The legislator for North Tongu has called on Ghanaians to resist what he describes as attempts by government to use coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to snoop on private conversations over the phone.

Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa’s concerns follow reports that the National Communications Authority (NCA) is taking advantage of the emergency laws recently passed by Parliament to demand phone records of Ghanaians and mobile money details among others

Since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in the country, the Ghana Health Service (GHS) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health has enhanced contact tracing to identify people who have been in contact with infected persons to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

This includes the employment of technology to facilitate the process.

As part of measures to curb the pandemic, Parliament passed a new emergency laws under an Executive Instrument (EI 63),.

Per section 100 of EI 63, the president could assume direct control of the telcos and determine their operations, a power which is unconstitutional and illegal, according to private legal practitioner Samson Lardi Anyenini

In an episode of JoyNews’ Newsfile on April 4, 2020, Mr Anyenini explained that “All your mobile money data, transaction and wallet details, merchant code, bank details – practically your every private transaction details the telcos are being compelled to disclose to the government”.

On the back of this development, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa in a statement Saturday said he “getting increasingly alarmed by the subtle authoritarianism and disregard for personal liberties emerging during this pandemic.”

“The telcos must stand firm and not bow to pressure to submit unhashed Mobile Money data and a dump of merchant codes to Government. How does info on MoMo transactions reasonably help us fight the pandemic?” he quizzed.

Ghana’s case count of coronavirus currently stands at 408 with 8 deaths and four recoveries.

Mr Ablakwa also had some other recommendations for the government as it races against time to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the country including expenditure cutes and care for all citizens home and abroad.

Read full statement below.

RESPONDING TO COVID-19 AND THE LESSONS FROM NEXT DOOR

As many countries, particularly those on the African continent implement a raft of interventions to mitigate against the adverse social and economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we should want to learn a few important lessons from best practice even as I believe we may also have done a few things right which others may want to learn from. A few reflections are discussed below:

1) Cash transfers are superior to providing free meals

Ghana has planned to provide free meals to some 400,000 vulnerable Ghanaians at a cost of ¢40million.

First of all, it is unclear how Government came by the number 400,000 as our enquiries in Parliament yielded no convincing response. Means testing and appropriate targeting based on a sound criteria should not be sacrificed at a time like this when we must ensure that the intervention truly gets to the intended recipients. Data is available to guide us only if we are willing to be guided. For example the data used to administer LEAP.

That acknowledged, in my candid opinion – cash transfers are far better than providing meals. Cash grants engender accountability, they are more effective, they are not subject to the profit interest of caterers and food distributors and during a pandemic like this one where social distancing is critical in the prevention of further spread – mass food distribution really can become a catalyst for worsening the pandemic.

By February 29, 2020, the Federal Government of Nigeria had identified 10,695,360 individuals in 35 states across that country as the poorest and most vulnerable Nigerians deserving of direct cash transfers.

In Zimbabwe, Government announced on March 30, 2020 that it had budgeted over $600 million to cover one million vulnerable households under a cash transfer programme for the next three months.

Cash transfers are more accountable as there can be concrete evidence of those who have indeed benefited.

Cash transfers also have the added advantage of preventing the breach of social distancing protocols that come with risky crowds associated with mass food distribution. We have already seen disturbing pictures from similar food distribution events. We should not be spreading the pandemic in the name of feeding the poor.

The Bank of Ghana reported last year that the total number of registered mobile money accounts as at the end of December 2018 increased to 32.55 million compared to the 23.95 million recorded at the end of December 2017.

Obviously there can be no justification for refusing to leverage this opportunity. For the few who may not have MoMo accounts, they can sign for their funds at respective local assemblies. Transparency and adherence to containment protocols should be paramount in our considerations.

We are also aware of our history as a country where the craze for supernormal profits have led to some private sector operators exploiting the poor. I don’t want to remind readers of what happened under the various youth employment models under successive governments.

Cash transfers will eliminate this threat. We in North Tongu opted for this option to offer cash grants to our vulnerable constituents in affected lockdown areas and so far the impact has been phenomenal.

It shouldn’t be too late for the Akuffo-Addo administration to rethink this. We may just end up enriching food contractors at the expense of the poor and hungry. There’s no appetite for new scandals in the not too distant future.

When we opt for cash transfers, it will compel us to use data to really target the marginalized. This will create a fairer system where more marginalized groups like the physically challenged would not have to compete with their stronger counterparts in a scramble for food.

Cash transfers also empower the poor with choice as they can decide how much they spend on food and other unique individual needs.

2) Strong Regulatory Regime over Moral Suasion

Price gouging also known in local parlance as “kalabule” is now terribly out of control.

What started with hand sanitizers, Veronica buckets, face masks and infra red gun thermometers has now engulfed virtually every point of economic activity. Food in the market is now priced beyond the average Ghanaian. Medical supplies in pharmacies have seen an outrageous spike in prices.

