State structures in African countries are often inhabited by officials who rather line their pockets and please those above them than render a service to the public. But some public servants swim upstream, trying their best to do a good job even where those in power don’t want them to. In turn they risk getting fired, smeared and even shot at. An investigation by the African Investigative Publishing Collective in partnership with ZAM in Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria highlights how courageous civil servants fight criminal syndicates and plunder.
The fish rots from the head
High Court clerk Charles Twum used to object to the corruption he saw around him in the office. At his work place, a court in one of Accra’s districts, bribery of judges by suspects was common and one was supposed to participate in the practice. Money offered by suspects’ friends or families should be accepted and a meeting with the judge should be facilitated, so that the suspect could get off lightly or have his case thrown out altogether. Twum, in his own words, “always argued with the colleagues there who were abusing our code of conduct in this way.”
His colleagues started to see him as a problem and started countering his accusations with accusations of their own. “They said that I was coming to the office late. Or I wasn’t dressing properly. Or I was disrespecting other staff.” A ‘report’ about him -which he was never allowed to see-, led him to be suspended for a while. During that time he was also attacked in the street. “I was returning from work late when all of a sudden I saw two well-built guys approaching me. I decided to run but it was too late, they just grabbed me and assaulted me mercilessly. They kept asking me why I put “stones into the food” of “his lordship.” His lordship was the judge.
“THEY SAID FLATLY THAT I WAS LYING AND THAT I SHOULD KEEP QUIET”
Reporting to the police in Forsua, where he lived, did not help. “They asked me to provide evidence that the men were sent by the judge, but there had been no witnesses.” The court authority didn’t listen either. “I was told flatly that I was lying and that I should keep quiet.”
Twum finally had to leave the work place and quested from job to job for years. Until he finally got a transfer to Kumasi, where the court seems to be working much better. “The Judge here isn't corrupt. He is passionate about the justice system.” Ending his story, Twum’s voice briefly breaks up: “When I got here, my torment stopped.”
Anas Aremeyaw Anas and his Tiger Eye team have met Charles Twum during their recent undercover investigation (1) into corruption in Ghana’s courts. They know that Twum is not lying. They have come with wads of money, catching corrupt bribe-takers on undercover camera, but they got nowhere with Twum (2). Twum, and others like him, have formed the starting point for this new investigation into the motivations –and the prospects- of those who don’t want their countries to be corrupt.
Unlike Twum, Cynthia Abbey Jacobs has succumbed to the corrupt environment in the court where she works. “I used to detest corruption. So when I started work, for a while, I fought (the propositions of) some of my colleagues. But I became isolated.” Being called all kinds of names –Madam-Knows-Too-Much, Judicial Owner, Ms Right, Saboteur, among others- and avoided by her colleagues , she felt she could lose her job if she continued to refuse to fit in. “Some of my colleagues told me to my face that I would not be long in the service. I was told by one registrar that he’ll make sure thugs dealt with me severely if I ever told anyone about the corruption. I just had to join the bandwagon.” By the time Jacobs got to Kasoa, where she was caught on undercover camera accepting a bribe, she had become ‘used to the game.’
“I WAS TOLD THUGS WOULD DEAL WITH ME SEVERELY”
Asked why she couldn't report what she was seeing to the Chief Justice or even the police, Jacobs responded that "it is not easy to fight against people you work with. You could forget about your job. And there are no jobs in Ghana.” But she maintains she would much prefer the system to be corruption-free and work in a ‘good’ court. “I only made some small cash and I am ashamed.”
If one thing became clear during Anas Aremeyaw Anas’ investigation, it is that the fish rots from the head. Badly run courts under corrupt judges attract people like Philips Achamus, for example, an interpreter in a Kintampo district court. Achamus routinely takes bribes. “Sometimes we don’t receive salaries for months. We need those small monies in order to survive.”
