When the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 last week that the sale of the government bungalow at Number 2 Mungo Street to Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey had been proper and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) suffered another defeat in court, many were not surprised.
After all, on issue after issue—from [email protected] through Maame Dokuno, and Dagbon to Ricegate, to mention just a few, this government has been unlucky with the courts.
Actually, this current scandal really started as an election-year prank in 2008 by two young and over-enthusiastic members of the Committee for Joint Action (CJA), Hon. Okudzeto-Ablakwa and Dr. Omane Boamah, to embarrass the New Patriotic Party's campaign and draw attention to supposed corruption in the NPP government. Unfortunately, the NDC government decided to endorse the action by the two. While this was an embarrassment, it was a minor one. Indeed, one could even commend the two men for initiating a suit that might lead to a review of the unpopular and oft-abused policy that allowed ministers, ex-ministers and the cronies of government functionaries in both the NPP and the NDC to acquire government property under suspicious circumstances at low prices.
Then last Thursday, the government, in a display of spectacularly bad judgment, decided that it had rescinded the sale of the said property! When the highest court of the land decides that the sale of a property by the government, through the Lands Commission was properly done and the government decides to annul the sale without the consent of the buyer, it is acting ultra-vires and its action in this regard is, to put it bluntly, unconstitutional! Indeed, many were so shocked by the implications that they wondered aloud whether President Mills, the former law Professor, had been present. It turned that His Excellency had actually chaired the meeting. That afternoon and the next day, government operatives fanned out across the airwaves—to persuade Ghanaians that this gargantuan breach of the constitutional order was done in their interest on grounds of morality. To put the government action in context, it would be the equivalent of a tomato-seller who sells tomatoes to a woman she does not know in the market. Then some hours later, upon learning that the buyer was one of her rivals decides to go to the buyer's house to reverse the sale just because she is upset that her buyer got the tomatoes and might prepare good soup for her husband. That conduct by the tomato seller would of course be unacceptable.
Then the man who made 'gargantuan' an ordinary word, Martin Amidu spoke— or more appropriately—wrote. The former Attorney General minced no words in calling the President's decision 'unconstitutional'. He dismissed the populist taint to the government's action by declaring that 'As a foundation member of the NDC, I am afraid that the working people, the middle class and particularly the floating voters of Ghana are more discerning of spins to know that an unconstitutional executive judgment by the President purporting to overrule a judgment of the Supreme Court and legal profession can never be 'in the supreme interest of the people of Ghana.' Then elsewhere in his statement, Mr. Amidu reveals that the President has or should have information that should have informed a broader and more deliberative response to the problem of property-acquisition by former Ministers and government operatives but chose not to. According to Mr. Amidu, 'I also know as a fact that under the authority of the President, a Committee of eminent land lawyers and administrators was appointed to investigate the sale of government lands in Accra (including in-fillings) and the committee submitted its report in September, 2009. The President has not had both the moral and legal courage as President to make a decision one way or the other on the report after several meetings on it.'
While certainly, given the suite by Messrs Okudzeto-Ablakwa and Omane-Boamah, one might conclude that the government had concerns with the policy under which Mr. Obetsebi-Lamptey and others, including many NDC members bought government lands, the government's actions are puzzling.
Why did the government not review the policy in the three years it has been in power?
Why has the President not made a carefully reasoned decision on the policy based on the committee referred to by the former Attorney General?
Why did the government not rescind the sale of similar properties to NDC members, including those who were in the room when the decision was made to go after Jake's property? Should charity not begin at home? Is Jake being targeted because he is NOT an NDC member?
Aside from the constitutionality and the policy inconsistency, this case sheds a very bright and unflattering light on the government's priorities, both with respect to our governance and to corruption.
Weighing the harms and benefits to Ghana, is it the government's judgment that depriving Jake of the building worth about half a million dollars is significant enough to trample our constitutional order? If our constitution can be flouted for such trivial reasons, then we must ask—'Is our constitution safe?'
It was the absence of this kind of balance in the exercise of executive authority that former President Kufuor lamented when he talked of using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. Unfortunately, his wise counsel was ignored and as Dr. Nduom would say, 'we are where we are.'
While I do not want to impute bad motives to the President and the government, Mr. Amidu has pointed words that the NDC would ignore only at their peril.
He writes, obviously after concluding that the action of the NDC was motivated by electoral considerations that 'Spinning can never win the NDC elections. Only integrity can. Respect the constitution.' That is profoundly sage advice to the President and the NDC from one who cares deeply about its future. They would be wise to heed this advice. I endorse that counsel, not because I care about the NDC but because I care—about Ghana.
As to corruption, one cannot help but be dumbfounded by the government's priorities. Even while we are trampling the constitution to deprive Jake who has a contract with the state of his building, we seem rather reluctant to pursue our monies or those responsible for Woyomegate and CPgate, both of which are worth millions of Ghana cedis more! There is a Nigerian proverb that says that the sun shines first on those standing before it shines on those lying down. Should we not focus on our big debts from those without contracts or the wrong contracts before we turn attention to those who, according to our courts have done everything properly?
So what is the way forward?
First, the President should apologize for this gargantuan blunder.
Second, he should release the report of the Committee established to review the sale of government lands in Accra.
Third, Parliament should review the operation of the policy since its inception and modify it if needed. Amongst the modifications must be strong conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest guidelines.
Fourth, we must commend Mrs Okudzeto Ablakwa and Omane Boama for initiating the action and Jake for having his innocence established. I did not include the court in my commendation because their judgment is not complete. There should be an award of costs to Jake, payment of rent or compensation for the time his building was occupied by others and, for the avoidance of doubt and to those who have difficulty understanding things, a clear order for his building to be handed to him with immediate effect.
Let us move forward—together.
By Arthur Kobina Kennedy