An Englishman in Accra: Cops and Robbers
A regular column by Simon Dean, a British journalist working for Ghana Review International in Accra Accra (Gh.) – 24 December 2004 – Since arriving in Ghana over four months ago, I've experienced both the good and the bad of Ghanaian society, with both elements proving to be as fascinating as each other – at least from a journalistic point of view.
In the last few weeks leading up to Christmas however, I seem to have hit a streak of bad form.
They say bad things come in threes, and thus far that seems to have held true.
First of all, I had another meeting with those men in black, Ghana's noble men of law enforcement.
As those who have read my columns will know, my past experience of the police has consisted of watching them hassle trotro drivers for bribes on the road to Cape Coast, and listening to them hassle me for bribes on the road to Cape Coast.
Until recently I'd assumed that was their only job, until I was pulled over in central Accra by an officer who accused me of going through a red light.
This attention to upholding the traffic code would have restored my faith somewhat, were it not for the fact that I was innocent, and then the ensuing farce at the police station.
When we arrived, the officer filled in a charge sheet, stating the alleged offence that I had been charged with.
I filled in a report, refuting the allegations, stating that the light was green when I passed through the junction, and signed it accordingly.
I was told that I must appear in court the following morning, and given a time of appearance.
I was also told to bring 2 million cedis for 'when' the judge fined me (despite pleading innocent, the officer used the word 'when', rather than if).
When I asked what evidence the police had, the officer just laughed and exclaimed that he had seen me with his own eyes (well you can't argue with water-tight evidence like that can you?).
Would I be given any legal representation? I asked.
“No, but you can hire a lawyer if you want,” came the reply.
While waiting I got talking to a rather nice woman who was sat next to me in the police station.
She told me that the judge would simply take the police officers word over mine (well, who ever heard of an untrustworthy Ghanaian police officer) and that it was a foregone conclusion that I would be between one and two million cedis worse off by the same time the next day.
Of course, it wasn't long before the policewoman who had dealt with the paperwork offered me a way out, bless her heart.
I was told that for a small 'gratuity' I could have my licence back and not have to worry about any court appearance or fine.
Just as when Police officers have harassed me for bribe money in the past, I found myself angered by the injustice of it, but I could see that unlike then, I had absolutely no position of leverage.
I paid 100,000 cedis (still a lot of money for someone who has not committed a crime) and the matter was promptly dropped.
I left the police station feeling a mixture of emotions: Relief at the fact that I wouldn't have to loose two million cedis, anger at the system and the officer involved, and of course, a certain optimism that at least this would give me something to write my column about.
I also felt a sense of guilt that through my complicity, I'd helped to underpin the corruption that I've complained about so many times before (like they say, a schoolyard bully takes your self respect as well as your lunch money).
When I finally arrived at my office, I learned that this wasn't uncommon, and that others had suffered similarly in the past.
Not long after this, the second of my misfortunes occurred.
My driver, who I must say up to that point had given us no trouble at all and had done his job very well, rang to tell me that he had received news that his brother had died and that he had to go back to the Ashanti Region to be with his family.
I told him how sorry I was and that he could have time off to go, although I stressed that he wasn't to use my car to drive there; my car was not in perfect health - thanks to a minor accident the said driver had had the day before – and my wife and I rely on it for transport.
I told him to take the car to my wife's work (where she was waiting to be picked up) and tell her about his bad news and what he was doing before he left.
Now I should point out that we have always treated our driver with kindness and generosity (perhaps a little too much as a number of my friends have since suggested) and got on well with him on a one to one basis.
Under the circumstances, as with a previous employee whose brother also died, we would have gladly paid for his transport to his home town and given him several days fully paid leave, as well he knew.
Instead, our driver simply vanished off the face of the Earth for two days with our car (it didn't take a genius to work out where he'd gone, but as he didn't bother contacting us to let us know, we had no idea how long he'd be, or if he'd left the car and taken public transport).
Two days later, he brought back my car - which now looked and sounded very sorry for itself – and promptly started to apologise profusely, claiming that he knew he'd done wrong and that he was very sorry.
I must admit that despite everything he'd done, I still felt a little sorry for the man who had just lost his brother after all.
Although very annoyed that he'd ignored us and driven off with our property, we were sympathetic enough to agree to keep him on (against the advice of all of our friends I might add) and put his actions down to a crime of passion, rather than anything pre-meditated.
We agreed to pay him his previous wage but told him he'd be on a strict probationary period, and would naturally have to pay off the damage he'd caused to the car, in instalments.
This damage included having to have the car's crank shaft replaced, along with a wheel and headlamp.
He'd also used a full tank of petrol that he'd not bothered to replace and we later found items such as the car's fire extinguisher, jack, wheel spanners and some other property (loaned to us by friends) also missing.
Having told him that he still had a job and that I wouldn't involve the police, he went to his room to change his clothes and promptly disappeared again; probably not overly keen on the idea that he'd have to pay for the damage he'd caused.
At this point I had no choice but to go to my local police station, which I'd hoped to avoid for his sake as much as anything else, giving them his driver's licence - which I took when he started work for me - a contact number and name for his sister, a photograph of him that he'd left behind and a list of places he was known to hang around with his friends.
I'm not sure what I was expecting, but when a week later I returned to the police station to see how the 'investigation' was going, I found that not a single enquiry had been made.
They'd not shown his drivers licence photo around his old haunts to see if anyone recognised him.
They'd not made any enquiry with the licensing authority.
They'd not even bothered to ring his sister and ask her if she knew where he was.
“What exactly do you want us to do about it?” asked the officer in charge of my case (an oxymoron if ever there was one).