Here too, Rwanda shows the way. With an anti price gouging law, some 44 companies engaged in mindless price hiking have been fined to the tune of 3.81 million Rwandan Francs.

The active state has intervened in the market ensuring that the ugly side of Laissez-faire does not drive more people into starvation and destitution much faster than the pandemic.

Ghana should take a leaf. Moral suasion alone won’t help seeing that economic exploiters continue to do damage unabashedly in a country where we like to flaunt our religious credentials more by words than deeds.

3) Data to the Rescue

There is no doubt that the cost of telecommunications in Ghana is one of the highest on the continent. The recent 50% increase in the Communications Service Tax which the telcos swiftly transferred to customers have exacerbated matters.

Lockdowns naturally demand higher use of data as many more people work from home, others need data to fend off boredom and also strive to be socially connected in an era of great isolation. In addition, with schools closed leaving pupils and students to the necessity of virtual learning environments, the current cost of data cannot be allowed to stand.

Uganda and Cameroon offer shining examples in this regard. The telcos in those two African countries have waived charges on MoMo transactions, offered free channels for credible information on the pandemic and most interestingly they have operationlised amazing day-time data bundle reductions. If Uganda and Cameroon can do all these, Ghana can also do it.

The Ghanaian Government must intervene NOW, at least by abolishing the 50% CST as former President Mahama has passionately advocated.

4) Expenditure Cuts

This is an area I have already written and spoken quite extensively about so I do not intend to belabour the point especially when we have for now successfully caused Government to backtrack on her earlier intentions to deplete the Ghana Heritage Fund.

It is worth remembering that the first major intervention by the Uhuru Kenyatta-led administration in Kenya was to announce major expenditure cuts including an announcement by President Kenyatta that himself and deputy Ruto will forgo 80% of their salaries whiles Cabinet Secretaries and Chief Administrative Secretaries will take 30% pay cuts each and 20% for Permanent Secretaries.

In Rwanda, there would be no April salaries for President Kagame and his entire Cabinet.

Many Governments are putting prestige projects on hold.

In Ghana, however, the Electoral Commission is determined with the blessing of our Government to blow in excess of a whopping GHS500 million to compile a needless and wasteful new Voter’s Register when that money can be saved to provide adequate PPEs for our health workers and buy ventilators to at least exceed the current number of Ministers.

5) Care for all citizens either home or abroad

Nations all over the world including those on our continent are looking out for their citizens regardless of which part of the world they are.

In Ghana, the final repatriation flight to the United States of America leaves Accra in the week of April 13. Many other European and Asian nations have concluded their repatriations.

Kenya before closing its borders offered a complimentary one-way ticket on Kenya Airways to all its nationals desirous of returning to the motherland.

Many other African countries not limited to Nigeria, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia have embarked on one kind of evacuation or the other.

Ghana appears to be the only country where we are being constantly told to praise the President for abandoning our students in Wuhan.

With all due respect, if we won’t empathize with and apologize to these students for what we put them through in their time of need, Government propagandists should spare them the constant reminder of their ordeal. The joke has become really sour.

6) Democracy Should not contract the coronavirus

I am getting increasingly alarmed by the subtle authoritarianism and disregard for personal liberties emerging during this pandemic.

No doubt these times call for decisive leadership but as Nobel laureate in Economics Amartya Sen points out succinctly in an article published in The Indian Express two days ago, “in contrast, what is needed for dealing with a social calamity is participatory governance and alert public discussion.”

We must resist attempts by the Government to hide behind the pandemic to listen to our phone calls.

The telcos must stand firm and not bow to pressure to submit unhashed Mobile Money data and a dump of merchant codes to Government. How does info on MoMo transactions reasonably help us fight the pandemic?

Parliament is the bastion of any democracy and if parliament is muzzled more so by the Speaker who must jealously guard fundamental constitutional rights, then we know we are in big trouble.

Speaker Aaron Mike Oquaye’s totally unconstitutional conduct in suspending Parliament and carrying the mace along with him in flagrant violation of our Standing Orders is most reprehensible as it sets a dangerous precedent for future despots.

Those seeking to use the pandemic as a ruse to postpone the December 7, 2020 elections must be utterly condemned and recommended for even more urgent treatment and isolation than coronavirus patients.

As the UN has warned, fighting the pandemic should not become pretext for authoritarianism to get a foothold.

May our democracy be preserved and may we win this war against the corona devil.

I extend heartfelt condolences to all those mourning the loss of loved ones including the medical fraternity and immediate family of renowned physician and rector of the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons, Professor Jacob Plange-Rhule. We continue to pray for our gallant health workers who are the real heroes of this war.

Special Easter greetings to you all. May the resurrection power of Christ heal our land and help us rise from the ashes.

Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa

[MP, North Tongu

Ranking Member, Committee on Foreign Affairs]