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Opinions of Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Columnist: Akomolafe , Femi

The Audacity Of Looting

why should thieving ministers and government officials be treated differently from other criminals?

by Femi Akomolafe

In "Ghana: The Audacity Of Looting", I wrote about how Ghanaians were "sufficiently discombobulated when it emerged that, a day before the hand over to the new government on January 7, 2009, a mind-bending and super-extravagant presidential and parliamentarians' retirement package had been approved by the outgoing parliament. The package was so excessive in its generosity that it left Ghanaians totally flabberwhelmed (a contraption of flabbergasted and overwhelmed)."

Thankfully, the hoopla surrounding the mind-bending ex-gratia are gradually simmering down, but it was not without serious confusion. It took about three months of acrimonious debates and angry ripostes, but the new government can now begin to tackle the problem it was elected to do: offer an alternative to the excesses of the past eight years when those in power got totally carried away.

The officials of the former government boasted that theirs was a property-owning democracy and they ensured that they lived up to their slogan. They did not only acquire all acquirables (sic), they decided to sell their official cars and houses to themselves. The poor nation of Ghana must (once again) go around the world with a begging bowl to get money to build new houses for her ministers and also to get them new cars. It's shameful really.

Mercifully, the new president, Professor Atta Mills, suspended the scandalous ex-gratia award and charged a committee to oversee its review. Ghanaians see it for what it is: a bureaucratic ploy to take it out of the public domain to allow simmering emotions to calm down.

In the meantime it has emerged that ex-president John Kuffuor, the man with the boundless ego and insatiable greediness, has taken away eleven of the cars he was using while in office including two BMW cars custom-built for the presidency. This act considerably raised the ire of some powerful people in the new government. National Security Advisor Lt. Col Gbevlo-Lartey (rtd), vowed that the ex-president would not be allowed to keep the cars because they were specifically imported for the protection of the president. The new government gave a deadline for the BMW cars to be returned to the state in exchange for Chryslers. Friends of the ex-president saw persecution and they cried foul.

But Mr. Frank Agyekum, spokesperson for the former president, begged to differ. He considered the government's action unconstitutional because according to him, it amounted to varying the terms of the conditions spelt out in chapter 8, article 68 of the 1992 Constitution. Mr. Agyekum maintained that said cars were part of his boss' fleet while in office and so changing them at this time will be detrimental to his comfort and at variance with the tenets of the Constitution. The Chryslers, with which the government seeks to replace the luxury BMWs, according to Mr. Frank Agyekum, are of a lesser value than the German-made cars.

The saga dragged on for weeks with constitutional lawyers firing salvoes after salvoes of lethal legal projectiles. The whole country was engulfed in the ensuing saga. A totally peeved ex-President Kufuor finally rejected the state's offer of Chryslers as replacements for his beloved BMWs. He, however, made himself scarce when state security operatives went to retrieve the vehicles.

Then a group calling itself the Concerned Friends of Kufuor came out to pledge a brand new, custom-made BMW 7 Series as gift to the former president. The gift, they say, is to put an end to the protracted controversy over state vehicles allocated to the ex-president.

The issues of cars and ex-gratia succeeded in polarizing the country. It also exposed the ethnic fissures in the land. Much so when it emerged that the ex-president has also taken over a state bungalow in Accra to use as his office. This did not go down well with the Gas, the tribe where Accra (the capital of Ghana) is located. They felt cheated that their lands, acquired ostensibly for state use, are been parceled out to individuals. A Ga youth association threatened to forcibly remove the ex-president from the bungalow. This caused a lot of ethnic stir as the Asantes, ex-president Kufuor's ethnic group, believed that he's being unjustly persecuted and vowed to "advise themselves."

It has since emerged that ex-president Kufuor was not the only one with a huge proclivity for grabbing state assets. On vacating his official residence, the former Speaker of Parliament Ebenezer B. Sakyi-Hughes literally and figuratively cleaned the place! He stripped the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament of all furnishings.

What's most baffling about these greedy politicians is that they are rich, very rich by anyone's standards. Before he became Speaker of Parliament, Ebenezer B. Sakyi-Hughes had a successful law practice in Takoradi -- the beautiful and picturesque twin-city capital of the western region of Ghana where he's one of the wealthiest people. He's said to own one of the plushiest houses in town. He has been in law practice since 1966 and was a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court. His family was not starving either, as they own chains of very successful businesses including fuel stations across the land.

No one can remember what Mr. Sakyi-Hughes's greatest contribution was to the parliament. He was a lackluster performer with eyes only for the good things of life. On leaving office, this stupendously rich man stole every damn thing he could carry away from his official residence. From the kitchen, napkins, cutlery, and cooking utensils were carted away. The bedrooms were equally ransacked. The curtains, the bed sheets, the washing machines, the flower pots were not spared. Even the soap dishes were stolen. According to the Majority Leader of Parliament, Alban Bagbin, the stolen items amount to over four billion old cedis -- about US$350,000.

And this is in a poor country groaning under a heavy debt burden and one that relies on "donor support" for more than half its entire budget!

Ghanaians were not amused to learn of this gigantic theft. They continue to be baffled by the propensity of their moneyed leaders to want to steal the little that's left in the national kitty. The ex-speaker refused to speak out but those close to him gave the totally unconvincing explanation that he was under the impression that a proposal before the Parliamentary Service Board (of which he was chairperson) about the speaker's retirement package had been approved and so in his mind everything in the official residence became his when his tenure came to an end.

