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Opinions of Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Columnist: Agboka, Godwin Yaw

Kufuor's exercise of the 'Prerogative of Mercy'

Under Article 72 (1)(a-d) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, the President of the Republic, may, acting in consultation with the Council of State, decide to exercise the Prerogative of Mercy or just grant amnesty to convicted people. This constitutional provision is a special gesture the president grants people convicted of various crimes on humanitarian grounds or for reconciliatory purposes. Since the current administration took over in 2001, President Kufuor has remitted the remainder of or commuted the sentences of many prisoners, including public officials. However, as I will argue in this piece, this gesture is losing its striking effect, or the exercise of it can be a threat to the president’s concept of “zero tolerance for corruption”—at least, due to the manner the president, now, can exercise this power.

Mallam Issa, former Minister of Youth and Sports, (under Kufuor’s all-inclusive government), Mr. Kwame Peprah, and Victor Selormey, jailed for causing financial loss to the State, are some of the public officials who have benefited from this constitutional provision and humanitarian gesture from President Kufuor. Most of these public officials have been NDC functionaries, understandably so because the NPP directly took over from the NDC.

It appears that each time the president has granted such forms of amnesty to public officials, other prisoners have also benefited. In 2005, for instance, during the 48th anniversary celebrations of Ghana’s independence, the president freed about 130 prisoners. On March 6, 2007 he freed or commuted the sentences of 1,206 prisoners to mark the 50th anniversary. Thirty-six prisoners who were on death row had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Three prisoners who were serving life sentences had their jail terms reduced to 20 years. And 1,167 detainees serving lesser sentences were also freed.
The latest public official to win the president’s sympathy is Mr. Dan Abodakpi, former Minister of Trades and Industry and NDC MP for Keta. Mr. Abodakpi, who was serving a 10-year jail term for wilfully causing financial loss of US$400,000 to the state, was sentenced on 5 February 2007, after a trial that began in 2002. Abodakpi was tried and found guilty together with the late Victor Selormey, a former Deputy Finance Minister, on the counts of conspiracy to commit crime, defrauding by false pretences, and wilfully causing a total loss of US$400,000 to the state.
Interestingly, however, already this humanitarian gesture has received mixed reactions from some Ghanaians, including some social commentators. Some have indicated that the president is worried about his future as a private citizen, believing that an NDC government will subject him to some level of harassment. Others believe that the president is only paving the way for an NDC win in the December elections, considering that government has already announced that Prof. Mills, presidential candidate of the NDC will be one of the few to receive the highest national awards. A friend even said that Mr. Kufuor has done more to hurt the NPP than the NDC. Yet, while others have argued that the president’s gesture should go to all other prisoners, others believe it is good news to public officials, who, knowing that the president will, indiscriminately, apply such a provision will go on a “stealing” spree.
I am not sure I share those views, especially the position that this gesture is a pacification deal meant to safeguard the president’s future as a private citizen. I believe it is purely humanitarian, even though I will question the timing and the purpose. I take this position because much as I believe such gestures both serve humanitarian and reconciliatory purposes these presidential pardons are gradually becoming a “political ambulance” meant to save and satisfy those in political circles. In effect, the state and its people might not gain much in terms of the so-called reconciliation—at least in the case of Mr. Abodakpi, but may end losing—time, resources, and energy—when it is rather supposed to have gained, in some way.
Why would the government initiate a process that it cannot sustain? If all what it is to initiating punitive processes against public officials is about taking them through an endless trial, jailing them, only to release them about a year into their term, then the government had better not start it. Why would you send someone to jail, a term that was supposed to have run for 10 years, and only pardon him, 16 months into his jail term? Why did the trial process, that lasted about four years, start in the first place? What purpose will any government want to achieve by initiating a trial process against anybody—public or private citizen? What statement has the government made with this jail term?
