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Opinions of Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Columnist: Fosu-Mensah, Kwabena

Is it ethical for civil servants to turn into politicians ...?

Opinion Opinion

When Ghana attained political independence from Great Britain in 1957, it also inherited a civil service that was under obligation to be non-political, neutral, impartial and committed to faithful implementation of government policies.

In line with this principle, Article 284 of the Constitution of Ghana provides that a public officer shall not put himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts or is likely to conflict with the performance of the functions of his office.

In addition, the Code of Conduct of the Ghana Civil Service clearly instructs civil servants not to engage in partisan politics. For the purpose of clarity, I cite the following relevant provisions of the Code which warns a civil servant not to [my own emphasis]:

a) accept any office, paid or unpaid, permanent or temporary, of any political party or organisation
b) declare himself openly as a registered member of a political party or organization
c) indicate publicly his support for any party candidate or politics
d) make speeches or join demonstrations in favour of any political party or organization
e) engage in activities which are likely to involve him in political controversy.

While the Code applies to the civil service, the public is reminded that public institutions and organisations have been carved out of the civil service. Consequently, many such public service institutions have based their codes of conduct on the civil service code subject to relevant changes specific to their circumstances.

Article 190(1) of the Ghana Constitution also provides that the Public Services of Ghana include:

a) The Civil Service
b) Public corporation other than those set up as commercial ventures
c) Public services set up by this Constitution
d) Such other public services as Parliament may by law prescribe

It is gratifying to note that there are examples of good practice in Ghana and elsewhere. For example, the Ghana Health Service and the Ghana Education Service as well as other many organisations have drafted and approved codes of conduct for their members of staff.

For the purpose of illustration, Paragraph 34 of the Teachers Code of Conduct states among others that no teacher shall in the performance of his/her duties engage in any activities that are likely to involve him/her in political controversy or lead to his/her taking improper advantage of his/her position in the Ghana Education Service.

Unfortunately, as we approach general elections, we are witnessing open political involvement of a number of civil and public servants who are in service, some even putting themselves forward as members of political parties and/or aspiring to be their party’s eventual constituency candidates for the 2016 general elections.

Sam Kwesi Fletcher’s case, taken at random, makes an interesting illustration. He is the Head of Corporate Communication at the Volta River Authority (VRA) who is contesting for nomination for the Gomoa West Parliamentary seat on the ticket of the governing National Democratic Congress (NDC) on 7 November. He is reported to have told Citi News on or around Tuesday 25th August that he will not resign from his position because he thinks that his decision to do politics does not warrant his resignation from the VRA, a public service established by an Act of Parliament in 1961 (Volta River Development Act, Act 46).

Sam Kwesi Fletcher is reported to have said also on Adom FM’s morning show ‘Dwaso Nsem’ on Monday, 24th August 2015 that he has been a member of the ruling [NDC] party for a very long time so his allegiance with NDC is not in doubt. According to the radio report, he was a General Secretary for the NDC party in Amsterdam (Holland). He added that he has contributed his quota immensely to the party and deserves to move to the next level to serve his constituency.

The list of those who hold public high profile service positions and are in active politics is long. Suffice it to mention only a few others who have also applied to contest for their political party’s nomination to stand for parliamentary seat at the national elections next year. They are Dr. Kpessa White, Acting Executive Director of the National Service Scheme (Shai Osudoku constituency); Ras Mubarak, National Youth Coordinator, National Youth Authority (Kumbungu constituency); Edward Abambire Bawa, Public Relations Officer of the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum (Bongo constituency); and Alhaji Ibrahim Seidu, Chief Engineer at the Department of Feeder Roads (Tamale Central constituency).

It is interesting to note that the incumbent Member of Parliament (MP) for Tamale Central, Hon. Inusah Fuseini is reported to have been arguing that it is illegal for his contender in the NDC primaries, Alhaji Ibrahim Seidu, to engage in partisan politics without first resigning his position as a civil servant. Alhaji Seidu is an Engineer at the Department of Feeder Roads.

Hon. Fuseini’s opinion and reasoning appear to be consistent with Article 284 of the Constitution as well as the Civil Service Code of Conduct and the Civil Service Act.
It is the considered opinion of the present writer that public servants who turn politicians must either voluntarily resign or be taken through the disciplinary procedures or complaints system of their organisations for dismissal.

