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Opinions of Monday, 29 August 2005

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Tema Harbor: The Belly Of The Beast-Confessions Of A Disaporan

Not too long ago I wrote an article titled, ?the ailing back of the diasporan? (see ghanaweb). In that article, I aimed at bringing to the fore, the inconsistencies and highhandedness of government policy towards the diasporan in particular but other Ghanaians as well. Well, I did make the trip to Ghana in June 05 as promised and I am here to share with you, what some of you may already know but may induce, hopefully, a revolt if not convulsion, in others.

My Honda Civic, a good choice by the way, arrived at Tema Harbor around the 21st of May. Its arrival at the Harbor buoyed my flaming hope that I could yank my car out of the daunting harbor before I set foot in Ghana. I arrived in Ghana at the end of May to learn that, my car was still trapped in the ?jaws of death? (the nickname for Tema harbor). With my brand new MP3 capable stereo tuck snugly under my rosy armpit, I just couldn?t wait to get my groove on. Talk about someone really baiting a heart attack! My first lesson was a rather stern one about shipping. My shipper from the US has pulled a fast one on me. After charging me $1400 to ship my car, he found it smart to ship the car under the name of another person. Even though the Bill of Lading had my name on there, the all the cars in the container were consigned to only one person. This meant that, unless the person in question can effect an amendment to the bill of lading or ?bill lading? as some call it, I will not be able to clear my car. The amendment process is fraught with very stringent hard and fast rules.

To be honest, this problem of amending the bill of lading was not created by the harbor authorities. It was the sole invention of a smart Alec type shipper who tried to cut corners to save cost. Don?t ask me about the intricacies of that deal! While the harbor did not invent that pinch of an amendment, it sure did make me live a nightmare around this issue. It took all kinds of bureaucratic maneuvering and palm greasing to actualize this process. In all of this, my agent was in the fore while I tagged along angrily like Zakawi, looking for the least opportunity to lob bombs and inevitably start a jihad. The amendment was also delayed because some of the folks on the list of five cars did not either have their monies ready for the process or could not care less. In all, it took about 3-4days to finish the voluminous paperwork on what ought to have been a simple process.

At the very end of the amendment process, we were notified that one Mr. Yenshira ( I hope I spelt his name right), in a bid to safeguard the interest of customers, has ordered that unless he personally approves an amendment, it shall not take effect. Asem beba! The next morning, I got to Tema, a place I know very little about, around 8 a.m. This was to catch Yenshira and get him to ok the amendment. Well, Yenshira had other plans! He had earmarked a good portion of that day for a visit to headquarters in Accra. The only option available to us was to wait. At this point, a sympathizer and fellow Okyeame member called me to check on my progress with this stinking little car at the harbor. After my lament to this goodwill ambassador, he promised to make a few calls aimed at speeding up the process on my behalf and he certainly did. Not that it did make a significant difference anyway. Unfortunately for us, Yenshira decided not to show up at 2 pm. as promised.

A fellow vandal mate (commonwealth hall at Legon) put the bug in my ear about the commissioner of customs at Tema the previous day. He was a vandal too! He advised that I should go and see ?Africanus? if things come to a knotty head. Fearing the worst from this Yenshira man, I went and saw my vandal mate! Low and behold, the can-do spirit of the vandal prevailed. I intimated to Africanus that, any system that revolves or pivots on the head of one person is dysfunctional. I said, ?why can?t we have other/more ?Yenshiras? to approve an amendment? Why should it take me a whole day to get the nod? If you want to find a place where fundamentals of sound management take a dirty slap every second, try Ghana. Power struggles, party affiliation, cronyism, nepotism, tribalism and favoritism do not help any. Talk about the ?Peter Principle?!! We have so many square pegs in round holes that you just want to punch them out of their own misery into smithereens. Yenshira, I learnt from the grapevine, was actually an IT person who has arrogated unbridled power onto himself and is running a one man circus at the harbor. Is he connected to NPP? I don?t know but then how did he arrogate these powers onto himself with his background? Somebody put the brakes on!

