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The elite and our democracy: Who will bell the cat?

Feature Article The elite and our democracy: Who will bell the cat?
JUN 16, 2022 LISTEN

Introduction
About two weeks ago, after reading the Vienna Convention on International Relations, the Police Chief decided to test his knowledge in international diplomacy, as he understood it. As it turned out, Chief did not appear to have read the domesticated version of the Convention, that is, the Diplomatic Relations Act of 1962. So he set out to look for an international victim on whom to test his new-found knowledge in public international law. And he was pretty lucky in that endeavour. A female diplomat of the Western stock committed the unpardonable crime of tweeting about a gentleman who had been arrested by the Police for a traffic offence. Her Excellency tweeted her thoughts in 27 words or so. The time was just right for Chief to show his might and intellect in a humungous four- page letter swollen with veiled threats and patent sexism.

Of course, when such issues of no direct bearing on the political class come up, all hitherto quiet, I-whisper-my-criticism, I-have-retired-from-politics types emerge from the doldrums to dance on the fringes of the issue and enjoy some time in the media. They know no political babies with shiny teeth will remind them to shut up or else, they will retrieve the V8 4X4, status-enhancing cars the Presidency has given to them. People will make cacophonous noise and disturb us with their ugly English till another issue crops up and the previous one dies a natural death, without any final obsequies. And true to form, after the Police Chief’s faux pas, another Chief’s story came in to fill the media void.

Travel and see
On 9th September, 2002, almost twenty years ago, I had the rare opportunity of starting my post-LL.M internship in the famous Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Internship of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Washington, DC. I was lucky to be part of the Fall ‘2002 cohort of post-graduate science and technology interns selected from all over the United States. So, what was a lawyer doing in the midst of scientists? Well, I had been selected after an interview to join the programme because of my background as an African-trained lawyer, and especially because I had taken a course in International Human Rights Law during my LL.M studies and also worked at CHRAJ as a national service person. I was placed as an intern with the Human Rights Committee of the Policy & Global Affairs Division of the National Academies. Just one month into the internship, the Executive Director of my Committee, Carol Corrillon, called me into her office and offered to give me a permanent full time position beyond the internship. I took up the offer gladly and worked for an additional 9 months after the internship and returned home to Ghana, my motherland in 2003.

The one year I spent at the National Academies remains one of the most fulfilling and adventurous times of my life. I had opportunity to see at firsthand how policies are formulated on Capitol Hill and the role played by the Academies as advisors on science and technology to the US Government. The diligence with which Senators carried out their duties on the Hill was phenomenal. Their well-resourced staff were helpful. Aside the weekend forays into downtown Washington, DC with my new friends (Chinese, African-Americans, whites, etc.) for sightseeing and chilling around Adams Morgan, Foggy Bottom, Georgetown University, and so on, one of the most lasting impressions I carried with me was how citizens contributed to the development of the United States. Let’s put this in perspective; the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine boast of members elected in recognition of outstanding achievements. Membership is considered one of the highest professional honours and the members are among the world's most distinguished scientists, engineers, and health care professionals. I was glad to have met the likes of Dr. Feinberg, the then President of the Academy of Engineering and Dr. Bruce Alberts, the then President of the Institute of Medicine. They were truly world-class accomplished scientists who were nice, modest and carried themselves as regular human beings. Are members of the Academies paid for the great work they do? No. Very few members assume full-time positions within the Academies and receive salaries (nor are their institutions reimbursed for the time that they devote to Academy work). Membership and participation in Academy activities are voluntary. Reimbursement of travel costs and subsistence support is the only compensation provided.[1] The subsistence support refers to how they are accommodated when they travel to carry out Academies duties.

Now, when I joined the Academies, my unit, the Committee on Human Rights was chaired by Dr. Torsten Wiesel (pronounced Viesel), a neurophysiologist. He received the 1981 Nobel Prize in Medicine, for discoveries concerning information processing in the visual system – I forgot to get Dr. Wiesel to explain that to me in English. He was also the President of the Rockefeller University in New York. In 2002, when I had the rare privilege of meeting a Nobel Laureate for the first time in my life, Dr. Wiesel (we called him Torsten when he wasn’t around, can you imagine?), I was star-struck! Sensing that I was in awe and tensed, he gave me a firm handshake with a genuine smile and said, “Francisca, I have heard so much about you from Carol. Keep up the good work,” to calm my nerves. Dr. Wiesel was then 78 years old and volunteered his time on several causes in several countries around the world free of charge every year, except his travel costs and subsistence support. He took no monthly salary from the National Academies. He did not buy a car tax-free and share the cost 60/40 with the Academies. And above all, he did not receive ex-gratia payment every 4 years. Dr. Wiesel is 98 years old now and still alive, according to Wikipedia. How I wish I could visit him on his 100th birthday.

