18.07.2015 Feature Article

Ghana: Land of Approximate Vagueness

Ghana: Land of Approximate Vagueness
18.07.2015 LISTEN

It would seem to most observers that Ghana's problems are so complex that the possible solutions are also multi- layered and beyond our reach. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple. Our failures are the result of our own attitudes and actions. They are largely self-inflicted. Take the recent tragic floods in Accra as an example. This should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Certainly, we have no business disturbing God about it. Disturbing God has become a national pastime. We make God work over-time in Ghana. In our selfish and perverted interpretation of Christianity, we are God’s only children. We have no responsibilities. We just leave everything to God.

In the week immediately following the dual tragedy of the flood and the explosion at the Goil filling station in early June, I was listening to one of those loud talk shows on my way to work. One of the guests on the show commented on the role of plastic waste in the blocking of waterways, contributing to the floods. He reported that on one occasion he had observed a woman casually tossing plastic waste on to a street. When he confronted her, she asked him if the place was his residence. “Aha yƐ wƆ fie?” He was speechless. The woman's conduct and her irreverent and irresponsible response is emblematic of what is wrong in Ghana. Frank irresponsibility, uncouth behavior and the absence of any measure of enforcement of any laws from the municipal level to the national level. We are living with the consequences. There seemed to be no way of holding this dangerous litterer accountable. This is the core problem in the country. It is lawless at all levels and this is compounded by increasing illiteracy and a diminished ability of citizens to think critically about problems and find solutions.

Finally, after the totally preventable deaths of about 200 people, in the flood and explosion, illegal structures on waterways and flood plains are being removed. All previous attempts to do so were thwarted for political expediency. Every illegal structure in Ghana exists because a building inspector ignored the rules, collected a bribe and turned a blind eye. These people are murderers. They should all be found and even if they are retired, should be held responsible for these deaths. That is what happens in any serious country.

During the same week, I visited my local petrol station in Elmina one morning and found that it had been slapped with a notice from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), forbidding them from pumping and selling petrol. When I asked what had happened, the attendant told me that there was "confusion" involving the EPA. Ghanaians love vagueness because it aids in evading responsibility. Clearly, something very specific was at issue. There was likely a safety violation and here I was, going in and out of this station a few times every week, with other unsuspecting citizens. The real issue is where was the EPA before the explosion in Accra occurred? Obviously, they had allowed this station to operate for years, fully aware that the safety of the public was at risk. All these inspectors need to be found and punished for allowing unsafe petrol stations to be built and operated. There are all sorts of noises about not letting the victims die in vain. These are empty words if those directly responsible are not held accountable. Platitudes and speeches do not result in attitudinal change.

After the explosion, some highly placed official of National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO) made a most illuminating remark. He said something to the effect that, when there is a disaster, people should take shelter in safe places. I could not imagine what he was driving at. NADMO has no clearly marked meeting points nor escape routes mapped out in the city in case of a flood. This is a minimum requirement since the floods occur regularly. Instead of doing the very basic minimum required to inform the public on what places are deemed safe, he had the temerity to off load his responsibilities onto the victims, their families and the public.

Every government office is the location of a heavily subsidized private business. Someone visited a regional surveyor’s office to have the boundaries of his property validated to resolve a dispute with a neighbor. The civil servant in question, said it could be done privately, on government time, no less, and for a fee which was twice the official government rate for the service. He was also not going to provide an official report of his findings. However, if there was litigation, for an additional fee he would provide a certified report for court purposes. This scenario is repeated in government institutions every hour of every day. Government employees have no interest in serving the citizens who pay their salaries. They also use the infrastructure provided for serving the public to run their private businesses on government time and of course return no taxes to the treasury from those activities. This is not an exception. It is the norm, so if government wants revenue, it is easily found.

Productivity of our public servants is very low and most of them surcharge citizens for public services, overtly or covertly. They also only work for less than 50% of the time they are paid for so let’s hire them for 4 hours a day instead of 8 hours a day and pay them all for 50% of their time so they are free to engage in other pursuits outside of the ambit of the state. That would be a more honest approach. This would also free the state from offering an infrastructure for its employees to run private enterprises subsidized by the state from which no revenue is accrued. All of this revenue is never captured by the state. Not until policies are implemented and enforced to eliminate this high level of loss to the state, we will always have internal revenue shortfalls. So the real task is to de-politicize central tasks, hire and appoint dedicated, patriotic and competent individuals who are interested in transforming the system for the public good. We may even have to contract with private management companies to run Government agencies. The money would be well spent and the state would come out ahead.