After visiting the manifest room a zillion times to actualize this amendment, we moved on to the next stage. Assessment!! Man oh man! For some reason, this process kept reminding me of a reggae limerick in a song by Max Romeo and the Upsetters that goes like this, ?they fed our mothers with sour grapes and set our teeth on edge, stealing in the name of the lord.? My trusted contact advised me on the morning after the amendment was completed that, the assessment for my car has gone way up because the folks at the harbor uncovered that my car was a ?99 instead of the ?95 that was stated on the bill of lading and agreed to by US authorities after thorough inspection. Jack, we are talking anywhere from 25-28 million cedis for a 95 Honda Civic shipped to help mostly with but not limited to charity work. These fees are not just overly harsh and expensive, but wicked and irritating. Wow! I bought this car and saw it with my naked eyes. ?This is not a ?99 Civic?, I argued. It cannot be! Why would the white man sell me a newer car for less money than he can get by listing it as an older model? Oh no! ?We don?t care?, said the custom folks! We have a formula and it indicates that your car is a ?99. I have never been so embarrassed!! No just for me but also, for the ignorance and pigheadedness displayed by our custom folks.

Here I was, feeling like the conman that I am not. The reading on my petulance barometer was way off the charts. I called my shipper in the US and asked him to wade in on the issue. In the middle of our short but often testy conversation, I was rudely interrupted by Spacefon because my units run out. This reminded me of how expensive Spacefon was. For almost $8 you get to talk about 10 minutes to the US. Walai!! Don?t ask me what units are! Anyway, my shipper promised to fax me some papers to help fight back the misinterpretation that customs was trying to foist on me. At this point, my tetchy mood notwithstanding, I had enough sense to advise myself to back off from our irascible customs officers. I thought their act was derisory at best but why knock someone if you have your finger in their unrelenting jaw?

After one week of arguments and heady engagements, I was finally allowed to go verify the VIN # on my badly dented car. The shipper has crammed 5 cars in one container, thus hanged my car precariously in the container like a cigarette tucked in the corner of one?s lip. My plan was to copy the VIN# and take it to Honda Motors for verification. However, my ancestors were really smiling on me that morning. It was a rainy morning and the car park at the harbor was virtually impassable. Given the monies that they collect at the harbor one wonders why it is in such a deplorable state. The harbor is very dirty and has rattletrap appearance. Clean it up! Anyway, the filth did not stop me from trudging towards my car after the gateman signaled us in. I hurriedly snatched the paperwork from my agent and began to compare it to the VIN# or chassis # as they call it. My suspicion was right!! It did not take long to realize that someone copied the number wrongly. My first instinct was to chew out my agent. Poor man! I have never cussed so much under my breath. Of course I could not cuss them out openly for they may throw another curve ball at me. I have had enough at this time and time was not on my side. This discovery led to a long rework of my papers and eventually a reassessment of the duty on my car. The price difference was significant and I am happy that I caught the anomaly. Folks, don?t take their word for it. Always trust but certainly verify.

The next stage of our saga was to go and pay the assessed fees and get a release for my ride. Before one can pay the assessment on his or her car, he must go to the ministry of finance and get a tax ID number. Why is this so? This normally takes half to a full day?s work. As if we?ve not suffered enough, electricity was off that morning at the ministry. This meant that the process had to be done manually and entered electronically later on. By late noon, the clerk returned with the Tax ID# to my agent?s office. The secretary started work on filing our paperwork to the manifest room again. This time, it was to verify charges and get approval to go pay our fees. Why we had to go back to the manifest room again beats me. If an assessment has been done by a competent officer, and a tax ID obtained, why must we go to the manifest room again? I guess to double check the assessment huh? Hmmm!! At my agent?s office and with my prodding, the secretary quickly dispatched my filing to the manifest room. Once you file electronically, you have to wait for about an hour to get results. The filing was rejected. The reason this time was that the tax ID is not in the GCNet system as such they cannot give the nod for payment.

