by Femi Akomolafe
(Swans - August 10, 2009) For this piece I am borrowing the title of the book by British Journalist, Michela Wrong, It's our turn to eat. The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower.
Seven months into regaining the reins of government, it looks like some members of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) are out to tarnish the image of the president and that of their party.
First was the call by the majority leader of Parliament, Mr. Alban Bagbin, that MPs should be given free car. I know that our elites operate from a different financial space than the rest of us, but I see Mr. Alban Bagbin's call as totally heartless, unconscionable, and very obscene, especially at these trying times when the cost of living is, literally, killing many Ghanaians.
He stated that although the new government had not come up with any clear policy on the issue, "we will this time round insist that MPs are provided with vehicles that will help them to discharge their duties, instead of going in for loans to purchase such vehicles to generate furore from the public."
The twisted argument of the long-serving MP was that MPs perform a lot of services for their communities that the car loan they are given presently should be replaced by an outright gift. I say, how dare you, Mr. Bagbin? Yours is like Oliver Twist who kept asking for more. In many of my writings, I have said time without count that until we Africans can compel our leaders to live on the same poverty level they set for the rest of us, we shall continue to wallow at our current level of underdevelopment.
Sadly, President Mills acceded to the criminal request of our Legislooters (Nigerians parlance for legislators) and granted each MP US$50,000 as a car loan! US$50,000 would go a long way to install bore holes in several communities. It would also put roofs over the shacks under which our children are forced to receive their education. US$50,000 multiplied by the two hundred and thirty MPs represents more than one percent of our nation's total GDP. It's clearly amoral for 0.001 percent of our population to collared one percent of the resources.
Unfortunately, those governing us continue to look at our national treasury as war booty to be plundered with haste. Ghana performs abysmally low on the indices of development, yet we continue to pay fantastic salaries and emoluments to our public officials. All our 230 MPs get, in addition to their salaries, car loans, free lodgings, and other allowances. Yet, they always clamor for more. Our ministers get a long list of freebies, yet that does not appear to have dampened their enthusiasm to loot us blind as evidenced by reports of shenanigans that are being uncovered daily.
What exactly was Mr. Bagbin talking about? How many people in his constituency have a bicycle to their names? How many of them are sleeping rough in roach- and jigger-infested mud houses? How many of them do not have access to health care centers? How many children in his constituency are suffering from kwashiorkor? How many schools in his constituency are holding classes under trees? How many people are drinking untreated, dirty water from brownish streams? How many children in his constituency are scampering around naked and barefooted and how many of the women there are still cladding themselves (including underwear) in throwaways from Europe and America? And the major concern of Mr. Bagbin is a free four-wheel-drive jeep! And Mr. Bagbin is an HONOURABLE man!
Mr. Bagbin would have made better sense had he been seen or heard to be vigorously campaigning to bring his constituency and the rest of Northern Ghana to the 21st century. He would have earned my praise were he to be seen agitating with gusto to bring Ghana to the industrial age whereby we can start producing some of the products on which we are WASTING our hard-earned money to import. I still do not fathom why our leaders do not see anything ironic in their positions. They love all the best luxurious items that money can buy, yet it never enters into their heads to start producing anything. There is virtually no industrial production in the country, yet our elites continue to tool around in the most expensive cars that money can buy.
I often give an example of the kingdom of the Netherlands, which is one of the countries supporting Ghana financially. No Dutch MP collects a car loan from the state and none of them are accommodated at state expense. In Holland, a car loan or mortgage is strictly business between an MP and her bank manager. And unlike here, where everyone wants to tool around in the biggest and baddest four-wheel-drive jeep, many top Dutch politicians, including prime ministers, joyfully ride bicycles.
We were just recovering from the car loan palaver, when the news hit us that the newly-minted minister for sport has been caught dipping his hands into his ministry's tills. I have no idea if the guy just got carried away by youthful exuberance or he just was promoted way, way beyond his level of competence. Among other charges, the minister was accused of saddling his ministry with bills for taking his girlfriend to watch a football match. That was after he had collected US$2,000 as per diem -- aside from flight and hotel bills. Among the items listed was US$1,000 for the services of a Voodoo priest to ensure the success of the national football team! There were also ridiculous items like a huge bill for pampers and an outlandish bill for kebab.