In contrast, well-run courts attract civil servants like Charles Twum and his colleague, senior usher Abigail (she doesn’t want her surname to be published). "When I came into the system I was made to believe that you have to become corrupt. Until I started work here (in Lapaz district court in Accra, ed.) The salary is very poor, but service to my nation is enough remuneration for me.” She feels inspired by the judge who runs her court. “She is highly incorruptible."
Fighting a ghost
For Ndidi Okafor, it started with having to fight a ghost. By training a journalist, she worked as a staff member of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in a ward in Ekiti State. During the preparations for the governorship election in that federal state in 2009, she noticed that among the staff posted as presiding officers at local voting stations was a dead person: former INEC staff member Mrs Shittu Alamu, whom she knew to be deceased, had been assigned to conduct the election at a Primary School in the Ido Osi local government area. Okafor reported to her boss that this was surely a mistake. But the boss was not happy with her intervention. “Ask less questions,” he said.
But Okafor was the head of sixteen polling units in that particular area, and was to be held accountable if things should go wrong. In this particular ward there were a total of 6,923 registered voters. With a ‘ghost’ as presiding officer, these votes might well all go to the ruling party. Okafor insisted and the ‘ghost’ presiding officer was replaced by a living one.
Next, it turned out that, at the same location, there was no voter register. Again, Okafor reported to her boss, only to be told to “Go and manage it.” Upon asking how exactly she should ‘manage’ this,’ the boss rebuked her. “Commissioner Chukwuani -the head of legal and personnel department at the headquarters of the electoral body- will deal with you in Abuja for all these things you are saying,” he said. This notwithstanding, a manual register was produced.
THE BOSS ASKED FOR ELECTION RESULTS, KNOWING FULL WELL THERE HAD BEEN NO VOTING
But it was still not over. On the day of the elections, 25 April 2009, the presiding officer and the poll clerk at another polling station in the Ido Osi Local Government Area, were kidnapped by thugs. The ballot papers and result sheets for the five hundred voters in the unit were carted away before any voting could take place. Okafor’s subsequent refusal to report results from that area –how could she report results if there had been no voting?- led to numerous telephonic threats. She had to be escorted from and to INEC’s office by security agents for days. Another shock came when the boss asked her for the results from that polling unit, knowing full well that there had been no voting. Why didn’t she simply ‘write out results’ by herself, he asked. The conversation ended with the same refrain. “Commissioner Chukwuani will not be happy with you.”
When Chukwuani was invoked for the third time, it was to be the last. This time, it was because of Okafor’s refusal to replace genuine election results from Ado-Ekiti, the state capital, with ‘freshly generated’ ones. A voice on the phone had said that the earlier election results were destroyed in a fire in the electoral office and that she should therefore accept ‘fresh’ ones. But she knew that there had been no fire. And even if that happened, where did they now come up with ‘fresh’ ones? “I will never sign any fake results,” she had said. It was then that ‘Commissioner Chukwuani’ –or those close to him- had shown real unhappiness. She was told she was ‘disloyal’ and transferred to far away Plateau State.
“JUST EXCLUDE THESE PEOPLE FROM THE REGISTER, THEY ARE NOT OURS”
There, shortly after she had refused a request from a local Senator to exclude a certain ethnic group from the voter register (“They are not our people,” the Senator had said, offering her three million Naira, over US$ 15,000), gunmen attacked her vehicle on the highway. She escaped unhurt, but the car was damaged and her confidence shaken.
Cash and sex for good marks
2011, Abuja, Nigeria
As Ndidi Okafor was being tormented in Plateau State in the North, Professor James Omole, English lecturer at Abuja University, also battled to get his work place to do a proper job. The year 2011, to him, was the year where the university would finally take action against the rampant practice where lecturers accepted money or sex from students in exchange for good marks. One of the few male professors who routinely rejected female students’ offers of sex, and who was also known for never accepting envelopes containing wads of cash, he was now part of a small group of honest lecturers who had initiated a petition against fraudulent graduations. And he was getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of response from the university authorities.
