In June 2016, I published a story about a “gift” that had been given to President John Dramani Mahama by a Burkinabe contractor, Mr. Djibril Kanazoe, in 2012. The contractor, who had benefitted from controversial contracts from the government of Ghana, gave our President a Ford Expedition Station Wagon.
As part of my research for the story, I wanted to know best practices on how gifts to state officials were handled. A Google search took me to the website of the protocol department of the US Department of State. Officials of the United States are required to declare gifts they receive. I discovered that gifts received by federal (state) officials were declared, valued, and the reasons the officials accepted the gifts were stated. When six US officials received a military helicopter ride to visit a sites in Gabon in 2015 as part of an official visit, they declared it and had it published.
Every year, the gifts are compiled and published on the website of the department of state for everyone to see. This means it is possible for a child who will be born in Bunkpurugu in northern Ghana in 2070 to know exactly what Ghana presented to Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Mrs. Trump without any hindrance. You can get that information on your phone once the gifts for year under review is published.
In Ghana, no such record is known to anyone. It is impossible to know.
The declaration of gifts is, however, not our main problem. Our main worry is that we don’t know how our taxes are used. Contracts that are signed with the taxpayers’ money are treated like the nuclear code.
That’s why we now want parliament to pass the Right to Information (RTI) Bill. The constitution grants us the right to know. But the piece of legislation to enable that right has been kept in parliament to gather dust. The parliamentarians have refused to pass it for nearly 20 years now.
We simply want to know how much the construction of our roads and markets costs and what the contractors are supposed to provide so we can monitor and ensure value for money. Those who think the RTI is for the media and inquisitive public would be surprised to know that some public officers such as ministers of state also need it badly.
President Nana Akufo-Addo’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Ms. Gloria Akuffo, is being pressured to prosecute corruption cases, but she is denied documents and information by her fellow ministers and state officials. That’s a subject for another Folder, but it’s the sad truth. The Special Prosecutor was recently quoted saying ministries, departments and agencies were hiding vital documents and information from his office.
The District Chief Executive of Bongo and the Metropolitan Chief Executive of Tema do not know that three separate payments are made to the same company for one fumigation contract shabbily executed in their assemblies. These officials are not ordinary citizens. They represent the President of the Republic of Ghana in their respective assemblies. But they lack information.
The members of parliament who make laws and scrutinise contracts on behalf of the people must do so from informed positions. They must have access to information in order to make sensible laws and approve conscionable contracts. But they often complain that government keeps vital information from them.
When there were serious issues with the Kelni-GVG contract and parliament invited the Communications Minister, she appeared without the contracts and procurement details. She practically made mockery of the House. She even had the comfort and presence of mind to sing. After that, she left and the people’s representatives could not tell us anything sensible about why they invited her and what they had achieved. A civil society group had to go to court in order to get details of the contract.
The Right to Information Law is not for journalists alone. It’s not for civil society alone. The President and his cabinet and parliamentarians and other officials of state stand to benefit greatly when a CREDIBLE Right to Information Law is passed and enforced.
President Akufo-Addo told us the RTI Bill would be passed into law before parliament rose from its last sitting. That deadline was not met. The MPs themselves have given countless deadlines in the past, but failed to meet them. For the past two decades, the Right to Information Bill has been treated like ancient leprosy. No one wants to touch it.
The most disturbing aspect of the RTI tragedy is the position taken by some MPs such as K.T. Hammond of Adansi Asokwa. He is vehemently opposed to the Right to Information Law. His view is that passage of the law would cause governance to grind to a halt because there would not be any secret. Listening to him speak on the RTI, I felt he was too ignorant to be in parliament.
Mr. MP, the RTI is not going force you to disclose how you sleep with your wife or your girlfriend. We are not interested in the number of concubines you have. The RTI is not going to ask you to disclose what you do with your salary. It has nothing to do with how you run your household or use your own resources.
The RTI is simply going to ensure that you and the officials who serve in government give the people who elected you information on how you use their resources and how you govern the nation. This is not something that should have generated a debate and pressure in the first place. That information is not your property. It is not for your father. It is not for your mother. You don’t have any power to keep that information from the people because the constitution is superior to whatever power you think you have. The power you wield, if any, belongs to the very people asking for the information. You are there to serve the people. And the people want a law. You cannot say you won’t give it to them.
Two years ago, a certain man named Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo was begging people to vote for him. When I asked him in an article to stop begging and tell us what he had to offer, he retorted sharply that he would not stop begging. He said power belonged to the people and if he needed that power, he ought to beg them. This means the president is a powerless man without the mandate of the people. So are you, Mr. MP.
It is only sane that the one who votes for you and pays you with his or her tax and gives you resources to run the state on his or her behalf gets to know how you use that tax. They want to know how you allocate resources and the deals you do on their behalf. You are not doing them any favour. The constitution, which guarantees your position, also gives the people the right to know.
And Mr. President, I have lived long enough to know that if you want a bill passed into law next week, you can get your majority members in parliament to do that. Many such bills get hurried through the house when the government has special interest.
We are not asking you to hurry the RTI Bill through the House of parliament. It has been nearly 20 years. We have waited for too long and passing the RTI will not amount to a rush. You have promised us on many occasions, both as an opposition leader and now President of the Republic. Failure to get the bill passed will mean you have lied. And a liar cannot be called a man of integrity.
Parliament or the government is not a den of thieves, whose activities ought to be shrouded in secrecy. It is a place occupied by supposedly honourable men and women chosen by the people to represent them. What they do must, therefore, be open and known to the people who put the officials there. This is non-negotiable.
A parliament that cannot pass the laws its constituents need is a useless parliament. And the parliament of Ghana must use this opportunity to prove to its people that it is relevant.
The writer, Manasseh Azure Awuni, is a journalist with Joy 99.7 FM. He is the author of two books, “Voice of Conscience” and “Letters to My Future Wife”. His email address is email@example.com. The views expressed in this article are his personal opinions and do not reflect, in any form or shape, those of The Multimedia Group, where he works.