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From the October 2001 issue of World Press Review

Ghana’s Zero Tolerance Policy Claims a Victim

George Sarpong, Sarpong is WPR’s correspondent in Ghana and managing editor of Zongo Giwa, magazine of the Media Foundation for West Africa.

Ghanian President J.A. Kufuor hopes that the trial of Minister for Youth and Sports Mallam Isa will set an example (Photo: AFP).
When Ghana’s new president, J.A. Kufuor, declared “zero tolerance for corruption” in his inaugural address, most Ghanaians, fed up with allegations of unchecked corruption in the previous National Democratic Congress (NDC) government of Jerry Rawlings, welcomed the move. Yet public opinion appeared to have shifted when the policy claimed its first victim, the naive-looking, ever-smiling youth and sports minister, Mallam Isa. At the Accra Fast Track Court, where Mallam was given a four-year jail term, fined 10 million cedis [US$1,500], and ordered to refund within one month $46,000 he had stolen, or in default serve additional years for “stealing and causing financial loss to the state,” people cried. According to the Ghanaian Chronicle, “scores of sympathizers broke into spontaneous wailing, refusing to be comforted.”

Why would people behave this way? Besides the general doubts about whether Mallam stole the money (Accra’s Independent), the affable nature of the man himself (Ghanaian Chronicle), his naiveté (The Guide), and the sentence being harsh (Joy FM), Public Agenda identifies a pitiable irony in the accusation that Mallam, who declared war on corruption in his one-month stint as minister, stole $46,000 in bonuses for national team players in their World Cup qualifier against Sudan. Mallam insists the money was stolen from his suitcase on the flight to Khartoum, Sudan.

In the short period Mallam spent at the ministry, claimed by the media to be controlled by a cartel of untouchable politicians and businessmen with close contacts to the 20-year Rawlings rule and the dark side of town, officials of the Ghana Football Association shivered. Some of them had been found guilty of corruption but left unpunished by the Rawlings government. So Mallam’s lawyer, Ambrose Derry, maintains his client is “a victim of his fight against corruption.” But his defense in court showed a lot of obvious inconsistencies and fairy tales.

The opposition NDC has asked President Kufuor “to exercise his prerogative of mercy to pardon the former minister.” The People’s National Convention, from which Mallam was plucked into Kufuor’s “all-inclusive government,” maintains the sentence is harsh. But many columnists, led by Kwabena Yeboah of Africa Sports, Sola Akinle of the Independent, and Kwaku Nsiah of the Ghanaian Chronicle, say the sentence is deserved.

Justice Ansah, who tried Mallam, says he gave the sentence to “deter others from plundering the state if all are to benefit.” As the debate goes on, it appears the words that are haunting people most are those from Public Agenda: “If Mallam is guilty, he should go. If not, his imprisonment threatens all of us.”

Currently under way at the same Fast Track Court are two trials involving some former Rawlings ministers. In one case, Victor Selormey, former deputy finance minister, is standing trial for allegedly duping Ghana of $1.2 million meant for the computerization of Ghanaian courts. In the other case, five former officials of the past government are being tried for the alleged theft of more than $22 million.

In a country like Ghana, declared a Heavily Indebted Poor Country by the International Monetary Fund, with more than half the population living below the poverty line; with most people in rural communities not having access to safe drinking water; with some going to bed hungry; and with sporadic strikes by hospital staff and educational workers demanding a minimum wage of less than a dollar for eight hours of work, the question of how to deal with corruption has always been an emotional one.

When Rawlings launched his first coup d’état in 1979, he executed three former heads of state and five military generals for corruption. One of them, Roger Felli, was executed because the junta men said he had used his position in the army to access a bank loan of 50,000 cedis (about $25,000 at the time). He had started repaying the loan. But he was executed. Public Agenda’s admonition predates itself.

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