So in Ghana, we have President Kufuor sitting down with an advisor, Chinery-Hesse, to discuss awarding himself a truly fantabulous ex-gratia package. And we have Speaker of Parliament Sakyi-Hughes sitting down with his pals in a Board to decide how he could loot his official residence.

The uproar that followed was so huge that the ex-speaker, through his friends, announced his intention to pay back for the items he stole. The question then is: if he has that type of money to splash around, why steal from his poor country? As mentioned above, the ex-speaker clearly qualifies as one of Ghana's richest people and he lives one of the most sumptuous lifestyles around. One would have thought that seeking the speakership was a way to say "thank you," to a nation that has been so generous to him.

Alas, like most politicians (especially in Africa), political offices are mere avenues to looting the treasury. A Ghanaian musician has described the operative system in Ghana and much of Africa as "lootocracy." This describes the penchant of unconscionable public officials to loot state resources without the fear of god, as they say in Africa.

In another development, the new Deputy Information Minister Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa threatened, at a press conference, tough action against a tall list of ex-officials who fail to bring back cars they allegedly purchased from the state at giveaway prices. According to him the vehicles sold to the ex-officials had been undervalued by whoever valued them. He gave instances of few-months-old government vehicles having been sold at a quarter of their purchased prices.

The stench continues to grow. The new Minister of Works and Housing, Mr. Albert Abongo, recently took a posse of reporters on an inspection tour of government bungalows in the capital, Accra. The findings were as heart-wrenching as they were baffling. Almost all the government bungalows have been stripped bare of every item of furnishings, refrigerators, fans, electrical generators, air conditioners, cookers, kitchen ware and whatever have you.

According to the minister, it would require more than GH¢50,000 to fix each of the bungalows before they could be ready for occupancy by the new ministers of state. A little arithmetic should help us understand what is going on here. Ghana presently has 75 ministers of states, so the treasury of Ghana is going to be set back GH¢3,750,000 just to renovate ministers' bungalows.

Ghanaians were not amused when the minister rather tongue-in-cheekily announced that, "If the missing items are traced to any individuals, those individuals would be prevailed upon to return the items."

The question Ghanaians were rightly asking is, "why should thieving ministers and government officials be treated differently from other criminals? Citizens who steal what does not belong to them are not "prevailed upon to return the items." They are apprehended and dragged before the law courts. Poor hungry people have been sentenced to long stretch of jail terms for stealing fingers of plantain. In many instances, jungle justice has prevailed: pickpockets have been killed by community vigilantes in the most gruesome manners. Several cases abound where fleeing thieves have been shot dead by police patrol. Ghana is said to be a democratic state of rule of law and Ghanaians are told that the law is no respecter of any one. If the ex-speaker is allowed to get free with his grand theft, the message would be that there is one law for the poor and another for the "upper class."

Meanwhile in near-neighbor Nigeria, The Attorney-General and Minister of Justice (AGJ), Mr. Michael Kaase Aondoakaa, is embroiled in a serious bribery scandal. So too is the woman in charge of one of Nigeria's anti-corruption agencies, Economic and Financial Crime Commision, EFCC, Madam Farida Waziri.

According to Nigerian newspapers, AGJ Aondoakaa reportedly is at the center of a triangular bribery scandal involving two Indian firms vying to purchase the Delta Steel Company, DSC. Aondoakaa allegedly accepted the sum of "$400,000 in November 2008 as bribe from the BUA Group to facilitate the revocation of the DSC sale to Global Steel Holdings. BUA Group was reported to be keen on acquiring DSC and the bribery to the AGJ was to pave the way. The AGJ was also reported to have accepted a $6 million bribe from Global Steel Holdings, current owner of DSC. He allegedly accepted the bribery to allow GSH continue its ownership of Ajaokuta Steel Company." Try to figure that one out!

The boss of EFCC, Madam Waziri, was alleged to have received a gift of a Mercedes Benz GL 450 Sports Utility Vehicle in December 2008 from the governor of Akwa Ibom state. The new bullet-proof car sells for N68 million (around $500,000) and the newspapers gave the chassis number as WDC 1648711A 390877. The governor is one of the people the EFCC is allegedly investigating for corrupt practices. Go figure!

And these are the two people charged with eliminating corruption from Nigeria. Madam Waziri was mandated to investigate and charge corrupt persons and officials whilst AGJ Aondoakaa is being paid to prosecute them.

And in not so-near Great (?) Britain politicians, including Premier Gordon Brown, are embroiled in their own scandal. Should we in Africa be cheering when it emerged that even members of the "mother of parliament" have also been fiddling with their expense account?

And these are the people who over the years have been coming to Africa to give us lectures on probity -- hah!



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About the Author

Femi Akomolafe is a computer consultant, a writer and social commentator, an avid reader, and a passionate Pan-Africanist who lives in Kasoa, Ghana. Femi is known to hold strong opinions and to express them in the strongest terms possible. As he likes to remind his readers: "As my Yoruba people say: Oju orun teye fo, lai fara gbara. It means that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without touching wings." Femi Akomolafe's views, opinions, and thoughts can be accessed on the blog he maintains: http://ekitiparapo.blogspot.com/.