Over a period of four years, some students had failed to pass between three and seven courses, but they were nevertheless being ‘unleashed on society as graduates’, as he put it. In one case, a student was believed to have been charged as much as 300,000 Naira (US$ 1500,-). Other cases centered around female students ‘paying’ with sex for higher marks.
OMOLE WAS ONE OF THE FEW PROFESSORS WHO ROUTINELY REJECTED OFFERS OF SEX
To Omole, this was symptomatic of the corruption in the entire state system in Nigeria as a machinery where paying for favours matters more than job competence (3). It had to be changed. The rules were all there (4). But no action had ever been taken by Abuja University on the matter. So he took it up with the Senate, the highest decision making body in the university. When, for a year, his letter remained unanswered, he finally wrote a formal complaint, accusing the Senate of remaining “complicitly silent on an academic controversy of a criminal nature.”
The Senate, now forced to call a meeting, became a stage for an attack on Omole. Several speakers accused him of challenging the moral and administrative authority of the Vice Chancellor. One of the Vice Chancellor’s supporters actually ran up to Omole intending to physically assault him. The man was stopped –but still nothing would be done about the issue for years.
September 2011, Plateau State
In Ndidi Okafor’s case, better leadership came sooner than expected. Media, citizen and opposition party protests had led to the departure of the notorious Commissioner Chukwuani from the Elections Commission. His successor, Professor Attahiru Jega, instituted an investigation into the Ekiti State election; Okafor was called back from Plateau State to testify; her evidence swayed the tribunal, which then overturned the election results. The opposition’s candidate, who had rightfully won the election, was sworn into power. On September 14, 2011, the Commission issued Okafor with a letter of commendation and she was promoted to the position of Deputy Director.
By the time Catherine Allen Kagina, commissioner of the Ugandan Revenue Authority, retired in November 2014, public regard for her performance was so high that she joined a very small group of public servants formally honoured by parliament. Unbeholden to powerful individuals, syndicates and practices within the tax organisation, the woman called ‘President Museveni’s golden girl’ had trimmed bloated departments from eleven to seven; done away with ‘permanent and pensionable’ employees (resulting in a twenty percent smaller bureaucracy) and technically improved systems, leading the manual-to-digital transformation of service provision at the tax office (5).
In this way, in ten years, the URA was transformed from “a den of thieves” (Museveni’s words), plagued by smuggling, under-valuation and under-declaration of income, to a sleek, efficient organisation. Revenue had shot up from US$ 1,05 billion in 2004 to US$ 2,4 billion in 2014. Uganda’s dependence on donor funding for its national budget shrank from about fifty per cent in 2004 to thirty-five per cent in the 2014-2015 financial year.
UGANDAN TAXPAYERS GAINED CONFIDENCE
An easy job it wasn’t. Kagina had made a point of being transparent, inviting public scrutiny from the media, and visiting places where health, academic and other state institutions were being constructed with government money, to show taxpayers that their money was being put to good use.
Throughout, she advocated for more good use: “Let’s invest in roads and power, not in consumption,” she famously said once, in a reference to salaries in the bloated government bureaucracy. Such statements gave Ugandan taxpayers confidence that at least someone in the government –otherwise riddled with corruption- was worrying about what that government was doing with their money.
Kagina was also not afraid to make enemies: in a speech at the end of her 20-year tenure at the tax authority’s Open Minds Forum in October 2014, she denounced the fact that corruption enquiries in the mid-nineties had gone nowhere in court, asking “what was the essence of (that) commission then? Perhaps by throwing the voluminous report away, the judiciary was sending us to die.” She also recounted then how she had done away with the system that worked on the basis of ‘signatures’ from individual people at the top of the revenue service. “These were a source of inefficiency and corruption. We devolved all power to the lowest tax administrators and the role of the rest of us top managers would be supervision (6).”
