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Opinions of Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Columnist: Kennedy, Arthur Kobina

Presidential Pensions

University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast

8th November, 2011

Spurred by the bad transition blood between the NPP and the NDC on one hand and the sour relations between President Mills and his mentor and ex-boss, former President Rawlings, the benefits of former Presidents under article 71 of our constitution have become rather contentious. In recent weeks, there have been reports of buildings being rejected, disrespect to former Presidents and purchases of houses in exclusive neighbourhoods.

While a lot of time has been spent discussing the issue, we have, as we often do, avoided the fundamental questions.

Before posing these questions, it is good to remind ourselves that we have not always had defined benefits for our ex-leaders. Indeed, as someone joked when I asked him about this, “In Africa, former rulers were more likely to get bullets, exile or prison than pension.” He is right. Both Nkrumah and Busia died lonely deaths in exile while Limann died in penury, here at home. Afrifa, Acheampong and Akuffo died by firing squad. May their souls rest in peace and may they forgive their ungrateful nation.

In Ghana, for years, we seemed to reserve our appreciation for our former Presidents till their death. Thus, Nkrumah, Busia and Limann were all shown more love in death than in life.
To return to the philosophical origins of article 71 benefits, it was believed that one of the reasons why African leaders were inclined to be dictators and Presidents-for-life was their anxieties about their physical and financial security after handing over power. From this, it was speculated that having in place lavish pensions would make our Presidents more willing to yield power.
The need to have ex-leaders live in dignity is one that has been recognized by many nations, including the United States, Canada, Britain and Nigeria. While such benefits for former leaders in the US have been in existence only since 1958, Britain has had such benefits for former Prime Ministers since 1937 and Nigerian leaders since their 1999 constitution.
In the United States, the passage of the Former President’s Act was precipitated by the dire financial status of former President Truman. The Us House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service reported the bill saying it would “avoid the possibility of the indignities and of deterioration in public and world regard for the office of the President of the United States.” The amount of 25,000 USD paid initially was based on comparable pensions paid to five-star Generals. The amount of the pension for former US Presidents in 2008 was worth 191,300 USD per year and this income was subject to taxation. While there are additional benefits, including office space and payment for staff, accommodation is not part of the benefits. According to the US General Service’s administration, the US government spent from a little over half a million to a little over a million on each ex-President in 2008, before taxes.
In Nigeria, the payments of these benefits have been, to say the least, contentious. During a debate in the Nigerian Senate earlier this year, the Senate Committee on Federal Character and Intergovernmental Affairs rejected a request for 1.2 billion Naira ($ 8 million USD), for allowances and benefits for seven living former Heads of State, five former Vice-Presidents, six families of deceased Heads of State, two families of deceased Vice-Presidents and five ex-Chiefs of Staff to the Presidents. Reacting to the request, the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Smart Adeyemi said he would not present the report for Senate approval and “I will not be able to defend this before the appropriations committee. My conscience will not permit me to do that”------“ It is unfair to set aside N2bn for a few people who were part those who mismanaged this country when there are no jobs, when there are no drugs in the hospitals and there is so much poverty in the land. Tell them to sacrifice, the hospitals have no drugs, the roads are bad, there is no electricity and most graduates are unemployed.” The Act passed over the Senator’s objections. However, in his objections, the Senator raised fundamental issues that should be examined before this kind of compensation for ex-leaders. For instance, are all leaders entitled to pensions regardless of their performance?
To return to Ghana, looking at reports from Greenstreet to Chnery-Hesse, it appears that each of our former Presidents are entitled to two houses, four vehicles, offices, free travel abroad, free health care and all terrain vehicles. I may have left something out but this list should suffice.
I believe that we should, as a nation, answer some simple questions.
First, are our former Presidents entitled to pension that would, to paraphrase the Americans, maintain the dignity and prestige of the office of President of Ghana? The answer to that question is “Yes, they are.” Unfortunately, the distinction between living in dignity and living in opulence has been blurred. While our ex-Presidents must live in dignity, they should not live in opulence --- at least not at our expense. It appears to me that what we are proposing to give them is far in excess of what they would require to live in dignity.
Second, regardless of what we think our former Presidents are entitled to, can we afford it? My affordability question should be addressed both financially and ethically. Should a nation that annually requires donor support fund its former President’s to live a life that even the United States will not grant to its former Presidents? If we do support this kind of expenditure, does it undermine the government’s claim that it cannot pay teachers and nurses and doctors better because we are poor? This question is about equity and relativity. Where does the perks of the mighty come to accommodation with the needs of the many? How do we justify the fact that those who claim to have built our healthcare system do not trust it enough to get their care here at home?
Third, since virtually every President has a house before reaching the Presidency, do they really need two houses from us? Also, arising out of the fact that most ex-Presidents will have houses of their own, will acceptance of President Mills rent proposal mean that we will be paying ex-Presidents to live in their own houses? That will be another scandal in the long list of scandals that have characterized how we ignore the needs of the many while meeting the wants of the few.

Fourth, who should determine the pensions of ex-Presidents? Should it be the President who is about to retire, through a committee of his cronies or an independent body? Does the President not have a conflict-of-interest when he is permitted to name the very committee that makes recommendations on his pension? If he can name his committee, why do we not just save ourselves the expense by asking him to determine his own pension?
To expand on this question, even granting that such a committee appointed by the President is necessary, should every President appoint a Committee?

Fifth, assuming we can come to some accommodation on how our hard-working ex-Presidents can live in opulence or dignity, based on one’s point of view, should this largess be administered at the whims and caprices of the sitting President? I think not. Since article 71 is a constitutional benefit and may not be varied to the disadvantage of an ex-President, it is disappointing that neither President Kufuor nor President Rawlings chose to challenge President Mills’ dilly-dallying in court. They would have won and in the process, advanced the frontiers of our democracy.

Fifth, given that the list of article 71 beneficiaries keep expanding, where is it going to end? It would appear that unlike the US, Britain and Canada where the pension for ex-leaders are clearly targeted, in Ghana and Nigeria, the list is broad and getting broader.

To resolve these questions that I have raised, I propose the following:
First, that the President appoint a Commission to evaluate all the issues surrounding article 71 and make proposals for a law that would clarify the process, content and the caps on article 71 benefits.
It is my hope that such a Commission would have a majority of members coming from NGO’s and business and that their work would be completed within ninety days.

Second, that the report of such a committee should be submitted to Parliament for an up or down vote, guided by the national interest, the need for our political process to maintain its credibility and the realistic circumstances of our nation.

Third, that article 71 benefits be subject to taxation. It is unconscionable to tax the meager earnings of teachers, nurses and labourers while others receiving such monumental sums from the national treasury go untaxed. In fact, it is unjust and it is the stuff that inspires revolutions.
Maybe one day, a wealthy ex-President will reject his ex-gratia award or donate it to some worthy cause. When that day comes, we will truly be, the nation God meant us to be.
Let us move forward, together.
Arthur Kobina Kennedy