The return of the bride prize
As the diplomatic feud between Chief and Her Excellency was coming to its certain end, another issue came to occupy our collective consciousness to fill the media space and keep the virtual cycle of media banter in full motion. As it emerged in the days following, a certain Chief, (this time, not the Chief of Police but a traditional chief) had reportedly learned from the tax collector that an amount of GH₵365,000 had been paid to him as ex gratia for his part-time work as a member of the Council of State. From the report, the amount seemed so small that when it hit Chief’s account, he received no notification by SMS or email as those of us in humble circumstances do. But then as soon as the tax collector told him about it, he screamed that the money was too big – in fact, he reportedly described it as gargantuan - and wrote a cheque to return the money to the Council. How the return of the cheque that was issued in private came to be public remains an unsolved mystery.

Since stories that appear, on the face, to have no political flavouring go rancid too soon, political applause started coming in thick and fast, praising Chief for his candour, patriotism, selflessness, humility, love-for-Ghanaians, mercy-on-the-public-purse, etc. etc. At the height of the eulogies and praises, a citizen politico-journo-board-chair from the ruling party decided to furnish the populace with facts, purportedly procured pursuant to the Right to Information Act. The facts included attendance sheets, Ho-Accra-Ho travel reimbursement chits, 40/60 Chief/Government of Ghana car loan-cum free import tax and duty, free fuel, front-row seating at 6th March parades, etc. Chief was livid when he heard of these facts and decided to shear Board Chair to the skin. Chief insinuated that the man lives through his stomach and reminded him of his ‘la borrow’ BMW 7 series for his Scottish-themed nuptials donkey years ago, which we’d have forgotten about but for the memorable kilts. At that point, the political flavouring that was not so obvious to many citizens when Chief’s kind gesture was first announced or leaked came to the fore. Once the banter took on full political hue, others also sought to have a bite at the juicy cherry. Some even suggested that had it been some other chiefs, the reaction would have been different. Of course, it would have been different because the issue wouldn’t have arisen in the first place. This is because some other chiefs will never sit on state and parastal boards and bodies, no matter which government’s turn it is to plunder (sorry, protect) the public purse.

This reminds me of an incident that happened a few years ago during President Mahama’s time. One Chief from the Western Region had developed a latent talent in criticizing the government. After one of his critiques, a brazen baby-with-sharp-teeth jumped on air and dared the chief to return the Toyota Land Cruiser the Presidency had dashed him. Nana had to make the difficult choice between returning his beloved and freely gotten SUV and silencing his critical, aristocratically-affected voice. Nana chose the later. So, when chiefs go and play with politicians at night and come and join the rest of us in our favourite national pastime – complaining - (also known as whining by the Ahomka Dictionary), small boys and girls will yank their rich kente clothes off their shoulders.

So, once the ‘ex gratia’ discussion resolved itself into who paid whose semi-law school fees and who scored 16% on attendance at school Morning Assembly, the main issue of Council of State duties, remuneration and perks and its overall relevance in our democracy was buried in the noise. Chief was candid enough to admit that he took salaries for the Council’s work which he admitted was part-time. He also admittedly enjoyed the 40/60 car loan on a duty-free car and all other perks. What Chief didn’t say was how much was his monthly salary. Was the total salary less or greater than the rejected ‘ex gratia’? For the four years he took the salary (mind you, not allowance), did Chief realize he was fleecing Ghanaians with the rest of the Council members? If Chief had had the fortune of sitting on the Council for another 4-year term, will he have blown the whistle? When Chief was on the Council, didn’t he ever learn of ex gratia payments to previous members? What steps did he take to register his distaste for such wanton pillage as he seems to find the practice now? It is for some of these reasons that some hold the view that Chief’s motive for the return of the money couldn’t have been simply altruistic.

