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Opinions of Sunday, 28 August 2016

Columnist: Tsuo, Cedric

The Montie 3 controversy: My perspective

Secretary General of the NDC, Mr. Johnson Asiedu Nketia, has described the continuing debate surrounding President John Mahama’s decision to remit the prison sentences imposed by the Supreme Court of Ghana on the Montie 3 for contempt of court as “needless”. I do not share his dismissive view. I believe the debate is serving an immensely useful national purpose. It holds up a mirror to our face for us to see the kind of nation and people we have become and what we should all together do to make Ghana a better place for this and future generations. Some people may like what they see in the mirror. Others may not like what they see but, like the proverbial ostrich, bury their heads in the sand, in denial that our body politic is sick. For me, politically and morally Ghana is sick and badly in need of healing. Unfortunately, President’s decision in the Montie 3 case is wrong diagnosis and prescription. Let me start with Professor Stephen Kweku Asare’s arguments in supporting the President’s decision. He was reported as saying (Ghana web 23 August 2016), that: “No media person should be sentenced to prison for expressing an opinion”, adding: “Why are they imprisoning media persons for expressing their opinion?” On this alone, the learned law Professor’s grounds cannot stand close scrutiny. My point is that he failed to recognize that there is a clear difference between expressing “an opinion” and making “a threat”, each of which has its own consequences. The offence for which those three hot-headed young men were convicted was a threat against the life of Judges, including threat of rape, that in the opinion of the Supreme Court constituted contempt of court. Those utterances cannot be described as expressing “an opinion”. Let me make the distinction between those two words clearer. In the same interview, Professor Asare was quoted, as saying: “No voter will either vote for or against the president in the December polls just because he has decided to free the convicts.” Here, I would label what Professor Asare had said as expression of “an opinion”. It is mere speculation, which may or may not prove him right in the end. Either way, no harm will be done to anyone. Similarly, if I went on the air and said: “President Mahama’s decision to remit the sentences would cost him votes“, that also would be “an opinion”, my opinion, and it would count for nought. Nobody or court would haul me over the coals for saying that. The only possible reprobation I might attract would be a few insults from some NDC diehards that I was either a bastard or an NPP supporter, neither of which I am in fact! I have much more compelling grounds for disagreeing with the President’s action than Professor Asare had in supporting him. Most supporters of the President’s decision base their arguments on narrow legal grounds, namely, that the President has powers such under Article 72 of the 1992 Constitution and he used them, “period”, as very distinguished lawyer, Ato Dadzie, put it, which sounds a bit like something coming out of the mouth of an imperial Roman Consul General: “Roma locuta, causa finita”! I do not think anyone disagrees that the President’s has such powers under Article 72 our Constitution. But it can equally be argued that there are no provisions in the Constitution obligating the President to exercise those powers in each and every single such case. Indeed, it would appear that Article 72 itself has discretion built into it, as evidenced by the use of the word “may”, and not the word “shall”. In short, the President’s powers under Article can be regarded as passive. This being the case, the President could well have chosen not to entertain the petition and there would have been no need for him to “consult” the Council of State, and no one would have accused him of flouting the Constitution. The fact that the President chose to “consult” the Council over the petition suggests that he attached importance to it and was seriously considering granting it. In my view, the more important consideration in this whole debate is the larger national picture: our present political climate, including the circumstances in which the Montie 3 made their threats. I strongly believe that if the President had given due regard to those factors he would have reached an entirely different conclusion, namely, he would not have remitted the sentences. As indicated earlier, our brand of party politics gives politics a bad name. Our party politics have become divisive, corrosive and toxic. We politicize everything in this country, including the police and security services. We live in a culture where it is perfectly alright for party surrogates take to the airwaves to insult each other with impunity and arrogance. This shameful behaviour gets worse during presidential and parliamentary elections. In mature democracies elections come and go without fuss. Voters vote, hurry back to work to earn their living, go home and relax for the results to come in. In Ghana, elections have become something else, a war. This year is no exception. The political temperature is dangerously high. The electoral register has become the battle ground, ferociously fought, particularly between NDC and NPP, which ended in the Supreme Court ruling that the Electoral Commission should expunge from the register those who registered using National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) card. For whatever reason, NDC was irked by the Supreme Court’s ruling. There is also another factor I thought the President should have weighed carefully. The Montie 3 may be political thugs but they are no fools. They timed their threats to have maximum blood chilling effect. They chose the eve of the 34th Anniversary of Martyrs Day, commemorated each year, to mark the 30th June 1982 abduction and cold blooded murder of three High Court Judges, Mrs. Justice Cecilia Koranteng-Addow, Mr. Justice Kwadwo, and Mr. Justice Fred Poku Sarkodie, as well as Major (Rtd.) Sam Acquah. The murders took place under the watch of Jerry Rawlings’ PNDC, which metamorphosed into NDC. They were murdered for judgements they made that displeased PNDC and to put fear in other judges. The spectre of those horrific murders still stalks Ghana, and I believe it behoves all of us, our politicians, especially those in power, to strain every sinew in our body to avoid creating an environment in which those horrible events would again rear their ugly head. It is, therefore, surprising that some NDC bigwigs, some of whom would in any country but Ghana have been in jail for causing financial loss to the state, were tripping over each other to sign the petition for the release of the Montie 3. One wonders whether DNC primed these guys to mount assault on the Judiciary for ruling in a case that displeased them. As the President of the Ghana Bar Association rightly reminded all us during the inter-denominational commemoration service for the slain judges, “an independent judiciary protected from all forms of intimidation and interference are key to securing judicial independence,” and, if I might add, for upholding the rule of law, without which neither Ghana nor any political party can survive. Given these larger and terribly important national issues, the President should have put the interests of Ghana above all other considerations and rejected the petition. But he didn’t. Hence the accusation that he acted the way he did because the prisoners were NDC henchmen at the expense of upholding the hollowed principle of independence and integrity of the judiciary. The President Communications Minister’s statement later that the President “will continue to respect the powers conferred on state institutions” is unlikely to convince sceptical Ghanaians. Cedric Tsuo