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Ghana’s criminal justice system needs an overhaul
The Ghana national flag, center, flies in front of the Supreme Court building in the city of Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. Ghana's judicial service says seven high court judges have been suspended following corruption allegations by a journalist. In a statement released Monday, the Judicial Council said the decision was made following the judges' "stated misbehavior."

Ghana’s criminal justice system needs an overhaul

A friend of mine recently invited visitors to his Facebook page, to provide three suggestions to help halt a run-away problem emerging in Ghana: “What are your top 3 ideas for addressing the problem of mob (in) justice and extra judicial killings?”

He specifically said that he didn’t want people to simply click “like” or “don’t like”, but concrete suggestions that would be used to supporting work in the media and civil society. The suggestions flooded in fast and furious, given that nearly everyone has an opinion on one thing or the other.  The suggestions varied a little but their overall import highlighted on the need to have robust law enforcement institutions and for the laws to be strictly enforced.

My friend’s request must have stemmed from the horrendous lynching of a young army officer in Ghana in May in a rural town of Denkyira-Obuasi in the central region. The country’s civic institutions have also come under widespread vigilante lawless attacks and the new government that assumed power a little over six months ago has apparently fallen asleep at the wheels, unable to respond to repeated calls to do something about it. The case of the lynched army officer gained unprecedented media coverage nationwide perhaps, because the victim was a member of the security forces, since several cases of mob lynching in the past did not attract such public outcry.

The police need complete overhaul and dignity one of the contributors’ suggestions was: “The solution lies with the police. The lynching will continue if they treat victims as suspects”.

And that is the rub. Public opinion about the police in Ghana has fallen flat, viewed as people who are engaged with widespread bribery and extortion and little enthusiasm in their mandate to protect the public.

“The police are the first, and often the only, experience that people in the community have with the criminal justice system,” observes a 2007 report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), on accountability of the Ghana police.  But, “unfortunately, in Ghana this experience is marred by widespread corruption, illegal arrest and detention, excessive use of force and a failure to respond to complaints”.

According to my late cousin who was a police officer, “the very first day a police recruit reports to begin training is the day he learns to get corrupt”, he told me before he died. But why? Recruits at the police training school, he said, are coerced by an unwritten rule to buy food from the wives of senior police officers who operate food joints within the barracks.

These food vendors obviously maintain a register of names of the recruits that are ticked whenever they visit, effectively making them imprisoned customers without a right to make a preference or choice. Those who do not have the right tick by their names are earmarked for harsh retribution that could amount to anything from failing their exams to dismissal.

But what is a blatant abuse of power and extortion by senior police officers is interpreted as something to emulate when they go to begin work career police officers.

And the judiciary, too

However, the Ghana Police Force is not the only corrupt public sector institution in the country. Corruption in the judiciary, the other arm of the criminal justice, has long been an open secret until it was uncovered in a spectacular manner two years ago by a clandestine journalist. Nearly the whole of Ghana viewed an incriminating video recordings of judges who had pledged to “get criminals off the hook” after they had requested for and received bribes. They were 34 judges in all, including high court judges. The criminals had among them, armed robbers and murderers.

A country of leaders without moral authority

Thus, what has all along been mere perception in people’s minds has now been supported with concrete live exposé evidence of judiciary corruption. This situation has accentuated the crisis of authority that is slowly sinking the twin pillars holding together the criminal justice system – and possibly the entire political system. They still possess the trappings of formal authority symbolised by uniform, legal status and hierarchy of command within them, etc., but their moral authority has long evaporated.

However, it is a combination of moral and formal authority that enables democratic institutions to function. Leaders with moral authority inspire people; they also know that moral authority has to be earned, and effort spent to maintain it by the way the demonstrate leadership. The problem in Ghana is that there are few moral leaders. If I were to declare in public that I know some police officers who are not corrupt, in all certainty, I would be laughed off the premises because they cannot imagine what an incorrupt police officer looks like. The sad truth is, those few incorrupt police are side lined, mocked at and labelled as traitors.

The situation provides a perfect storm for mob lynching.  For instance, if a notorious criminal in the community who was arrested the previous day were seen strutting on the streets with his girlfriend hanging on his shoulders, would generate intense anger and dismay in that community.

The suspect may have been let out on bail that may have been perfectly legal but many ordinary people ever suspicious of the police, and not familiar with the bail system would interpret it as another case of a criminal having bribed his way out to not only cock-a-snook them, but also commit more crimes. The next time another crime suspect is caught the community would have nothing to do with the police anymore, and instead would devise their own solution.

All in all the criminal justice system in Ghana needs a profound overhaul but past governments have tiptoed around the issue like a cat around a bowl of hot porridge.

It was only in 1996 Ghana took a major step to reform the police force, when a Commission of enquiry, the Archer Commission was established to look in to policing.

The Archer Commission submitted a report with a wide-ranging set of suggested reforms, but unsurprisingly that report received a similar treatment given to all previous Government commissions – hurled onto a shelf in someone’s office in parliament to gather dust while nothing is heard of the recommendations.

Nevertheless, the Archer Commission did give one clear message about what needs to be done about the Ghana Police Force that would at least, raise their dignity worthy of men and women with the mandate to protect their fellow citizens.

“The present conditions of services [police] are deplorable. It is woefully undermined, ill-trained and ill-equipped. Its motivation is almost nil and its morale low”, said the Archer Commission.

Casca admonishes Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “Men at some time are their masters of their fate. The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.

With all the denunciations of “brutal act”, “barbaric act” after the murder of Major Mahama. That is not enough. Shine a little light on the kind of leadership that we have and it would reveal what lies behind those acts.

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