You would think that once the ministry of finance generates a Tax ID#, it will automatically register in a system common to CEPs and the ministry itself. Oh no! Their systems on both ends are stand alones. The ministry of finance system is either at loggerheads with the CEPS system or does not communicate with it, I suppose. I mean why would the ministry or CEPs carve out a system without bringing all the stakeholders to the table? If they did, then why are the IT systems not communicating? Where is Yenshira when you need him? This kind of stovepipe mentality, instead of a system approach, is strangling us to death. You see, for a country as poor as Ghana, you would think that we will solve problems in such a way that we would not have to get it right the umpteenth time, but rather, the first time around. What sickens me is that, those that make these asinine decisions are either still in the system as senior officers or collecting end of service benefits for saddling us with this claptrap. Oh these scalawags! How I wish I could ring their necks with such glee and funfair!

To solve this conundrum and stanch the time bleed, my agent whipped the paperwork from the secretary and took the hard copy to the manifest room manually. It was indeed a manifest room, for it symbolized the manifestation of a burnished bureaucracy with a sparkle that will make well polished army boots look like child?s play. Armed with the hardcopy and a few dirty five thousand cedi notes, we galumphed into the manifest room against the timid protestation of the doorman. We completed the process in question only to realize that ?now the day is over?. I mused and fumed all the way home, cussing like there was no tomorrow. To put a kibosh on this prattle, I decided to lasso myself from the process till I get word that the car is out of jail. At this time, I was already well into the second week of my vacation and my contempt for the system in Ghana was making me sick by the second. Later that afternoon, I got word from my agent that, the money for my fees has been deposited at the approved bank but the release will have to wait till the next day. If you think you have patience and fortitude, please try Ghana. The next morning, the moment of truth unfurled when I wanted to gallantly drive my car out of the harbor myself, leaving some skid marks for the CEPs folks to gaze at. Well, by rule one cannot drive your own car out of the harbor, I was told. There are special designated drivers that you have to pay to get your car to the gate. By the time my car got to the gate, I was ready to say ?screw Ghana?! This is exactly how I felt!! It has taken me quite a bit of time to arrive at this tipping point.

My next stop was to go register my car at Tema the next day. If you want to see a free show on corruption, go to Tema DMV. As soon as you arrive, a swarm of slimy agents await. Based on your appearance, the fees may vary, with the highest fees reserved for the ?been tos.? At the DMV, you see money changing hands blatantly. The boldness and crass that attend these transactions is rather unnerving. In my case, the charge was 650,000 cedis. As one who is not opposed to agency, if it helps, I wanted an itemized charge sheet. The lady in question outlined the bribes she had to pay and how much she stood to gain. I told her that I am not interested in paying bribes! She said, ?good luck then, you must have a lot of time to waste?. After some haggling, we settled on a price and I moved on. I had things to do and was not in any mood to club the beehive. One thing I was able to start on my own was my driver?s license. I refused to pay bribes so I had to deal with the delay tactics. At one time, a veteran driver like me had to be tested on road signs that I have never seen in Ghana. My friend had his license converted at the DMV in Accra without that much hustle. Obviously some of these European based signs threw me for a loop but who really pays attention to road signs in Ghana? The state of driving and the level of lawlessness make you scowl at such attempts by these bribe induced bureaucrats to tickle your ailing and beat up rear.

The process for car importation into Ghana must be streamlined. The president cannot talk about golden age of business if he does not have the political will and intestinal fortitude to correct what seem obvious to a first grade kid. This falls squarely on the stiff shoulders of the president. We cannot tolerate this ?shouting allowed, action prohibited? culture to take root in Ghana. Our role is to instigate but in the end, the president must act to change the public sector. It is in need of dire change. I am reminded by the attorney general who asked people to bring forth evidence of corruption so that he can prosecute. Well Mr. Attorney General, with all due respect, in a country with such stern poverty, a government department with high obesity is the first sign of corruption. I noticed that most of our customs folks are very well fed. This ought to ring a bell in a HPIC country like Ghana. Secondly, all you need is a hidden camera to nab these corrupt practices. These things are happening blatantly. The officers at DMV take money openly. All you have to do is send a ghost person there and the truth will be out.