Protected by the President
One would be hard pressed, however, to find a real obstacle that was ever put in Kagina’s way, or a real risky moment where the people who had always had the ‘signatures’ could have kicked her out. The reason is simple: having been appointed by the highest office in the land, President Museveni himself, she could count on his protection throughout. Cynics in Uganda however counter that ‘M7’ wants the tax office to run well because it funds his government, and that he may not be as concerned about countering corruption elsewhere. On the other hand, as if to prove the critics wrong, Museveni has in recent years also appointed ‘silver bullet’ deployees to sort out other troubled institutions, such as the Kampala city administration.
A random couple of visits to tax offices shows that performance has stayed up even now that Kagina has left, and been succeeded by another ‘Museveni girl,’ Doris Akol. At Ugandan Revenue headquarters in Kampala, for example, we find computer firm director Bernard Wanyama in a very good mood indeed. “I came to sort out my tax matters and it was a breeze, much to my surprise!” Wanyama has nothing but praise for the lady who attended to him and “who was kind enough to teach me how to use the online system, amend my details and get my tax clearance certificates.” Wanyama later even more elatedly reports that “within hours of my visit at the office, I received an email with all the pending clearances I had almost given up on.”
Even in the offices in the rural areas, where one could hardly get anything done in the past, there is now efficient round-the-clock service. At Bibia on the Uganda-South Sudan border,- a remote area 430 kilometers north of Kampala with no grid electricity-, the URA office draws power from a solar system and a thermal generator. And at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, 370 kilometres west of Kampala, a neat two-roomed cottage houses four work stations in one room and two other stations for the managers in another. Each work station is a one-stop centre that takes care of a trader’s every need. Henry Bwambale, the chairman of the regional Mpondwe Clearing Agents Association, says the only challenges the traders face is the lack of internet. “When there is network, there is efficiency; customs officers will clear you. You will only get stranded when it’s not on,” he says.
Nigeria, Abuja University, 2015
With a new Vice-Chancellor in the University of Abuja, a new wind seems to be blowing there, too. “We are witnessing a change,” says Professor Omole. “Our new Vice-Chancellor has drummed it into the ears of lecturers that he will not entertain corruption and everybody is falling in line. Also, the new administration in Nigeria is fighting corruption headlong. Now, seven universities are under probe. Their finances and administration are being looked into. Also, lecturers are being dragged to courts over corrupt practices. With this the authorities will sit up.”
“OUR NEW VICE-CHANCELLOR IS NOT ENTERTAINING CORRUPTION”
Omole feels that social media are playing an important role in the change. “University lecturers who sleep with students are being shamed. We see secret recordings of such vices being uploaded on YouTube, scandalizing those lecturers. The culture of silence over sexual assaults is giving way. All these give us the feeling that corruption in the system will not continue for too long.”
INEC offices, Abuja, 2015
Looking for the Twums
The 2015 elections overseen by INEC under its new leadership have again been commended for being transparent and fair. Part of this success is based on technical improvements: a better voter registration system; the issuing of new ‘Permanent Voter’s Cards’ (PVC’s) and the use of electronic card readers to verify the authenticity of PVCs. Lastly, the use of additional finger print identification, linking the voter to the card and to the INEC’s registry, closes some last technical loopholes.(7)
But technology alone cannot combat the complex issues of the corruption. The transparency and efficiency of elections also depend on the calibre of employees in the institution. Which is why new elections chief Attahiru Jega is developing a recruitment system that targets educated officers with good service values to replace fired, corrupt officials. New job candidates will now not only be asked for their certificates, degrees and diplomas: much more credit will be given to integrity, efficiency and dedication. The system will, in short, look out for the Charles Twums and Ndidi Okafors.