The new frontier
I take the view that, whatever motivated Chief – politics, politricks, propaganda or none of the above - to acknowledge receipt of the ex gratia payment and return it to public chest, is good omen for Ghana. This is arguably the first time such an action has been taken since Chief started sitting on state-owned Boards under almost every government in this 4th Republic. I am happy this singular gesture has exposed the waste in our democracy. Our political class, elites (many of us fall into this category) and academics, chiefs and priests, all appear to have conspired to divide up and share the nation’s resources whiles the rest of our citizens look on. We are afraid to be tagged as doing politics. We are afraid of insults from people we expect to honour and kowtow to us because we ‘borrowed’ them our plush houses for their honeymoon, attended their graduation ceremonies, gave them handouts to save their dying mothers, stood in as their ‘uncles’ when they went to ask for their future wife’s hand in marriage because their own blood relatives were not fit for the purpose. Now, it is clear to all and sundry that, those we catch young and nourish will not always be ready to sing our tunes in future when we expect them to return the favour in kind.

The new meaning of volunteerism: Council of State

As I stated earlier, I was introduced to the idea of distinguished people who have excelled in their fields of endeavour giving of their time, knowledge and expertise to help in national policy formulation and development through my work at the National Academies. I bear witness to the fact that it was truly free. One can only be a member of the Academies by going through rigorous elections. So the members are people who literally fight to get to serve their nation. It is the ultimate national pride like no other. But what do we see in our own constitutionally created Council? People fight bitter elections to go to Council of State. Even chiefs stand elections to go to Council of State; some win and some lose. There is no educational qualification for membership so Presidents pick their friends and cronies to populate the Council. Those with automatic membership are also cooling off on the Council. Every retired Chief Justice is an automatic member and so are retired IGPs. For instance, retired CJs retire with their full salaries as Article 71 office holders. Do they also take salaries and ex gratia on the Council? And how about retired IGPs? How do the Council members influence government policy and advise governments? Why are their reports and work shrouded in secrecy when we are paying them salaries? In the final analysis, the narrow question that should agitate our minds is this: what is the social, economic, political, cultural, religious and judicial relevance of the Council?

Conclusion
At my age, I cannot be easily convinced that patriotism and altruism were the only propelling factors for Chief’s return of the money and the leak in the media. Usually underlying such actions are embers of peeves and piss. But there is a silver lining somewhere in this ex grata rainbow. The story affords us a great opportunity to have a second look at the composition, duties, and most importantly, allowable costs for the Council of State’s existence. We do not have to reduce the discussion to who fed who ‘Hausa koko’ in their youth and who claimed GH₵1 million as private jet expenses to attend meetings. The bigger issue is whether we should continue to have the Council in its current moribund form, where some people automatically get there by virtue of their previous occupations to further feed fat on state resources when they are already enjoying mouth-watering state pension under the elites’ siphoning scheme called Article 71 and other laws. Some members also brow-beat Presidents, to the point of blackmail, to get them appointed onto the Council. Once there, they become political commentators. They spew invectives on citizens and judges and collect ex gratia after four years and continue in office for another four years, and collect another ex gratia, provided their Presidents remain in power. There are others who, in their private lives, one may never associate with advising kindergartners, but they are Council members who are supposed to be advising Presidents. Many people have been agitating for the scrapping of the Council. With the story as we know it now, I doubt if there will be any opposition to that school of thought. The question is: Who will bell the cat? Will it be the Judiciary when all Chief Justices and those yet-to-be-appointed are licking their lips in waiting to join the Council? Or, will the lot fall on Parliament to amend the Constitution and scrap the Council, knowing that the President will punish them by not increasing their salaries and cause their double-salary taking members to be prosecuted and jailed? Or, will the Executive bite the bullet and make the Council truly voluntary without salary and ex gratia, knowing very well that the Council is every President’s incubator for their aged friends and political allies? I ask again: Who will bell the cat?

Photo: Taken in November, 2002 during the Annual General Meeting of the National Academies in Washington DC with some Academies members of the Committee on Human Rights. With Dr. Siad and his wife from Egypt.

Footnotes
[1] https://www.nationalacademies.org/about/members

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