Was the trial meant to embarrass or scare the likes of Abodakpi, or was it to serve a punitive purpose that will deter others from going the route Abodakpi and others went, if, indeed, that is why they were sent there? I believe that no agency, whether public or private will ,be able to uproot political corruption unless, it lets people—i.e. culprits—know, by example, that they will go to prison for a very long term if they misappropriate state funds. If this jail term was meant to just embarrass Mr. Abodakpi, then it has failed in several respects. The only statement it has made is that the trial should not have been started in the first place, considering that any public official could also repeat the act and be freed after some political heckling.
Most of these trials, rather than deter the so-called culprits have rather been a waste of time and energy for Ghanaians, who religiously followed events of the proceedings, at least before the people were sent to jail. Above all, indeed, it has been so much a waste of state resources. A trial process eats into state resources, and so does taking care of these officials who are sent to jail. So much is spent on them; unfortunately, the funds which the state lost, the reason for the trial, are not even recovered by the state. Trying to massage the feelings of Ghanaians or some group of people with such an action will not bring any economic gains to the nation.
If the government—and I don’t care which one—wants the state to gain, in anyway, it should make these officials pay the money, rather than send them to jail, only to release them just a few months into their term. In a country like Ghana, declared a Heavily Indebted Poor Country by the IMF, with more than half the population living below the poverty line; with most people in rural communities not having access to safe drinking water; with some going to bed hungry; and with sporadic strikes by hospital staff and educational workers demanding a minimum wage of less than a dollar for eight hours of work, a lot can be done with these huge sums of money, if, indeed, government compels them to pay back, rather than waste our time with jail terms that don’t serve their purposes. Maybe, I have never been rich, but $400,000 could have done a lot for poor Ghanaians! You know what poverty can do.
What the president has done only gives the NDC some bragging rights that the trial of some of their functionaries was without merit, but politically-motivated. The NDC must be saying “after all Abodakpi was innocent. We said it!” I don’t want to wade into the debate as to whether he was guilty or not guilty, or even whether the trial was politically-motivated. I believe the trial judges studied the merits of the case and passed judgment. That is where the issue ends! However, if you ask me I will say that Mr. Abodakpi should not have been tried in the first place, or, maybe, he should have been pardoned the same day he was sentenced. These may have made perfect sense. What the president has done only leaves too much room for several interpretations, which becloud the altruistic and reconciliatory nature of the pardon. Unfortunately, in all these developments, the judiciary suffers, because it becomes the subject of vituperation, hate, and mockery. Some elements of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) still have bitter memories of Justice Dixon Kwame Afreh, who tried the likes of George Yankey, spokesman on Trade and Industry for the National Democratic Congress and others for willfully causing financial loss to the State. When the pardon is applied indiscriminately, judges become the subject of public ridicule. Too bad! You begin a trial process, employ the services of judges, who perform their duties effectively, only for you to go back and say that those convicted should be pardoned, just because there is a provision in the constitution that must be applied. Do we think judges will have any zeal to preside over such cases? Now that the president has remitted the remainder of Mr. Abodakpi’s jail term what will happen to the other charges brought against him? Will the trial continue or it will cease? The statement was silent on what government will do about those charges, but, if history is any teacher, one can say that but for the fact that Victor Selormey died, he may have gone back to court. Anyway, how about the likes of Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings and Mr. Tsatsu Tsikata? Will their trial processes continue or cease? What will happen if they are found guilty? Your guess is as good as mine. This is becoming a joke now!
If the government is initiating the processes only to pardon those culprits, just a few months into their jail terms, then it better put a stop to it. It will not serve any purpose. It is not worth the time and energy of Ghanaians. There are better ways to punish people than this fairy-tale kind of justice system that is almost becoming a mockery of the judicial system.
Personally, I am not sure if all other prisoners should be freed, but I definitely believe that state should not lose again, when it decides to institute prosecutory processes against someone, especially a public official, who has been accused of causing financial loss to the state. Meanwhile, Mr. President, don’t stop pardoning people, but let it (the pardon) serve its purpose. Anyway, welcome home, Mr. Abodakpi!