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Opinions of Monday, 5 November 2007

Columnist: Cudjoe, Franklin

How to Plunder a Nation!

Public hearings of Ghana's Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee have left many Ghanaians and Africanists in awe. The shocking revelations of massive looting of tax payer and donor money by almost all government agencies completely drowns the apparent cacophonous economic gains chalked in the last seven years. But it is not surprising that public office holders have become sophisticated in the art of plunder. It is abundantly clear that pillaging national resources have been legalised by ineffectual laws and unconcerned prosecutorial bodies. So an official can purchase 114 vehicles at over $1.5 million and can't provide documents covering such expense. Others can forge tax returns receipts and pocket tax proceeds. Worse still incriminatory evidence could even vanish from legal vaults and still have their managers at post.

Rather than arm existing organs that can fight corruption with teeth, the executive machinery has through sleuth of hands established surrogate bodies that will only act upon complex evidenced-based leads to exposing hard core corruption. Bizarrely, these bodies were hitherto housed in the belly of the seat of government.

Sadly, in the midst of such naked thievery, stomach-dependent state deputies peddle their trade of defending gross blunder with a deluge of statistics of corrupt acts of predecessor governments, as if public governance hinged on which government stole least from its citizens.
Such is the terrain of accountable governance across much of sub-Saharan Africa while we embarrassingly bask in delusory accolades of leading development in the 21 st century.

But there is a hand that feeds this festering sore- foreign aid. Recently, U.K Premier Gordon Brown called on his Western counterparts to lead the moral crusade to increase aid to developing countries in order to make national health systems in poor countries work. Yes, money is needed to ensure that drugs are delivered to national health centres on motorable roads and pay health professionals who provide care. But why subsidise a national health scheme that collects premiums from citizens but hardly accountable to health delivery agencies? Why give money to the health sector when a quarter of what is stolen by politicians could have increased the number of HIV/Aids patients on antiretroviral treatment from the current 10,000 (out of an estimated 70,000) to 20,000 considering that it costs only US$6 per Aids patient per month. Appallingly, only a little over 380 patients are actively accessing antitrovirals simply because they are poor, and sadly the safety nest to which they contribute taxes, however meagre, get plundered.

As if this reckless waste of public funds is not enough, the time and energy of ordinary Ghanaians get sapped into navigating a web of state-imposed impediments to starting and maintaining a business. It is true that 70 per cent of Ghanaian businesses are small-scaled and run operations without recourse to formal certificates of incorporation. However, governments some times employ force to exact tolls and taxes from these operators who were originally disenfranchised from formalising their businesses, not to mention the high cost of capital and other pricey factors of production. Eventually, as indigenous businesses get overwhelmed by local barriers, they resort to importation of cheaper products in order to survive. Every citizen is proud of what his nation can produce. But the same citizen will shy away when the local produce is priced above his monthly income and has inferior design features or contents.
Rather than pressurize government to lower barriers to local production, some ignorant business men have fallen for cheap propaganda against imported products. The usual claim is that imports weaken local capacity by rendering factories redundant. However, such redundancy could have been saved if factories and other state-owned institutions had an injection of capital from thieving public officials and were properly managed. Amazingly, the government understands economics very well and would usually outsource production of essential products such as textiles, printing of educational books and football tickets to foreigners who can produce at much lower costs. Disregard the fact that such outsourced contracts attract decent kickbacks. Only the government looks on while ordinary citizens helplessly struggle to overcome barriers to efficiency.
We don't have to be schooled in the skills of fingering corruption when we do have the opportunity to institutionalise mechanisms that should minimise or prevent it. If only governance was properly decentralized to engage ordinary citizens who will decide what their taxes should be used for; if only faulting public officials could be severely punished and make corruption less attractive; if only working citizens, from the President to the messenger could be treated equally before the law, we don't have to brood over the sorry state of governance in Ghana, a country many in Africa look up to for leadership, at least politically.

Franklin Cudjoe is Director of IMANI Center for Policy and Education. Visit IMANI today www.imanighana.com

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.