The following reasons, though not exhaustive, support this view:
1. The public servant turned politician may not be able to devote their full time and attention to their official duties while he is engaged in politics before and during his campaign.
2. Such an officer is more likely than not to act in contravention of Article 284 of the Constitution. His breach of the Civil Service Code of Conduct too, is obvious.
3. There is also a strong temptation to take an improper advantage of their position, e.g. diverting public resources to private purpose, asking their office driver to drive their private car to run errands for the public servant turned politician, using information acquired in the course of their official duties to further their private interests and interests of their political party etc
4. Political campaigns are expensive and the public servant may be tempted to get involved in bribery and corruption through the acceptance of favours from those who have benefited or expect to benefit in future from their decisions. That creates a vicious cycle of corruption.
5. There is a strong likelihood that they would frustrate the policies of the government they do not support.
6. How can a person who fails to win a political contest show his impartiality to an incoming government against which he campaigned?

Those who aspire to be in politics must also examine their conscience whether it is right and ethical to be a public servant and a politician at the same time.
Where persuasion fails, the heads of organisations and the organisations of public officers who turn politicians have the primary responsibility to take action and enforce the law and the relevant regulations.

The Public Services have generally taken a rather nervous approach to the issue of the tenure of office of public servants who turn into politicians. They and the public look on while public servants openly contravene regulations, much of which lead to bribery and corruption as well as abuse of office.

In 2004 and 2008, the Head of Civil Service reminded civil servants not to engage in open or partisan political activity which may compromise their status as civil servants. The intention was laudable as it was to invite civil servants to ponder over the ethical values of the service and to encourage them to perform their duties apolitically and independently. There is however, no evidence that the whip was cracked when the Code of Conduct was breached by some public servants.

Civil Service Act also specifies the general definition of misconduct. Section 75(1) of the Act states that an act done by a civil servant without reasonable cause constitutes a misconduct if the act:

(a) amounts to a failure to perform in a proper manner any duty imposed on that civil servant, or
(b) contravenes an enactment relating to the Service, or
(c) is otherwise prejudicial to the efficient performance of the functions of the Civil Service, or
(d) tends to bring the Civil Service into disrepute.

Some types of misconduct as defined in sub-sections of Section 76(d), (f) and (h) of the Civil Service Act 1993 (PNDC 327) are also relevant here, namely that civil servants are not:
(d) to use, without the consent of the prescribed authority, property or facility provided for the purposes of the Service for some purpose not connected with official duties,

(f) to engage in an activity outside official duties which is likely to lead to the taking of improper advantage of the position in the Service of that civil servant,

(h) to make unauthorised disclosure of classified and unclassified official information or document to a private person or to another public officer.

It is clear that there is a plethora of laws and internal regulations which should help to resolve the ethical issues pertaining to public service and politics. What is missing is the courage, the will and the sincerity to enforce them.

Although Section 78 of the Civil Service Act vests the disciplinary authority for civil servants in the Civil Service Council, there is no evidence that any attempt is being made or has been made to enforce the Code of Conduct.

It is a wrong approach for us as a people to wait until a matter is fit to go to court or goes before we act or react. The matter of the judicial corruption via the Anas video is a case in point. What is required is prompt action to ensure first that public servants and their organisations respect and enforce their own internal regulations and systems such as their code of conduct.

Political parties too, have a major role to play in discouraging the combination of public service and political activity. They should consider whether it is ethically correct for a political party to allow a public servant in service to contest in a political election, whether at parliamentary primary or national level.

They owe the public a duty not to pass such officers fit to stand for nomination or appointment to political office unless they have officially and actually resigned from public office even before they complete nomination forms for any such relevant contest.

While the nation may benefit from the expertise and experience of some public servants if they enter politics, these public servants must show from day one that they would be committed to the establishment of strong institutions and structures including the ethical governance arrangements of Parliament such as the code of conduct for Members of Parliament.

They can only demonstrate their respect for the law and the internal regulations of their own organisations and institutions such as their code of conduct by resigning from their various positions first before their party’s parliamentary primaries if not even before they complete their nomination forms.

In conclusion, it is clear that there are laws and internal regulations to guide civil and public servants who want to go into politics. They simply ignore the laws and regulations. Those who have a duty to enforce them turn a blind eye. Political parties condone and connive while the general public look on.

If we are to build a strong and professional public service that is to be seen and considered as ethical, proper, impartial, politically neutral and able to instil public confidence we should not look at the law only but also its spirit and the code of conduct of the institutions where the public servants turned politicians work.

The Civil Service Council, Heads/Chief Executive Officers of public institutions, public institutions themselves, public servants, political parties and the public need no reminder that once a public servant declares his intention to run for a political office (except at the district, municipal or metropolitan level), he has turned politically partisan. Such a person must not be allowed to stay at post for ethical reasons at the very least. The time for action is now, not tomorrow.

The author is an ethical governance expert