“How about trying to find the man,” I asked, getting somewhat agitated, as much with myself as with anyone else, for being naïve enough to think the police might actually do something.
“How do I do that?” asked the officer, “I don't know him.”
“Do you only arrest criminals you know personally?” I asked. “Why don't you go to the areas I've told you he hangs around (one of them just up the road from the police station) and show the picture to people to see if anyone has seen him? Why haven't you even given his sister a call in the last week?”
The officer just looked blank. “I don't know her number,” he said.
It turns out that he had lost the number I'd given him, so I had to write it down again.
To cut a painfully long story short, the officer told me that if I found, arrested and brought the man in myself, then they would charge him.
“But I'm not a police officer,” I said incredulously. “Perhaps you'd like to give me a cap and uniform as well, if I'm going to do your job for you.” (fortunately for me, this remark didn't seem to register; I suddenly remembered that I was sat in a room full of police officers – not the best place to be making fun of, and shouting at the police).
With the police showing neither the will, nor the ability to find the man, I took the drivers licence back and looked for him myself.
I would have also used the photograph I gave the police, but when I asked for it, they said they didn't know where it was, so in a week they'd made no inquiries and had managed to loose half the information I'd given them.
I have since managed to find my driver, who as it turned out was working quite locally, and he is now in custody.
I must admit, despite all the trouble he'd put us through, and the large sum of money he'd cost us, I couldn't help but feel more than a little pity as I saw him marched into that holding cell.
The image of people stripped to their underwear and gripping the steel bars of the pitch black cell, brought back memories of the dungeons at the Elmina slave fort I'd visited some weeks before.
Strangely enough though, the cell seemed quite full.
From what I've seen of the police 'in action', I can only assume these men walked into the police station and gave themselves up, or were perhaps hard-up actors, hired to stand there for hours and make it look as if the police had actually done something constructive with their day.
The next morning I was woken by a phone call from the police station, asking if I would bail my driver.
“Why the hell would I bail him?” I asked, the familiar feeling of frustration that always seems to accompany any dealings with the police beginning to assert itself. “I arrested him – he owes me money! Shouldn't you be ringing his family or friends?”
“Oh…alright,” replied the officer. “Well, can you come in at 10am to discuss the case with the officer who is in charge?”
I agreed, and turned up at 10am on the dot.
Of course, the officer in charge wasn't there, nor did anyone else know where he was, or when he would be in.
I also learned that they hadn't tried to contact any of my driver's relatives or friends to get them to bail him either (another job I had to do myself).
I waited for forty five minutes and then went home.
So what impression has all this left.
Well firstly, my lack of respect for the police has been well and truly cemented.
Obviously, I can't speak for the whole of the police force, but every police officer I've ever had any dealings with has either been corrupt or pitifully incompetent – sometimes both, although it is worth mentioning that at no point did anyone at the police station ask, even implicitly, for a bribe of any kind.
Of course it's not all that bad for me; I get to write a column on the subject, and it will provide another story from Ghana, with which I'll bore my relations and friends when I return to England.
For the Ghanaian people, who from what I've heard seem to have just accepted the failings of their police force and don't expect any improvement, it's not quite so trivial.
Perhaps things have improved in the last few years, as the government say they have - I've not been here long enough to judge - but I fail to see how they can have possibly been any worse.
Of course our experience with the people we employ made us wonder if we were doing something wrong to invite all of this trouble (I'm sure this is true to a certain extent) but having talked to Ghanaian and western friends alike, it seems that these problems aren't unique to us, and almost seem to be an intrinsic part of living here.
It can however, taint your view of a place; I don't mind admitting that if I'd only stayed in Ghana for those past two weeks, then my opinion of the country and its people would be somewhat less glowing than the one I currently have.
Fortunately we have had our fair share of good experiences here to offer a balance, and have met enough good, honest Ghanaian people – many of which are our friends - to realise that things aren't as bad as they might otherwise have seemed; it is after all very easy to let a minority of bad events cloud your judgement of any country.
When it comes to staff though, we have learned our lessons.
There is a saying back home (by the way, I apologise for the number of 'old sayings' I use in my columns, but Ghanaians seem to have a proverb for every occasion, and the habit is catching).
The saying is: Once bitten, twice shy.
The point being that were as we used to go out of our way to be friendly towards our employees and make them feel welcome, we now keep things on a far more businesslike basis; we don't actually try to be unpleasant, but now when we think of offering an employee a cup of tea, a beer when they're off duty, or a glass of wine if we're having one ourselves or some plantain and ground nuts from the local stall near us, we resist the temptation.
We have also - somewhat regrettably - become rather less trusting of people than we used to be; it seems that generosity often gets mistaken for weakness and invites people to take advantage – something colleagues warned us about when we first came here, but some lessons you just have to learn yourself.
A Canadian friend of mine said not so long back, that despite all of the positives of living in Ghana, the worst aspect was the person you find yourself becoming; you start off by wanting to help the people around you who seem to have very little compared to you, but having been taken advantage of time after time, this altruistic instinct rapidly begins to ebb.
I am however, determined not to allow these events to push me too far in the opposite direction; better to get taken advantage of occasionally, than end up as a hard-nosed tyrant I would have detested before I came here.
And who knows, maybe we'll have a really great week and in my next column I'll be singing the praises of Ghana again, especially with the season of goodwill just around the corner (A Ghanaian Christmas is something I've been especially looking foreword to experiencing).
Then again, I've still got to deal with the police and the court system in regards to this mess with our driver, so you'll have to forgive me for ending this piece with another old saying:
'I won't count my chickens until they've hatched.'