Source: https://www.cadremenpress.com/

Akoto Lante is a suburb of Accra.

It is surrounded by communities like; Bukom, Akanmajen, Aadenkpo, Jamestown, Swalaba, Mudor, Agbado/Okpongor bu and Palladium. Together, they are part of the enclave called Ga Mashie.

The name Akoto Lante evokes nostalgic feelings in me because that is where I had the bulk of my primary education-St. Mary’s Anglican Primary School. During those formative years, I trekked from Okaishie to Akoto Lante on a daily basis to receive the foundational education that has brought me thus far.

Samaria is the ancient, historic, biblical name used for the central region of the Land of Israel, bordered by Judea to the south and Galilee to the north- Wikepedia. People who hail from Samaria are called Samaritans just as someone from Ghana is Ghanaian.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. It is about a traveler (Jewish) who is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. First, a Jewish priest and then a Levite came by, but both avoided the man. Finally, a Samaritan chanced on the traveler. Although Samaritans and Jews despised each other, this Samaritan helped the injured man. Hence, he was called the Good Samaritan.

Ghanaians and Nigerians consider each other as brothers and sisters. However, recent developments have strained the fraternal relationship a wee bit. That’s because the Nigerians are alleged to be involved in almost every crime in the country lately. Consequently, Nigerians are beginning to gain the status of ‘Jews’ in the eyes of their Ghanaian ‘siblings’.

I have come across Ghanaians, especially the youth, who have sworn to deal drastically with any Nigerian who messes up with them in anyway. Landlords have also vowed never to rent their accommodation to any Nigerian.

In this write up, I have decided to name the main character as Akoto Lante-Samaritan because what he did for a Nigerian who was allegedly caught stealing a mobile phone in the area, is similar to what the biblical Samaritan did for the Jewish who was left helpless after being beaten for a crime we were not told about.

The Akoto Lante -Samaritan

Like Bukom and the other aforementioned communities, any first time visitor to Akoto Lante would write the place off as not capable of producing any morally upright person.

The reason is that, the youth are typically illiterate or semi-literate and highly susceptible to various crimes, having been brought up in the slummy neighbourhood.

But here is what you may not know. The famous Dag Heward Mills, has his antecedents from Agbado/Okpongor bu.  Also, Hon. Nii Lante Vanderpuiye, the renowned broadcaster and incumbent Member of Parliament for the Odododiodoo Constituency, hails from the area. Not to mention, Barima Azumah Zoomzoom Nelson, Braimah Kamoko (Bukom Banku), Ike Bazooka Quartey, D.K. Poison etc who have demonstrated that something good can come from Ga Mashie.

The latest to raise the flag of Akoto Lante high is the man I have christened Akoto Lante –Samaritan, whose voice is the only identity available for now, on a video that went viral in May. He is believed to be an opinion leader in the community.

But for him, the 22-year-old Nigerian, Aliu John, could have suffered an instant justice for the theft which took place on Saturday, May 13. In a characteristic deep-voiced male Ga intonation, the Akoto Lante –Samaritan could be heard telling his compatriots to stop beating the alleged phone thief.

Instead, he led them to take the stealer to the most filthily choked gutter in the area.  Here is how myjoyonline.com reported the incident; “He was given protective boots and a shovel to aid him in undertaking the task. To prevent him from escaping, his waist was tied with a thick rope held at one end by a man all through the cleaning task.

Instead of handing him over to the Police, the residents asked the youngman to clean a dirty gutter in the locality, after which they served him four balls of banku with fish, a bottled water and a drink of his choice.”

From Eric's Diary: The Akoto Lante-Samaritan and the advocacy to decriminalise petty offences
Aliu John

This issue caught my attention because first, it is news to me that a typical ‘Akoto Lantean’ will choose to be this nice to a thief. Alas, civilization has evolved and my Akoto Lante compatriots have not been left behind. Forget about the fact that the Akoto Lante –Samaritan was a lone voice. Remember the fact that he got his people to do what for me, is the lesser of two evils- instant justice, to wit: illegally subjecting a suspect to punishment. They could have lynched him you know!

There is no doubt that what he led the mob to do amounted to taking the law into their own hands, but in an innovative way.

Is this commendable or condemnable? I will return to it presently.

The advocacy to decriminalize petty offences

What is intriguing though, is that the incident happened on Saturday. On Sunday, May 14, The Law on JoyNews channel discussed the need to decriminalize petty offences in Ghana.

Petty offences, according to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, are minor offences for which the punishment is prescribed by law to attract a warning, community service, a low-value fine, or a short term of imprisonment, often for failure to pay the fine. However, in Ghana, there is no law prescribing community service.

The Host of The Law, Mr. Samson Lardy Anyenini has since joined a group of Lawyers and human rights advocates to champion the cause that would ensure that persons who commit minor offences are made to serve the community rather than being incarcerated.

Currently, these acts of omission and commission are considered minor offences; being a vagabond, idling, loitering, begging, failure to pay debts, being a common nuisance and disobedience to parents; causing a public nuisance, hawking and vending, urinating in public and washing clothes in public. 

What this means is that if you engage in any of the above, you are fined. In lieu of payment of the fine, you go to jail.

On The Law show aforementioned, the Director of Programmes, Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, Mr. Edmund Foley made a revealing statement, “As the economic circumstances become more and more difficult for the ordinary man, people are committing crimes not as social defiance, but simply because they are too poor to take care of themselves.”

