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Toothless tigers to tackle corruption

Ghana, one of Africa's most vibrant democracies, is plagued by corruption despite economic governance receiving high public attention. Charity Binka asks whether Ghanaian anti-corruption institutions are toothless tigers.

More than two decades ago, Yaa Bedu, a 50-year-old Ghanaian writer, developed complications during pregnancy and went to hospital. But the doctor on duty refused to treat her unless she paid a bribe of US$60 – more than her monthly income.

By this stage, she was in such severe pain that she did not think about the rights and wrongs of paying the bribe. "My life was more important than the money, so I just paid," she says. "But now I regret not reporting him."

Yaa Bedu could not report the doctor to anyone or to any institution because there was nowhere to make reports. In addition, because she had paid the doctor in cash it would have been difficult to prove the bribe.

Today, she feels little has changed.

"Corruption is everywhere. Some headmasters demand plots of land before admitting students to secondary schools. Ordinary Ghanaians, from journalists to government workers are guilty. It is worse in the ministries," says Yaa Bedu, visibly disturbed. She blames corruption on the low wages of the average Ghanaian worker, most of whom live on little more than a dollar a day.

Ghana Integrity Initiative, the local chapter of Transparency International, an organisation that highlights corruption worldwide, conducted a survey in 2005 of four cities in the south of the country. The report found that 70 per cent of respondents admitted they had been involved in bribery and corruption, either as victims or as perpetrators.

In addition, Ghana, like many other countries scored less than five points in Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index – indicating a high level of corruption. But most ordinary Ghanaians do not need surveys and indexes to tell them this.

There is little doubt that corruption undermines the quality of life in both rich and poor countries, but in a poor country like Ghana, it is also part of the cycle of poverty.

When Ghana's president, JA Kufuor declared "zero tolerance for corruption" in January 2001, most Ghanaians welcomed the announcement, disillusioned with years of corruption under the previous government, led by Jerry Rawlings.

Kufuor's administration immediately launched a high-profile campaign and established two anti-corruption institutions – the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) and the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). Their objective was to ensure "accountability and zero tolerance for corruption in both public and private sectors," in order to promote good governance.

But many people see the two institutions as mere window-dressing and lacking real power. There is a growing belief that the government no longer has the political will to prevent corruption.

Although they have dealt with several cases of fraud, critics say these were feeble attempts targeting small-scale fraud.

"They have their hands tied behind their backs," says Owusu Donkor, head of programmes at the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development. "The heads of the two institutions were appointed by the government and the institutions are funded by the government. This situation certainly poses a problem for checking corruption."

Neither of the institutions can enforce a decision without recourse to the courts and this, say anti-corruption campaigners, severely limits their power. They also point out that both organisations lack resources and financial autonomy. If they are to function effectively as instruments of accountability, critics say, they will need far greater resources, more independence and the power to prosecute.

Other Ghanaians argue that a vibrant civil society is just as important in the fight against corruption and must play a vital watchdog role. "If we stop talking and doing the advocacy work, the situation will become worse," says Reverend Fred Deegbe, chairman of the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition, which is made up of civil society groups.

However, ordinary Ghanaians are starting to show that they too can contribute to fighting corruption. Janet Odamettey, for example, decided she would rather go to court and risk a fine than pay a bribe to a police officer when she jumped a red light. She says that is her way of checking corruption among the police.

Reverend Deegbe does not think it is possible for corruption to be stopped by individuals alone. He says the government must ensure that independent institutions set up to fight corruption are well resourced and that ordinary people are empowered to hold their government to account.

"We elect people into power to enforce the laws and galvanise all of us to abide by the rules." He says. "People must know the rules. Rules must be clear and ethical standards must be known. The current system breeds corruption and the government has the responsibility to do something about it. Good governance is the key."

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