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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The enemy within: The challenges of transformation in a corrupt society

An unemployed university graduate allegedly operating an unlicensed fruit stand in Tunis was harassed by a corrupt policeman for trying to eke out an honest living under an autocratic regime. In desperation, he set himself on fire. This suicide set off demonstrations which culminated in Ben Ali’s rapid flight from Tunis. This achievement has given birth to hope for true freedom in North Africa and the Middle East. The speed of internet communication has contributed to the emerging outcome of these events in many countries. Egypt has been under continuous military rule since Nasser’s coup of 1952. It has a 40% unemployment rate. If the internet existed in 1974 when students of Ghana’s 3 major universities first marched against the Acheampong regime, Ghana’s history would have been remarkably different.

In the 60’s it was said that “Winds of Change” were sweeping across Africa These changes ushered in a period of euphoria fuelling dreams of a better tomorrow for generations of Africans to come. Unfortunately, many countries fell to persistent military rule and civilian regimes built around a culture of personality cults. Sixty years later, while Egyptians have now found a voice to demand basic rights which we take for granted in Ghana, we all share a basic problem which retards Africa’s progress as a continent.

All these teetering regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Sudan and Yemen have been propped up by dictatorial corrupt individuals and systems. In the end they deny their citizens basic needs and rights through a well choreographed mix of brutality, fear and corruption. After five progressively free and fair elections in Ghana, our democracy is growing steadily but we still have not met the promise of democracy for the vast majority of our people. The main reason for this failure is the enemy within – the Ghanaian Citizen.

President Mills confronted this enemy at the Tema Harbour this past week and laid out—in very simple and clear terms—why corruption is literally depriving citizens of health care, education and infrastructural development. The revelations from the Anas Armeyaw video are not a surprise to anyone but children under the age of 6 in Ghana. Even some of them may not be surprised but their very future is at stake.

Somehow the CEPS and police officials fingered by Anas for smuggling cocoa on the Ivorian border in July 2010 have not been prosecuted because reportedly on two occasions, the prosecution did not show up and the judge was obliged to discharge the suspects. These are some of the systemic problems President Mills faces in combating corruption in Ghana. His words were direct, honest and fair. His outrage was justified and reassuring but the next step is setting up a covert government structure with prosecutorial powers to implement lasting interventions to address this plague.

The president is correct to warn all agencies of the state that he will “descend on them” but it must portend the beginning of an implementation phase in this year of action. We must begin to see a wave of firings, arrests and prosecutions because the problem is woven so deeply into the fabric of the society that corrupt officials in all agencies operate with impunity and are well known. This is not news.

The president is at the threshold of a major transformation in Ghanaian society which will be resisted by many but leadership requires courage to bring about change so we expect Prof. Mills to do better than Kwame Nkrumah who also acknowledged corruption to the nation publicly but could not proceed from the identification phase to the implementation phase of the solution.

Investors are truly turned off by this daily extortion which is not only in government agencies but across the country in a manner that has also clouded land tenure in Ghana. Chiefs are particularly notorious for frustrating investors by coming back under all sorts of pretexts to nullify previously concluded land lease transactions so they can resell already sold lands to others or absurdly to original buyers. They are aided by some members of the legal profession in collecting what has now become institutionalized as “re-entry” fees when buyers begin their projects. The judiciary should frown on these schemes which are all over the country. These unscrupulous chiefs are robbing their communities of development opportunities and should be halted in their tracks.

While I applaud the president for his bold signal to corrupt officials, I recall his visit to the Accra Psychiatric Hospital last year, which also followed an Anas exposé. The mental health bill has still not been passed and psychiatric patients are still being cared for in 19th century conditions. A new modern Neuroscience facility needs to be built on part of the grounds of the outdated current hospital. Mental illnesses account for over 30% of total disease burden, whether we recognize this fact or not. With this in mind, it is extremely disappointing that a returning Ghanaian expert psychiatrist like Dr. X has been received the “go and come” treatment the president talked about. After a year in the country, Dr. X has returned to the US. We have 1 psychiatrist for 2.4 million citizens but this still goes on.

Service to ordinary citizens is a duty that must guide the actions of all public servants. The president has struck the right tone by the practice of confrontation and verification of facts. It is conservatively estimated that corruption costs Africa $300bn per year, accounting for over 25% of our GDP. This is the central issue of this era of our development as a nation. If we use technology to eliminate human interfaces leading to corruption and apply persistent enforcement, we will not need donor countries.  We may be ready to lead Africa again in ridding our nation of the greatest cause of revenue loss and hence failed development.

There are those cynical and short-sighted individuals who will have partisan responses to the president’s recent actions but any problem that sucks away about 25% of GDP should transcend narrow emotional responses that do not come with proposed solutions. In Ghana the hemorrhage amounts to an estimated $4.5bn/ year on average. The NPP had 8 years to address this problem and saw to it that appropriate legislation was passed but President Kufuor’s leadership on this issue was subpar. He simply declared zero tolerance and asked the public to bring problems to his attention. Their 8 years was a missed opportunity.

The president’s address to the CEPS officers has gone viral on YouTube. We should remember that the internet has brought down Ben Ali and will bring down Mubarak but Mills may well use it as a tool for advancing leadership with integrity and grappling with corruption in our homeland Ghana.

Prof. T. P. Manus Ulzen
February 6, 2011

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