This is precisely, critics of Ugandan president Museveni’s ‘golden girl’ approach say, what is still missing in that country. His appointment of Catherine Allen Kagina at the tax authority may have worked out well: a good manager at the top with a mandate from the highest office in the land clearly makes a big difference, but it is no systemic change. Like in Ghana’s ‘good’ courts, the result may be limited to temporary pockets of good service, dependent on one individual, at risk of ‘going bad’ again as soon as that individual goes. “What happens when Museveni exits? asks economist Ibrahim Mike Okumu of Makerere University. “We must develop a capable work force without depending on individuals from the president’s inner circle.”
“BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN MUSEVENI EXITS?”
Redeeming the judiciary
Ghana, December 2015
Twelve High Court judges have been suspended and twenty lower court judges sacked after Anas’ and Tiger Eye’s exposure of them taking bribes on undercover camera. "The judicial council is determined to take prompt, resolute and necessary measures to ensure the integrity of the judiciary and the judicial service," said Ghana's chief justice Georgina Wood of the decision to sack the guilty judges. "We are indeed fully committed to redeeming the image of the judiciary and the judicial service (8).”
“THE SYSTEM USED TO BE SUCH THAT YOU CAN’T FIGHT IT FROM WITHIN.”
Charles Twum is happier than ever before. “The system used to be such that you can't fight it from within and you dare not even talk about it,” he tells Anas. “Since you’ve come, now we can talk and address the problem.”
(2) Anas’ methods have been criticised as ‘entrapment’, most recently by lawyers acting for exposed corrupt judges. His answer to this is always that ‘extreme diseases require extreme remedies.’
(3) The same sentiments were explained by Professor Oyewale Tomori, head of Nigeria’s Acadey of Science, in an interview in November 2014. http://www.zammagazine.com/arena/169-it-s-not-poverty-that-is-to-blame-for-the-weak-african-responses-to-ebola-but-bad-leadership
(4) Section 16 Subsection 3 of the University of Abuja’s Establishment Act said that any lecturer who engages in a “conduct of a scandalous or other disgraceful nature which the Council considers to be such as to render the person concerned unfit to continue to hold his office…” shall be suspended from his duties or his appointment may be terminated by the Council.”
(5) This improvement was aided by DFID, the UK’s development aid agency: an example of how aid can be put to good use. It is not clear if a partnership with European Commission is presently useful to the tax service. Preliminary investigations indicate that since 2014, the EC https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/nip-uganda-fed11-2014_en.pdf is mainly financing activities in the ministry of finance and that the 'increasing domestic revenue collection' element is utilised within the finance and local government ministries. A reason for this may be that the Uganda Revenue Authority is now deemed to be functioning properly in the eyes of the EC. Sharon Zarb, spokesperson for the EC’s development programmes, commented that “The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) is a potential partner agency but has already been highly rated for its past reform efforts in the 2010-14 East African Bribery Index Report by Transparency International.”
(7) Funds for these technological improvements came from the European Commission’s European Development Fund https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/nip-nigeria-20140619_en.pdf; INEC sources indicate that they were very welcome indeed.
(8) The same European Development Fund promises to assist anti-corruption efforts in Ghana’s judiciary for the period 2014-2012, naming the High Court Complaints Unit as a stakeholder: http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/annex1-ad1-ghana-2015_en.pdf. Time was too short to follow up on this before publication of this investigation, but the team plans to do just that.
Ghana European Development Fund National Indicative Programme 2014, http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/nip-ghana-20140619_en.pdf
Nigeria European Development Fund National Indicative Programme 2014, https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/nip-nigeria-20140619_en.pdf
Uganda European Development Fund National Indicative Programme 2014,https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/nip-uganda-fed11-2014_en.pdf
Help from above, Kingsley O. Ologe, Abuja, Nigeria, 2011 http://www.authorhouse.co.uk/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000466125
Research by Memory Queen and O.P. Ajaja into corrupt tertiary institutions in Nigeria, 2010 file:///C:/Users/Evelyn/Downloads/9888-12107-1-PB.pdf