Ghanaian civil society leaders recommend ways for African and US state institutions and officials to be more accountable to the people they serve.
Abdulkarim Mohammed is Oxfam’s Active Citizenship Advisor in Ghana.
I did not know what to expect as participants settled in the meeting room, one after the other, just as the sun was setting and the night was drawing nigh to end a typical sunny and humid day in Accra.
Trade unionists, students, members of the clergy, members of parliament, anti-corruption crusaders, legal practitioners, entrepreneurs, journalists – all filed in together. What I was to discover was that the strength of those assembled was not in the number of those who arrived, but in the richness in the cross-section of the Ghanaian populace that they represented.
The attendees were from various organizations that ordinarily focused on various agendas of particular interest to their membership, and it was a sight to behold as they engaged each other in lively deliberations throughout the evening. However, on this occasion they had all gathered for a common cause: the quest for a more transparent and accountable governance in Ghana, and Africa as a whole.
The gathering was convened by Financial Accountability & Transparency Africa (FAT-Africa, an Oxfam America partner in Ghana) as a precursor to the upcoming maiden US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC early August 2014. FAT-Africa invited this diverse set of civil society representatives to solicit support for a resolution that would make a strong case for the inclusion of accountable governance in the agenda of the historic summit.
Exploring the issues of public accountability in Ghana
The tone was set by an opening statement from a retired partner of the international audit firm KPMG, who shared in his career encounters with the myriad of unaccountable and corrupt means by which both state and non-state actors siphon public resources for their selfish personal interests. The all-too-familiar list included but was not limited to:
- over and under-invoicing for tax evasion;
- illegal tax exemptions;
- abuse of procurement processes; and
- institutionalization of bribery and outright embezzlement of public funds, among others.
When the floor was opened, the passion with which issues were discussed was palpable. We have all been victims of these ills at one point or another. Speaker after speaker shared their frustrations with the discussions centering on:
- the increasing levels of corruption and the ease with which public officials cited for financial malfeasance get away with it;
- the impotence of Parliament to rein in people who have been indicted with concrete evidence in official documents such as the Auditor General’s Report on Public Accounts as required by law;
- the laxity of state prosecution of accused offenders;
- the overly elastic discretionary powers granted to some state officials;
- the utter disregard for the Public Procurement Law; and
- the abuse of the already opaque asset declaration regime currently in place (where assets declared by public officials are held as confidential and so they can easily be varied without public knowledge);
- as well as the plain and simple thievery of state resources.
In other words, corruption is not the high risk and low gain undertaking that it needs to be in Ghana. Participants were more worried that Ghana’s current fiscal challenges will worsen even further and that the country stands the risk of losing its glory as a beacon of democracy in Africa if the teething challenges of poor public finance management and corruption are not dealt with internally and immediately with all the seriousness that it deserves. As one participant asked:
‘‘Why do we have to send a resolution to a foreign government in order to tackle our problems? Let’s target the Ghanaian government!’’
The politicization of corruption in Ghana
From the discussions it was clear that either by acts of omission or commission, the political and bureaucratic classes have deliberately rendered anti-corruption agencies such as the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Economic and Organised Crime Office (EOCO), the Attorney General’s Department and even the Judiciary toothless, by starving them of their budgetary and staffing requirements to effectively executive their mandate.
It’s no surprise in Ghana to witness situations where state attorneys fail to show up in court in defence of the state in serious cases involving millions of dollars. Many of such cases have thus resulted in judgement debts against the state. These payments of millions could have been used to provide basic essential services such as potable water and to eliminate schools under trees for many towns and village dwellers.
There is also over concentration of power in the hands of the executive, especially the president, to the extent that the office has powers to appoint and remove the heads of the very institutions that are to serve as a check on his office. As a direct consequence, appointments of the leadership of such institutions have been more for the purposes of political expediency rather than competence.
Participants also decried the over politicization of corruption in Ghana citing that even when public officials have been found culpable of corrupt practices, they quickly run to seek solace under the banner of their parties. Though there may sometimes be cases of blatant abuse of power against political opponents, there have been several instances of protests by party foot-soldiers in support of convicted party members.
But the question is, if there are indeed political witches who are looting state resources, shouldn’t they be hunted? The bane of Ghana’s economic stagnation has been the political business cycle that the nation goes through from one election to the other, as politicians use electioneering campaigns to self-enrich through inflated cost of vote winning and sometimes non-existent and unbudgeted projects that throw economic gains out of gear. The ‘winner takes all’ syndrome—a situation whereby only supporters of the party in power stand to benefit from state largess, contracts, and appointments etc.—has meant that some of the privileged few who get opportunity ‘‘eat with both hands’’ to the detriment of the state.
Citizens’ next steps against corruption in Ghana
For me it was striking to observe that most of the ills enumerated at the forum were actually well-known to the everyday Ghanaian. This points to the fact that daylight robbery has been perpetrated against us with our eyes wide open for all this while, this is no secret. That is what I call transparent corruption. This is simply a conspiracy between state officials and their partners in crime to deliberately create the loopholes, loot the state coffers, and share the proceeds thereof – a phenomenon that has come to be known in the local parlance as “create, loot and share.”
The lack of genuine civic activism was mentioned as a major cause for the current state affairs. In response, one participant suggested that:
‘‘…..there must be a sustained public protest and occupation of the front lawns of parliament or even the office of the president to drive home the message that Ghanaians are not happy with how things are being managed.”
The forum ended with unanimity on the point that Ghana does not necessarily need new laws to combat corruption, but rather adequate enforcement of existing laws and accountability frameworks, such as the National Anti-Corruption Action Plan. Ghana received commendations from across the world for enacting a very progressive Petroleum Revenue Management Act with a provision that has allowed the establishment of a Public Interest and Accountability Committee as an independent citizens’ accountability mechanism. However the delays in passing bills such as the Right to Information and Petroleum Exploration and Production that have been before parliament for so long leave much to be desired. Ghana has shown the way before, so Ghanaians expect nothing less – for one good turn deserves another. Participants did not want this to be just another talk shop that offers an opportunity to vent frustrations but ends in nothing. This is why they created Ghana-specific and Africa-wide resolutions that FAT-Africa will be presented to the Office of the President and the Speaker of Parliament, as well as the Embassy of United States in Accra. They are also planning a follow-up meeting to strategize on next specific steps because after all is said and done, more should be done than said.
And to this continued engagement, I offer a quote from the first stanza of Ghana’s national anthem:
‘‘….Bold to defend forever,
the cause of freedom and of right…
Make us cherish fearless honesty
and help us to resist oppressors’ rule
with all our will and might, for evermore.’’
 Incidentally one of the cardinal objectives of Oxfam America’s Active Citizenship initiative with our partners in Ghana is to engender citizens’ activism in holding public office holders to account for budget resources at both the national and local government levels.