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Opinions of Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie

THE OUTSIDER: An 'albatross' named Tsatsu

I don’t remember the last time a conference of the Ghana Bar Association generated so much excitement... and so much controversy. These events usually come and go without many of us taking much notice. They open with long, winding speeches and end with often meaningless communiqués, which are often no more useful than the ‘Rose’ in my loo (which I refuse to use on my most delicate parts because it’s as hard as sandpaper).

This year, though, the GBA conference is receiving more attention than it deserves – thanks to Tsatsu Tsikata, the jailed former chief executive of the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation. Tsikata, a member of the GBA, is serving a five-year jail term for causing financial loss to the state. His trial started in 2001 and ended (rather abruptly) a little over three months ago. The man, who until Monday morning was president of the GBA, Nii Osah-Mills, said in a radio interview that Tsikata did not receive a fair trial.

The ‘Council’ of the association descended like a tonne of bricks on Mr. Osah-Mills and threatened him with impeachment for making such a politically incorrect statement. To avoid the ignominy of impeachment, Osah-Mills decided to step down.

Now, I don’t like following legal proceedings. They are often too complicated for my fickle mind and, frankly, sometimes I feel lawyers are “too known”. I have had lawyers threaten me with law suits because I said someone had been “sacked” when the official statement proclaimed that he had been “relieved of his post.” Apparently, there is a difference between the two. In my fickle mind, being relieved of your post (or your post being relieved of you) and getting sacked have the same meaning: the job is no longer yours to do.

Lawyers are trained to make it difficult for simpletons to read between the lines. As a journalist, I have trained myself to read between the lines. When the lines are not exactly clear, I will draw them. That’s my job. Since I lack the mental capacity to comprehend the pettiness of lawyers and their complicated arguments, I don’t like following legal proceedings. The most important parts of a trial (or any legal process) for me are the beginning and the end. Momentous events in-between can also engage my attention sometimes. But usually, I am only interested in the beginning and the end.

Therefore, I didn’t follow the Tsikata trial very much. It wasn’t the easiest case to follow – even for the most accomplished lawyers and judges. Tsikata was jumping from courtroom to courtroom like a motherless kangaroo – filing one legal challenge after another. It was so complicated. There would be a substantive case in the High Court and he would challenge a ruling on a motion in the Appeals Court and while that was being heard, he would go back to a different High Court to file a motion and then he would suddenly be seen rushing to the Supreme Court to complain about some procedure a judge had adopted in a High Court, a move which could lead to the suspension of the Appeals Court.

Tsatsu’s legal acrobatics amused me and sometimes confused me. I was often amused (and quite fascinated) by how he managed to keep the tabs on all the motions he was filing and all the challenges he was putting up. I was often confused (and annoyed) when I had to read through a legal brief to write a story about how the case was progressing – I would spend most of the time just scratching my head. Sometimes, I felt – like most Ghanaians did – that Tsatsu was just playing for time. I thought the case would drag for a very long time. So imagine my surprise when the case ended so abruptly in June. Apparently, the presiding judge felt the case had become “an albatross” and decided to get rid of it once and for all. She was wrong.

The “albatross” Justice Henrietta Abban tried to get rid off has suddenly gained more weight and grown bigger wings but it just won’t fly away. Justice Abban has now become one of the most infamous judges in the country and she has a few questions to answer because Tsatsu has filed all sorts of challenges to her legal reasoning.

Having looked on (seemingly unconcerned) over the fate of one of its most persecuted members, the Ghana Bar Association suddenly came to its senses just a few days ago and decided to send a delegation to visit Tsatsu in jail. At the head of that delegation was Nii Osah-Mills. After the visit, Osah-Mills dared to say what many of the lawyers in this country fear to say: that there were fundamental flaws in the Tsatsu case.

“We believe that there is a possibility that the principle of fair trial and of the right to counsel may have been breached,” he said in a radio interview. He then promised that the GBA will appoint a team to monitor how Tsikata’s numerous appeals proceed. The GBA Council, made up of mostly NPP sympathisers, feels Mr. Osah-Mills went too far – he should have consulted them first before making public pronouncements on the unfairness of the trial. That’s pushing it. Even I (a benighted, fickle-minded, non-lawyer) know that Tsikata was not treated fairly – right from the start of the trial. I remember, when Tsikata ‘floored’ the government by challenging the constitutionality of the so-called Fast Track Courts. President Kufuor was in Australia at the time. So shocked was he when he heard the news that he vowed to do “everything” to get the verdict reversed. Check the archives.

Kufuor returned from his sojourn Down Under and quickly appointed more judges to the Supreme Court. As a parliamentary correspondent at the time, I followed the hearings of the appointments committee of the House. It was as chaotic as it was messy. It was very clear to everyone who wasn’t decidedly pro-NPP that someone like Kwame Afreh was deliberately appointed to the Supreme Court to add to the numbers and reverse the earlier ruling that the Fast Track Courts were illegal. The rest is history that doesn’t bear repeating.

When the Supreme Court overturned (or as the lawyers say, ‘reviewed’) its own verdict on the Fast Track Courts, the stage was set for a showdown between Tsikta and the government. The former oil man fought gallantly (even though sometimes he confused and annoyed me with his legal acrobatics). He often complained about how unfairly he was being treated. But we all decided to wait and let the law take its course. Unfortunately, the judge was in a hurry to get rid of the “albatross.” So out of the blue, she ended the cases – in the absence of Tsatsu’s lawyer – sentenced him to five years in jail. Her job was done.

Since his sentencing, I haven’t bothered to give much thought to the case until a few hours ago... when the news came out that some leading members of the GBA had forced its president to resign for making remarks about the unfairness of the trial.

From his prison cell, Tsatsu would be shaking his head in disbelief and telling himself that this is yet another sign that an ‘invisible hand’ (and I know who it belongs to) is manipulating the system against him. I can’t help but move into Tsatsu’s corner. He’s the underdog. The odds have been stack against him for years but he’s fought gallantly. All he needs now is an opportunity to prove his innocence – an opportunity he didn’t get because Justice Abban feels he’s become an “albatross”. When a judge rushes to issue a verdict, justice is not served. Today it’s Tsatsu. Tomorrow, it could be me.

And it’s such a shame that in the face of blatant injustice, the GBA Council cares more about political correctness. It’s a rather strange road for lawyers who are supposed to be advocates of justice to take and it has raised a lot of questions about the relevance of the GBA. I don’t think the GBA will collapse over this matter. But there is talk of a possible split – a splinter group might break away to form a new association. That’s not desirable. But the controversy is focussing a lot more of the nation’s attention on the GBA. And that is why for the first time in many years, I am looking forward to the communiqué to be issued at the end of a GBA Congress. I hope to God that it says something about Tsatsu Tsikata and how he was hounded like a dog, trapped and thrown into a cage. I need to be convinced that the GBA hasn’t sold its conscience, its voice and (dare I say) its balls. If that communiqué doesn’t say anything about Tsatsu’s case, I will treat it like the ‘Rose’ in my loo (which I refuse to use on my most delicate parts because it’s as hard as sandpaper).