by Femi Akomolafe
(Swans - March 9, 2009) Ghanaians who had thought that their long-drawn December 2007 polls, which spoiled their yuletide celebrations, confounded their New Year revelry, exacerbated the ethnic tensions in their country, polarized their body politics, and ended in the record books as the presidential polls decided by the narrowest of margin possible was the worst thing they could imagine, were soon to be sorely disappointed.
They were sufficiently discombobulated when it emerged that, a day before the handover to the new government on January 7, 2009, a mind-bending and super-extravagant presidential and parliamentarian retirement package had been approved by the outgoing parliament. The package was so excessive in its generosity that it left Ghanaians totally flabberwhelmed (a contraption of flabbergasted and overwhelmed).
Ghanaians are long used to insensitive politicians taking good care of their stomachs, while exhorting the ordinary people to tighten their belts and make sacrifices in the interest of the nation. But the sheer magnitude of the new package just took the breath of the people away -- literally and metaphorically. In order to put things in their proper context, it is necessary to throw some statistics around.
Ghana is a small country with a population of some 23 million people and a land mass of 238,500 square kilometers. A paltry GDP of US$10.7 billion gives the nation a measly GNP of some US$478. Ghana has a high illiteracy rate and the infant mortality rate is also very high. By all the indices known to statisticians, Ghana is a poor country. Many Ghanaians struggle to get just one meal a day, and many folks still live in conditions of shocking poverty. Many villages, especially in the northern part of the country, rely on NGOs for their education and health care.
The paradox is that Ghana is a nation immensely blessed with natural resources (gold, manganese, bauxite, diamond and, now, oil, among others), yet many Ghanaians are very poor, even by Africa's low standards. Yet, the poverty of a vast numbers of the citizens did not stop Ghanaian MPs (230 of them) from taking a car loan from the state. It did not stop the president of the Republic from tooling around town in an expensive 4-wheel-drive Jeep cavalcade. It did not stop ministers and other political jobbers from taking from the state free houses, free cars, free fuel, and other emoluments! And they go around shamelessly mouthing the outrageous lies that they are the "servants of the people!"
A debt of some US$7 billion emphatically compounded the country's economic woes. This made the former government embrace the Highly Indebted and Poor Country (HIPC) initiatives of the IMF and World Bank. HIPC was one in the long stream of acronyms the twin Breton Wood institutions foisted on poor countries in order to allow Western multinationals to continue the rape of their resources.
According to its apostles, the HIPC initiative would, among other things, allow the adhering countries to get some relief from their unbearable debt burden. The leaders of the poor countries were made to swallow their pride and proclaimed their countries HEAVILY INDEBTED AND POOR! Ghana was among them, and the man that took his nation into the HIPC club was ex-president John Kufuor. And it was the same president who, on retiring after his two terms, was to enjoy a bonanza that would enable him to live like an Arabian sovereign.
Ghanaians were not amused. In calls to their numerous radio stations, they searched and reached for the most uncomplimentary adjectives to describe the unconscionable actions of their elected leaders. And the reasons should be understandable.
In a nation that relies on DONOR SUPPPORT for more than half its budget, the retiring president was to receive a lump sum of US$400,000. No, we are not talking about the president's normal pension that is guaranteed in the Constitution -- this is ex-gratia (defined in Encarta as "given voluntarily: given as a gift, favor, or gesture of goodwill, rather than because it is owed") award. In plain English, it means that a grateful nation is giving its departing president the gift. There is nothing wrong, per se, in a nation giving its number one citizen a gift on his departing the high office. But when we start talking a scandalous gift of one million bucks, yes, one million dollars for him to establish a foundation, we are reaching the upper limits of callous greediness. Were the cash gifts the only things awarded to the ex-president, it would have been scandalous enough in itself, but they certainly were pittance compared to the other recommendations of the Chinery-Hesse Committee.
The ex-president's retirement package also includes two houses -- one to be in the nation's capital and the other at any place of his choosing. These houses are to be built, furnished, and maintained at state's expense for the duration of the physical life of the ex-president. And at the expiration of his life, they are to remain the property of his family. Six cars are to be given to the ex-president by grateful citizens vibrating with gratitude. Lest one should be mistaken that these were to be some jalopies not befitting the status of the former president of a country of Ghana's standing, the committee's recommendation clearly spelt out the types of cars to be provided. These are three saloon cars, two cross-country vehicles, and one all-purpose vehicle. And that's not all as far as the car department is concerned. The six cars are to be bought, insured, fueled, and chauffeur-driven at Ghana's taxpayers' expense. That's not all, folks: the cars are to be changed every four years!