For him, the way forward is “decriminalisation of certain offences, particularly those described as petty offences.”

For me, his suggestion is important because with the status quo, we imprison these persons and spend scarce state resources to feed them, not to mention the congestion in our prisons.

“Steal two tubers of yam and you are going to sit in prison. We need to ask ourselves as a nation why we should continue to spend that GHC1.80 for three years on that person,” Mr. Foley quipped.

Instead, he recommended that “get the person to go sweep the street or go and plant the yam. Sort of get them to do something more productive than to incarcerate them and spend money on them in prison.”

When I heard Mr. Foley, I felt very sad. I soliloquized, ’so all the people we have been paying at the Ministry of Justice and Attorney-General’s Department have sat down all these years without realising the need to do what Mr. Foley has suggested?’ How?

The Director of the Africa Office of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Madam Mina Mensah, who was also a panelist on the show, made things worse for me,  “a lot of these laws are targeted at the poor; not deliberately, but by their nature.  It is normally the poor that you find doing some of these things. It’s only a poor person, who will go on the street to beg, and sometimes for people who even sell in places that they’re not supposed to sell, for people who loiter around, you would hardly find somebody who has money just walking around, he’ll go to a recreational centre,” she said.

Her second bite at the cherry was heart-wrenching, “I always say that the state tends to punish its citizens when the state is not doing what it ought to do in the first place. If the structures were in place, people will not go out there to sell. Unfortunately, the structures are not there, we do not have social structures, our markets are not properly set out, and they are congested so people will do that.” Hmmm! Is all I could utter upon hearing Madam Mensah.

Community service as the way to go

Since then, the producers of The Law on JoyNews, have been at this advocacy for the decriminalisation of petty offences. Thankfully, the call for a resort to community service by petty offenders has fallen on hearing ears.

So, on 26th June, 2022, Deputy Attorney-General, Alfred Tuah-Yeboah was hosted. And he had good tidings of great joy for the advocates. “The Ministry of Justice has plans of establishing a community service structure for persons found culpable of minor crimes. In fact, it is going to be run throughout the country so we need to have the structure at the national level, regional level and district level…depending on the case the Judge can decide that looking at what this accused person has done, it will be in his interest and that of the state for him to do community service.”

On July 7, 2022, he had an update for all who are concerned while speaking on the Super Morning Show on Joy FM, “Now we have the draft Bill. What is left is stakeholder consultation. Thereafter, we will have the final draft which will be placed before the cabinet for approval before it goes to Parliament. From where we are now, within the next 60 days plus, I think it should be able to go through some of the consultations,” he promised.

This is long overdue. Won’t you say? I hope it will be treated under certificate of urgency when it is put before the representatives of the people- Parliament.

It’s time to go

Evidently, the Community Service Bill, if passed into law will offer an alternative to custodial sentencing for petty offenders. It will also save the state millions of cedis which can be put to alternative use.

Hmm Ghana! Somebody steals a goat, which costs about GHC400, because he is poor. You fine him GHC400, he is unable to pay because he is poor. So you sentence him to three years imprisonment. While in prison, you feed him with a state provided amount of GHC1.80 a day×365days ×3=GHC1,970.00. When he is ill, you pay doctors and nurses at the infirmary to take care of him, not to mention the free accommodation, water and electricity that he/she may use while in custody. Why?

I get the feeling some of these poor convicts may feel sad and possibly refuse to get out of jail when their period of incarceration ends. If I were in their shoes, the question I would ask myself is, “where will I get money to feed, clothe and accommodate myself in these difficult times?

No wonder some of them are repeated offenders. Yes, because if they come out, without any job, they will idle/loiter and beg for money or food. Because they don’t work, they will owe debts. Indeed they will pose a nuisance to many people. And when it is time to urinate, they will do it in public. Those who may be lucky enough to have support from family may go into hawking. But all these are offences.

Indeed, “…the state tends to punish its citizens when the state is not doing what it ought to do in the first place.”- Mina Mensah.

Well! Under the forthcoming dispensation, persons convicted of minor crimes will render unpaid public work within a community for a period not exceeding the term of imprisonment for which the court has sentenced them.

This is clearly a better option to imprisonment. With community service, the congestion in our prisons will definitely be a thing of the past.

What beats my mind though is how an ordinary law-illiterate resident of Akoto-Lante could think and act instantaneously on using community service for a phone thief while those we pay to think about our penal justice system enjoy the pecks of their office while supervising a cos-90 colonial relic of a law on petty offences.  Why should it take us this long to do what is obviously a better option. Eh?

It goes without saying, therefore, that the Akotol Lante Samaritan has offered a shining example of how we can make community service work. I therefore have no doubt that his line of action is commendable.

What he did was reformative instead of punitive. He thought the Nigerian petty offender about the biblical dictate, “thou shall not steal’ and in a Christ-like fashion told him to “go and sin no more”.

The time to implement community service as punishment for petty offences is now. ‘No long things’ Hon. Bagbin and co.

Urabeho Nawe – That’s goodbye in Rwandese language.

Let God lead. Follow Him directly, not through any human.

The writer works at Myjoyonline.com. He is also an author of two books whose contents share knowledge on how anyone desirous of writing like him can do so. Eric can be reached via email eric.mensah-ayettey@myjoyonline.com

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.