Thursday, July 12, 2012
We have a good cause to be concerned at the damage being done to our national interests by the judgement debt problem. Having already assumed partisan political dimensions, this problem has gripped the public and will be a major campaign issue for Election 2012. Here is why:
Quantum of money paid
The government incurred GH₵642m million as judgment debts between 2001 and 2011, a Deputy Minister of Information, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, was quoted as saying. Out of the amount, GH₵ 117 million was paid in 2009, GH₵276 million in 2010 and GH₵ 231 million in 2011 (Myjoyonline, July 12, 2012). Is this how to spend public funds?
Causes of the judgement debt problem
While some of the payments were tortuous claims resulting from molestations by members of the security agencies, others were in respect of wrongful dismissal of government employees, compensation in respect of accidents caused by some public officials, as well as wrongful demolition of private property.
Breach of contracts constituted majority of the payment made during the period under review. Eighty-six institutions and individuals benefited from such payments in 2010 alone (Myjoyonline, July 12, 2012). How many more cases are ongoing? We don't know but we can tell that the end of the story is far off.
Why should we be concerned?
From the revelation, we know that the payment of the judgement debts didn't begin with the Mills-led government. We are told it started in 2001 when Kufuor was in office. So, why should anybody blame the Mills government as the only one to have paid judgement debts? Or, why is the matter being twisted for partisan political purposes? Because the lid was blown on the matter only under the Mills government?
Partisan politics aside, why have judgement debts become the attraction? Why is the government more interested in out-of-court settlement of cases concerning judgement debts instead of vigorously pursuing them at court to avoid paying such huge debts to people whose contracts were either arbitrarily abrogated by the Kufuor government or those making all manner of claims?
Or is this judgement debt payment the new avenue for perpetrating corruption and fleecing the national coffers? To most Ghanaians, this last question is the cause for concern.
As is to be expected, though, the problem isn't being solved but is being used for mere political pranks. Activists of the NPP brush aside the role of the Kufuor government in this sordid affair and castigate the Mills government. The cause of the problem isn't their bother but the conclusion of the process and the quantum of money paid to the claimants is what matters to them in their anti-Mills political machinations.
On its part, the Mills government is aggressively fending off the vilification. But it is a battle it can't win. The damage has already been done. The Attorney-General's revelation that more judgement debts are lined up to be paid has worsened the circumstance. Attempoting to shift blame to Akufo-Addo has exposed the government's defenders as myopic, ill-intentioned, and amateurish in politics.
Ghanaians are truly alarmed at this spate of judgement debt payments! That's not how they expect their tax money to be spent.
The problem cannot be solved through allegations and counter-allegations, claims and counter-claims, arguments and counter-arguments, or the trading of insults as has been happening between NDC activists and their political opponents vilifying the government for its part in this malfeasance.
Neither will the lone ranger damage control work or the muckraking being done by Samuel Okudzeto-Ablakwa, Deputy Minister of Information. He seems to be fighting a battle that sees new fronts opened every moment he opens his mouth to accuse the Kufuor government of being the cause of this judgement debt problem.
His trenchant criticism of high-ranking officials of that administration (Kwadwo Mpiani, Joe Ghartey, and Akufo-Addo, for instance) doesn't seem to be bearing any fruit. It rather opens big cans of worms that deepen the government's credibility woes.
The latest encounter between him and Martin Amidu throws Okudzeto Ablakwa himself off guard and might implicate him as one of those instrumental in the run of affairs. He is definitely not in a good light at this stage that he has been exposed as attempting to influence the former Attorney-General on behalf of Isofoton SA, one of the numerous institutions tackling the government over judgement debt.
In any case, the problem has to be solved decisively. It can be tackled in one of many ways:
• The establishment of an independent non-partisan Commission of Inquiry to dig into the problem in all aspects concerning the causes, parties involved, court proceedings and why the cases should be withdrawn for arbitration, those representing government instrumental in settling those cases, who authorized them to do so, proceedings during the arbitration, decisions arrived at and reasons behind such decisions, the role of the Attorney-General or high-ranking Civil Service officials, officials of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, and the seat of government.
• Freezing of all activities connected with judgement debt until the Commission of Inquiry completes its work and its report released for implementation.
• Investigation of all cases already dealt with to establish the extent to which government bureaucracy facilitated the payment of all these judgement debts and all those involved in any malfeasance brought to book.
Other measures are possible. An example is that institutional measures to curb the spate of judgment debts be put in place, as suggested by the flagbearer of the Convention People's Party, Dr. Abu Sakara Foster. According to him, a key element of the measures is to ensure that persons whose actions and inactions lead to such debts are publicly seen to lose any benefits arising from such deeds.
Another idea from Dr. Sakara Foster to “ensure that we put a moratorium that within any two consecutive presidential terms should be cleared… [and that] we should not see any administration after 12 years still carrying and paying debts” is workable.
I support this perspective because the judgement debt problem for which the Mills government is being blamed was caused by the Kufuor government. A careful analysis of the problem indicates that action against the government's acts of omission or commission that adversely affected the claimants had long been initiated at court before the Mills government took over.
Unfortunately, the cases took a different turn and were settled out of court, which blew the lid off to reveal this judgement debt albatross. That is where the Mills government, especially the Attorney-General's Department (the former A-G, Betty Mould Iddrissu) comes in for condemnation.
To me, there seems to be no institutional measure in place to determine how such cases should be handled without injuring the interests of the state, Ghanaian tax payers, and the government itself. The cases began being handled as if those involved didn't deem it fit to seek authorization from the President. They did everything as potentates and kept the President in the dark.
This manner of handling serious cases is despicable, which is what is making it difficult for the government to speak with one voice on the judgement debt problem. Someone is namby-pamby here.
The retired government official, Dr. K. B Asante, rightly labels this despicable governance conundrum as an “administrative chaos,” which he sees as the main cause for the spate of court orders to government to settle debts arising from the actions and inactions of politicians and civil servants. His analysis of the situation is accurate.
“You don't allow Ministers to use their influence to start projects for which there is no money,” Dr. Asante declared on Adom FM's Dwaso Nsem Morning Show on Thursday, while contributing to discussions on the latest reports of looming gargantuan judgment debts against government.
With all manner of people parading the corridors of power and creating pockets of influence so as to profit from their political connections, the “administrative chaos” can't be avoided. There are just too many hangers-on and special advisers, especially at the Presidency, who are doing things haphazardly. In the kind of self-effacing leadership style that President Mills has adopted, we won't be surprised that this problem has arisen.
If the government doles out money from the national coffers to pay these huge judgement debts because of either collusion between its functionaries and unscrupulous characters or because there is a genuine cause for that payment, how will it get funds to carry out its agenda for national development?
From what has happened so far, the government's back is to the wall. It has lost face and will definitely be punished at Election 2012 for misapplying public funds and not protecting the national interests in this case. But will that end the judgement debt saga? I don't think so because the weaknesses giving rise to such a problem are endemic.
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