The list continues: Appreciative Ghanaians are to provide their retiring president and his spouse free medical care for life. They are also to be provided 24-hour security and police escort to facilitate their movements, as befitting the status of former first couple. They are also to get an annual budget for "entertainment," and an ex-gratia award equivalent to 18 months' consolidated salary, and an additional resettlement grant since he has served two full terms.
And we are not done yet: the ex-first couple is also entitled to travel overseas for a maximum of 65 days at the expense of the poor Ghanaian taxpayers.
So totally scandalized were Ghanaians when reports of the package leaked out that many simply thought that they were hearing some fairy tales, concocted by lazy journalists with no regard for veracity.
When, however, it emerged that parliament had indeed passed the package into law, Ghanaians brayed for the blood of their politicians, whose greed is so audacious that it simply boggles the mind. So vociferous was the outcry that the normally loquacious political elite scurried for whatever cover they could find.
The anger of Ghanaians is clearly justified when it is remembered that the departing president of the United States, with its immense economy (GDP of US$12 trillion and a GNP of over US$41,000), is going back home with a US$191,000 pension as retirement benefit. Mr. Bush also gets some other goodies like Secret Service protection, but he certainly is not going home with a good chunk of the US budget as retirement package.
Were the president's scandalous award to be the only thing, Ghanaians might be able to stomach it. But it later emerged that the secretly-passed bill includes mouth-watering end-of-service benefits for the parliamentarians also. And we are not talking some chicken change here, either. Each departing MP gets an undisclosed ex-gratia award. Ghanaians are asking why the emoluments of their elected officials, in a democratic system, should be shrouded in official secrecy if there is no serious hanky-panky surrounding it.
It emerged that bonanza includes an end of service award of US$120,000 for the Speaker of parliament, plus a saloon car and free medical and dental care for himself and his wife. In addition, the Speaker goes home with a tax-free pension package. The deputy Speaker gets US$100,000 plus a saloon car. The odious list goes on to include the majority and minority leaders, their deputies and the chief whip. Each of them gets between US$90,000 to US$100,000 and a saloon car. Other parliamentarians were also rewarded.
Whichever spin we put on it, this is obscene greediness at its most shameless and scandalous level! To their credit, many leading politicians have castigated the package using the strongest language at their commands. Former president JJ Rawlings ridiculed it as "grandiose rubbish."
Many of the MPs who purportedly passed the package into law vowed they had nothing to do with it, thereby throwing enough dust around to unsettle the citizens. Some of them vowed to go to court to clear the jumbled air. One of them actually called it "the secret passage of an obscene bill." Constitutional lawyers suddenly became much in demand, as they were called upon to pass legal judgment on the outrageous awards. All these raise the all-important question of what the MPs, who were supposed to check the excesses of the executive branch, were doing? Were they all dozing off in parliament when such important bills were being approved in their names? And could they, in good conscience, draw salaries for a job they have clearly not done?
This brings us to the central question of what exactly is wrong with politicians in general, and African politicians in particular? By giving themselves these truly fantastic awards, Ghanaian politicians are declaring themselves as a cabal of unconscionable, otiose reprobates out for no good. Many of these men and women are already stupendously rich. One would have assumed that they are in politics to pay homage to the country that has served them so well, but then one would have assumed wrongly. No, they are not there to serve but to loot the paltry national patrimony.
We can contrast this outrage Ghanaian politicians are foisting on their people with what's applicable in the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands, one of the countries that give budgetary support to Ghana. Dutch ministers, including the prime minister, live in their own houses. A car loan is strictly an affair between a Dutch MP and his banker. And yours truly once saw former Dutch prime minister Kok riding a bicycle to a supermarket to do his shopping! Unlike in Ghana, the Dutch monarch does not close down traffic for her motorcade!
Were ex-president Kufuor to have left Ghana in better shape than he met it, mayhap Ghanaians would have been prepared to swallow the outrageous award they are giving him. But the sad truth is that Mr. Kufuor managed to turn his proud nation into a groveling vassal state of the imperialists. He borrowed money from the Indians to build a presidential palace, and he left his nation in debt for a useless jamboree to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ghana's shambolic independence.
Kufuor's best legacy was to showcase Ghana as a land of shameless beggars whose stock in trade was to junket around the world with a begging bowl. A man with boundless ego, he not only spent good money in crafting a gold chain award for himself and his ministers; he spent the last months of his term collecting useless awards from his imperialists friends (masters, if you ask me). Now he wants to be rewarded with a sizable chunk of the national budget!
Maybe Ghanaians should be grateful that the awards did not include setting aside a percentage of the national budget, plus a sizable chunk of the oil revenue as ex-gratia awards to the ex-first couple. After all, the gratitude of a grateful nation to the ex-president should know no bounds!
PS: Is it not interesting that among the definition of a 'politician' is "somebody seeking personal power: somebody whose main political motive is self-advancement and whose methods are often unscrupulous" -- a schemer?
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