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Opinions of Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie

Vehicle retrieval or stark intimidation?

We all know officials of the former government are keeping state vehicles that do not belong to them. Some of them have refused to give these cars up and have even put them up for sale. Government needs these cars back in its fleet and it has every right to use all legitimate means to retrieve them.

But there should be more sensible and less ‘revolutionary’ ways of retrieving the cars than what we’ve witnessed these past few weeks. Since the NDC came to power, so many people have reported of their cars being forcibly seized (the oft-used word is “snatched”) by national security agents behaving like thugs.

One of the first victims was President Kufuor’s son, Chief. His car was ‘snatched’ at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority where it had been sent for a renewal of its road-worthy certificate. Men dressed in military gear went to the DVLA and started seizing cars suspected to belong to the government – including Chief Kufuor’s.

Then came the most embarrassing news that a plush salon car being driven by the Chief Executive of Barclays Ghana had also been ‘snatched’ on a Sunday morning and taken to the Castle. The CEO was forced to suffer the discomfort of having to hail a taxi home. The car was eventually returned him and government duly apologised.

Since then there have been numerous other car seizures which, admittedly, have helped to retrieve a good number of government vehicles. But some of these seizures have ended in great embarrassment for President Atta Mills.

The seizure of Nana Akufo-Addo’s car on suspicion that it had been stolen from the national fleet was utterly senseless. His driver presented documents to show that the car truly belongs to the former presidential candidate. Yet the so-called security agents screaming “obey before complain” seized the car and took it to the Castle. When the Castle came to the realisation that someone had acted very foolishly, the president’s spokesman was compelled to apologise and the car was returned to its owner.

But just when the dust was settling on the Akufo-Addo case, security agents were at it again – seizing a vehicle belonging to his running mate, Mahamudu Bawumia. This time it wasn’t just on suspicions that the vehicle belonged to the government. The security agents also claimed to be acting on so-called ‘intelligence’ that Mr. Bawumia was transporting a cache of arms into the volatile northern parts. Instead of searching the vehicle in the presence of the suspect, they detained the gentleman and drove the car to a far off place where it was searched to the contentment (and shame) of whoever provided the spurious intelligence that he was carrying weapons.

As would be expected, the seizure of the vehicles belonging to the former presidential candidate and his running mate has drawn outrage. Those who seemed to be in the mood to forget about Nana Addo’s incident have been incensed all the more after what happened to the harmless and soft-spoken Bawumia. People are justifiably asking: what the heck is going on? Are we back in the ‘revolutionary’ days when rampant soldiers went about seizing people’s properties on trumped-up charges or the flimsiest excuses?

I certainly hope not. The stolen government cars have to be retrieved. But not like this. Seizing the cars of opposition leaders – only to return them with an apology sends pretty bad signals that someone is deliberately trying to intimidate, harass, embarrass or inconvenience them. These people are still licking the wounds from the electoral defeat they suffered just a few months ago and their tempers are still quite flayed. Government should be helping them to deal with their loss – not adding insult to their injury.

By all means, the stolen cars must be retrieved but the operation should be conducted with military precision – get the right target the first time. Petty mistakes are not an option. The security agents shouldn’t go around grabbing people’s cars only to turn around and say “sorry, we got the wrong guy”. That’s annoying – to say the least – and it creates an “us against them” atmosphere which only deepens the political divisions in the country.

It has been suggested that the lack of precision in targeting those who have actually stolen government vehicles could motivate some criminal minds to start snatching people’s cars – using the very methods adopted by the security agents.

It seems the security agents are only working with the assumption that any posh car (particularly, those driven by former government officials) might have been stolen. VWs, Jaguars, Land Rovers, Pajeros and BMWs are particularly vulnerable. Any smart gang of armed robbers can take a cue from this, dress up in fake military uniforms (which can be purchased from any ‘Bend Down Boutique’ ), accost law-abiding citizens and seize their cars in broad daylight under the pretext of carrying out an operation in the name of the state.

What’s happening is very disheartening and the sooner it’s checked the better for the image of the government. There have been suggestions that some people close to the president are deliberately using the vehicle retrieval exercise as a pretext to hurt their opponents. The president should call his men to order and tell them to be very careful. Some people should even be sacked for going about this in such a brutish manner. It is better for the state to lose a few vehicles than for political divisions to be needlessly deepened.

Whether or not government is able to retrieve all the stolen vehicles, it is imperative that measures are put in place to make it impossible for state vehicles to be coveted with such ease. There was a time when government vehicles could be readily identified because they were registered with a ‘GV’ prefix. These days it’s difficult to tell the difference between the official vehicle of a government minister and his private car. It’s hard to tell whose fantastic idea it was to stop the GV-registration for government vehicles but I suspect it was part of the grand scheme to make it easy for politicians leaving office to steal what they wanted and, in some cases, buy their official vehicles at ‘donkomised’ or give-away prices.

To prevent a recurrence of the episodes of random car seizures, the GV-registration format should be reintroduced. In that case, former ministers and ex-DCEs will not be tempted to keep an official car after they have left office. Those who steal official vehicles (or try to do so) will be easily identified and arrested. The taxpayer will also be spared the expense of government officials using state vehicles for private errands – such as chasing some ‘nyatse-nyatse’ girls at the Volta Hall. Moreover, this regular ritual of going after former government officials to retrieve cars that do not belong to them – which often results in innocent people being hurt – will cease once and for all.

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Email: ato@atokd.com