other WikiLeaks documents showed that NACOB officers aided and abetted narcotic offenses. According to the documents, NACOB officers working at Kotoka International Airport in Accra were helping traffickers, including even telling them the best time to travel in order to avoid detection. In addition, drug-detection scanners at the Accra airport were sabotaged and prominent passengers – including pastors and bank managers and their wives – were ushered into the airport’s VIP lounges in order to escape detection. One WikiLeaks document quoted the then newly elected President John Atta Mills as telling the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, Donald Teitelbaum, that “elements of his government are already compromised and that officials at the airport tipped off drug traffickers about operations there.” But Mills disputed the report. However, what is undisputable is that the country is awash with drug money, and that some corrupt politicians and officials are in cahoots with drug barons and couriers who have used the country as a trans-shipment point.

Recently, the manager of British Airways’ operations at Kotoka was arrested – along with a group of others – on drug-related charges, according to sources. The manager, Eric Manu, is in police custody.

Authorities said he has worked at the airport for more than 10 years and reportedly had ties to some senior aviation officers in Ghana who remain under scrutiny. It is not known if Manu had connections to any Ghanaian political figures.

When Africawatch went to press, Manu’s arrest still had not been made public. Neither the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), the Police Services nor British Airways would comment on the case.

Deputy Superintendent of Police Cephas Arthur of the Police Service confirmed the arrest, but refused to address any questions about it. “The police will need a letter to be forwarded to our Narcotics unit for onward consideration,” he said. (Interestingly, when relative minor players are arrested, they are often paraded before reporters and photographers, but when more important officials are arrested, the police request letters before making any information public.)

Inadequate resources

Though NACOB under the leadership of Akrasi Sarpong appears more determined and committed to stamping out drug trafficking, it doesn’t have the funds, resources, and personnel to effectively curtail the drug menace in the country.

Operating under the Ministry of Interior, NACOB does not have the powers of arrest and prosecution on its own. Even its officers are not allowed to carry arms – making sting operations and infiltrations of drug gangs very risky ventures for its agents.

Political rhetoric by successive governments notwithstanding, none has had the political will to review the laws establishing NACOB, to make it an autonomous agency with full enforcement powers.

If NACOB is made an autonomous body, the onus could be on drug traffickers (not NACOB) to prove that their assets were not acquired with drug money, thereby making it easier for NACOB to confiscate assets of convicted drug dealers. In so doing, NACOB would be self-sustainable and it would have the funds to get the necessary resources needed in the fight against drug trafficking.

The consequences of the drug business on the political and socio-economic development of the country have been devastating. For starters, the image of the country has been badly tarnished by the arrests abroad of top Ghanaian personalities on drug charges, and the allegations of the use of illicit drugs by others. If the country is to redeem its battered name, the politicians and security officials involved in the drug trade should either stop their nefarious activities or be vigorously pursued, arrested, and named and shamed.

*SOURCE: Africawatch magazine*