The minister claimed that he was a victim of a mafia that operates within his ministry. I do not know whether or not that's true. What is certain is that he's not a very bright fellow. Any bright person would have done his best to avoid his enemies' trap. And any bright person should have realized the anger currently sizzling among the citizens. Any bright person would have known that it is difficult to continue "business as usual," especially in the corruption department. A bright fellow would have known that the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), still licking its wounds, would pounce on any opportunity to embarrass the government. Any bright person with the inclination to steal would have had the patience to wait a little longer. After all, the minister, once confirmed, can stay with the president for the four-year duration. Why the haste?
On a less serious note: What was the minister's wife's reaction when she suddenly had to move out of a government house and stop enjoying all the privileges accorded her when especially she realized that her hubby had been enjoying his per diem with a girlfriend? Asem beba dabi (trouble is coming one day).
Then came the news that one of Professor Mills's spokespersons had bought a tractor at concessionary price from the Ministry of Agriculture. The fellow later came out swinging with both fists. He said that as a citizen he's entitled to buy the tractor. I don't know whether the fellow was daft or deaf or both. What the fellow refused to understand is that he's not just an ordinary citizen; he's the president's spokesman for Christ sake! As such, he occupies a privileged post that gives him undue advantage over other citizens. He cannot be so daft not to realize that very few brave souls would dare refuse the president's spokesman any favour.
What is the major issue that Ghanaians have with the NPP if not that members of the elephant party used or abused their positions to acquire government properties? Pathetic that the man charged with providing us with information from our president is himself so badly misinformed. The presidency of any nation is far too important to have any whiff of impropriety contaminating it. Mr. Spokesman should have asked himself if his boss would have gone to buy a tractor from a ministry.
We are still reeling from this when it emerges that the Transitional Committee reported they have managed to squander a whopping 300+ billion old cedis (US$300,000) in two months. Sorry if I appear daft, but I was under the impression that those guys/gals were party hacks enthusiastically serving their party and their country. The scandalous lists of expenditures provided ought to bring hot tears to the eyes of the long suffering masses of this country.
When are our leaders going to show us any mercy? When will they find it in their hearts to have pity on their country? These are men and women of substance in society called upon to serve their nation. They are rich men and women in their own independent ways, and yet they slapped us with a bill of 1.3 billion cedis for refreshment in two months. Money is not fighting in my pocket, but I'd have found it both an honour and also a privilege to serve on a Transitional Team of my country that I'd have done it for free.
Bob Marley wailed in one of his songs that "We've been taken for granted much too long, rebel, rebel..."
It is time we, as citizens, also learn to take our civic responsibilities seriously. We should let those in the corridors of power know that we are never going to allow them to continue business as usual. We are not asking for the moon. All that we ask is that our leaders use our meager resources to solve or alleviate some of the conditions that are keeping us in grinding poverty.
What's particularly irksome to me is the idea of paying public officials per diem. The former sport minister was said to have been paid US$2,000 a day just for travelling to go and watch a football match in Kumasi! May the ancestors have mercy on us! Let's leave his other shenanigans aside for a while, how does any official justify collecting two thousand dollars for just one day's work in a country where the GNP remains a lowly US$480? How do our public officials justify (if only to their consciences) this criminal waste of our very paltry resources?
Per diem is to me an unconscionable and morally wicked waste of very scarce resources. Since all state officials are on regular salaries and allowances, why on earth should we be paying them per day because they are outside their stations? Wherever they are, they get paid, right? It's time we citizens campaign to have this odious provision expunged from our books.
I say that it's time our leaders start showing some compassion.
A voice from Africa worth hearing... Femi Akomolafe asks you to make a donation to keep Swans going. Money is spent to pay for Internet costs, maintenance and upgrade of our computer network, and development of the site.