In addition to the private enterprises run on government resources, annually the Accountant –General identifies billions of Ghana Cedis as having been stolen, misapplied or otherwise unaccounted for by individuals at District Assemblies, municipalities and other government agencies but no significant action is taken. I say individuals because Ghanaians like to describe these as “leakages”, as if the funds are passively lost instead of actively stolen so that no one is ever held accountable. The president acknowledged these losses at a recent meeting with heads of his agencies and implored them to do better. Begging people to behave differently does not work. If speed limits were posted without the police to enforce the rules, how many people would obey the speed limits? If this is the extent of the president’s leadership on this core issue then the music has stopped and he does not have a seat! You don't have to be a legal genius to come to the conclusion that crimes have been committed, with respect to these missing funds. So, what is the job of the A-G's department? Do they need a directive from the president to act? What about CHRAJ? Or the IGP's office? Why do we have all these institutions of law and enforcement if they will not function? We have laws on everything but no one implements the law. The moment a law is flouted and action is taken against an offender, suddenly an army of supporters show up to secure an exemption for that person. In functioning countries, the law is waived for no one. That is the essence of a democracy. Everyone is equal before the law.

The extremely large informal economy remains untapped as a source of revenue but there is no strategic plan with revenue targets for formalizing all economic activity, yet the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) simply announces that businesses should come register at their offices. Are they for real? All the information needed for widening the revenue net exists to a large degree in census data. Rather than working diligently to improve our collection of internal revenue, we prefer to beg donors (oops! Development Partners) for money to balance our budget on an annual basis. We have no integrity or self-respect as a nation. These donors are becoming increasingly angry that the sweat of their tax payers is not valued by corrupt and incompetent functionaries of our government. After all, we have been running chronic fiscal budget deficits for 9 straight years.

About two years ago, the president asked for all streets to be named, so there are street signs everywhere. The idea of naming streets should represent the beginning of a process of a plan to create coherent logical and reproducible addresses so citizens can be accurately located for commercial and revenue reasons. If the president is satisfied with these results then he is part of the problem. Real leadership is painful business. If our leaders at all levels of the society accept poor results and respond with silence to unethical activities then they have failed us.

Fundamentally, the current property tax rate is too low to support recurrent municipal expenditures, let alone long term strategic projects such as sustainable waste management, road maintenance and the provision of sanitary facilities for our municipalities. Short-term political motives always undermine the requirement to provide accurate information to rate payers on what it costs to live in a functioning district or metropolitan area. These rates should be based on real time market valuation of properties, not on benchmarks from 1960. This transformational change should occur at the local government level which is the basic unit of governance. Also, all local government officials should be elected directly by their citizens so they can be held directly accountable at the local level.

The bottom line is that all our macro-economic numbers do not truly capture the real scope of all economic activity. All our projections on which plans are based are therefore also inaccurate. This is the game Greece has played for decades and it has caught up to them. The cause of Greece’s problems is not debt per se but a culture of dishonesty, corruption and indiscipline. Hard working Germans no longer want to subsidize the culture of poor productivity and failed systems in Greece and quite rightly so. Eventually, if a culture’s indiscipline is not managed from within, order will have to be imposed by invested external forces. So our flight to the 3 year IMF program is simply an admission by the president and his government that they do not have either the desire or the courage to confront the culture of ineptitude, incompetence and corruption which is so pervasive in Ghana. Our long term problems lie in a brand of behavioral economics that is core to our culture as a people. Like the Greeks, we want something for nothing and we want it now; completely disregarding the long term consequences.

We are in a country where the IGP can say that the public is corrupting police officers and no one finds it absurd. Human beings are the same everywhere but try to offer a bribe to a police officer in the UK, Canada or the US and he will arrest you. If the Ghanaian police officer accepts the money, how then does this become the citizen’s fault? The police are to enforce the law and trying to bribe a police officer is against the law, so are they doing their job? Cultural change is successful only with the proper use of incentives and consistent enforcement of rules and laws, so if this is where our law enforcement leadership stands; then indeed we must look to God for help after his closing hours. The kind of bold leadership required to radically change our institutions is yet to emerge from the Mahama administration. Every government comes in preaching change but simply proceeds to govern the nation with the same old system, its inbred failed attitudes and its proven poor outcomes. This current government has not met the challenge.

As the next election approaches, we must consider more than political skills. We will be electing individuals who are expected to function as CEOs of various government agencies and the whole national enterprise. What the candidates have managed effectively in the past rather than what positions or titles have they had previously should be more important. We should also remember that a legacy of corruption and ineptitude is not the best bequest for the next generation.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein

T. P. Manus Ulzen is Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Alabama and Author of” Java Hill: An African Journey” – A historiography of Ghana

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July 17, 2015

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