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Opinions of Sunday, 26 December 2010

Columnist: Frimpong, Kwadwo

Tigo Defies AMA and the Winner is…The Law

By Kwadwo Frimpong

In response to alleged failure of Tigo to pay taxes to the AMA, the latter padlocked the offices of Tigo. Tigo responded by removing the padlocks. This got the ire of the AMA Executive Director. In language that is remarkable for its intemperance but becoming common place in our political discourse, the AMA Executive Director, Mr. Alfred Oko Vanderpuije, described Tigo’s action as “irresponsible.” In Mr. Vanderpuije’s view, “if a city authority comes to lock up your premises because you have not met your financial obligations to it, you have no right to go and break the padlocks.” Such an act of defiance, Mr. Vanderpuije asserted, is “unfortunate and a sign of gross indiscipline” and reflects the “behavior of companies who see themselves as above the law because of their size.” Whew!

But, wait a minute. Who is being irresponsible here? Who is exhibiting gross indiscipline, and who is acting above the law here?
Let’s assume that Tigo does in fact owe taxes to the AMA. Let’s assume further that Tigo has ignored demands to pay up. What statute, ordinance or regulation gives the AMA the right to lock up Tigo’s premises without recourse to the courts? Did it occur to Mr. Vanderpuije that in locking up Tigo’s premises The AMA acted as a judge in its own cause? How can that be “responsible” in a country under laws? Or are the laws suspended whenever it suits Mr. Vanderpuije’s whims?
Had the AMA vetted this vigilante exercise with its Legal Department it would have learned two basic things. First, that the AMA is not a law unto itself. Put another way, the AMA must itself obey the law when it pursues alleged law breakers, including tax scofflaws. Second, the AMA would have learned that a court’s first order, when confronted with nonpayment of taxes by a going business, will likely not be to lock up the premises of that business without first hearing out the business. That’s just a matter of common sense. It doesn’t matter how much the business owes or how long it had ignored demands for payment. The law guarantees criminals their day in court. What makes Mr. Vanderpuije and the AMA think alleged tax violators deserve less? Lawlessness is appalling whether carried out by armed gangs or local authorities or by people in authority.
The legal processes around the collection of debts or taxes, just like those around the trial of criminal suspects, are designed to prevent governments at national and local levels from riding roughshod over citizens, as the AMA did at the premises of Tigo. In ensuring that the government plays fair, the rules avoid the kind of confrontation the AMA run into at the premises of Tigo.
Many Ghanaians give in sheepishly to the kind of vigilante justice the AMA unleashed at Tigo, but not Tigo. This article is not about commending Tigo for not paying taxes or otherwise meeting its financial obligations to the city administration. Tigo, like all businesses in Accra, is the beneficiary of services provided by the AMA. Those services make Accra a desirable business location. The services don’t come free, and Tigo must pay its fair share. If the Tigos of the corporate world fail to pay, there is a right way and a wrong way to pursue justice. The AMA learned that going the wrong way can lead to confrontation and may require the intervention of the police. The AMA’s law department would have advised against this kind of vigilantism.
This article is also not a criticism of the ruling government. It’s about the citizen’s right to be treated with respect and courtesy in its dealings with the powers that be. It’s a reminder of the consequences that can occur when institutions and the powerful take the law into their own hands. It is in this sense that I applaud Tigo for standing up to the kind of local governmental bullying that was unleashed by the AMA. As anybody in Ghana knows this kind of lawlessness pervades our entire system. It’s been with us regardless of who is in power. We call it “showing them where power lies.”
Realizing it couldn’t bully Tigo, the AMA now says it will sue Tigo. How refreshing! It goes to show that sooner or later everybody gets religion. Mr. Vanderpuije’s conversion came with an act of civil defiance by Tigo. But now that Mr. Vanderpuije has religion, I’m hoping Tigo will countersue the AMA for trespassing on its property and for damages for obstructing its business. That message will no doubt resonate through the doors of local governments from Accra to Paga. That will be a small but meaningful victory for the law and the fledgling constitution.

Kwadwo Frimpong
Norwood, Massachusetts, USA