More importantly, nursing a quagmire and labyrinth of a bureaucracy is creating this bulge of corruption. Of course this ought to be looked at in a context of government highhandedness on car importers. There are all kinds of fees and charges that cannot only be justified but does not make an iota of sense. Some of these charges can be traced way back to colonial times. One such fee is something that has to do with bond. What bond do I need at the harbor? My car never saw a bonded warehouse. It stayed on a muddy patch! If you add hardcore socialist style bureaucracy to highhandedness, you end up with a lethal potion that produces a virulent vapor of unbridled corruption. Personally, I don?t see why extricating one?s car from the harbor should take more than two-at least or three-at best steps to complete the process. My agent and I mapped 12 to 13 steps in my transaction. Why Mr. President why? It should not take more than half a day to clear a car at the harbor. Please come out with uniform fees for defined engine capacity bands. Once you fall within a defined bracket you pay a predetermined fee. Make it simple! Take the ambiguity out of the assessment so as to stanch corruption.

The system as it exists right now has about 10 people doing the job of one person. Yes, politically this could be a time bomb, for all these folks have families to feed and joblessness is unrelenting. I mean debt forgiveness not withstanding. The flip side though is that many more Ghanaians and aliens alike are being angered by these tedious and ineffective processes. In the end, the taxpayer is being screwed several times over. We are not only paying taxes to support redundancies, we also do not get the superior customer service that we expect and deserve. Most of the people being angered and alienated in this process are people that form a critical mass of positive economic levers. If they get turned off and decided to screw Ghana, there will not be funds to support this canard in the long run. If Ghanaians, with industrial strength loyalty to their country feel this way, can you fathom what aliens feel? The jetsam/flotsam coming out of our premier harbor must be brutally canned sooner rather than later. The bottom line is that, we have to disgorge the harbor of redundancy and channel the human resource into activities like traffic regulation, pavement paving, tax collection and possibly emission inspections tight there at the harbor. There are ample opportunities to create jobs if the authorities will spend our money wisely and seek the interest of the ordinary fellow.

We must employ technology in solving this problem. As I said before, there is absolutely no reason why, using a systems approach, we can?t designed IT systems that are properly networked and able to accomplish the task for which they were created. Why is it not possible to get the exact fees one owes via a computer as soon as a car is shipped? Why not create such a system? It is no longer acceptable to tell paying customers to either deal with it or bear with us. One thing we ought to understand, hopefully very well, is that, investment dollars are really hard to come by. If we don?t have business acumen and skills to boot, how can we ran our businesses and government entities? Why can?t we excel in providing excellent customer services? As it stands, we are really not noted for any pivotal aspect of business. Just like Brazil is noted for soccer, what can we boast of in the area of business? We lack basic management skills and no training is in sight. Even when some have tried hard to provide training, the lessons are just as quickly thrown to the wind because the claws of corruption has a vice grip on the conscience and good intentions of even the doves amongst us.

According to William Raspberry, a Washington post op-ed columnist, ?Even if you have been stung once, it does necessarily make sense to take a stick and whack the hornet?s nest.? Well, Mr. Raspberry, I am defying your well intentioned advice, if only for once, so I can whack this nasty hornet?s nest. And you know what; I intend to whack it again and again with my Howitzer cannon till the Jihad is won. We must not and cannot allow this cancer to prevail, let alone metastasize at the harbor. Even custom officers are fed up with the system and some confided in me the need for change. Mr. President, instead of weakly spouting off your golden age of do nothing, why don?t you muster some starch in your spine and act for once. Gather some political will and act now. The harbor in particular but civil service in general need serious rework if we are to be taken serious about our development aspirations and claims. The time to change is now and you have the authority to knead out this bureaucratic nightmare. After all, you are in your second term and what do you really have to lose? Act now!!

By Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman (MSc. ABS BA Bus Admin. Dip Public Admin)
Organization Development Specialist/Consultant (7/12/05)

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