Life: Policing Ghana’s Police (or Encounters with the Mafia)

I’m sure everyone in Ghana has a horror story about an encounter with the Ghana Police Service. This isn’t my worst. Neither is it my latest.

It just needs to be said.

On a trip from Accra to Cape Coast in March with my girlfriend and her parents, the latter (who were visiting Ghana for the first time) asked me whether we have organized crime here. You know: anything along the lines of the Italian/American Mafia or Japan’s Yakuza. I initially laughed and said no. We definitely have armed crime, I explained, but – while some might say it is getting more organized – Ghana is yet to see anything that compares with the sheer scale and organization of the Mafia.

During our journey however, we encountered three sets of police patrols. As luck would have it, we drove past the first unit without any trouble. After that, however, the rest of our luck seemed to evaporate in the considerable afternoon heat as we were subsequently stopped by not one, but two patrols. 

The first time we were stopped, an officer waved a speed gun in our driver’s face. From what we could see, it simply read ’65’ (we were in a 50 zone). If there was a date and time at the bottom, we did not see it before the policewoman retracted the gun from our faces. Thereafter, we were parked for about half an hour while our driver – whose papers, triangle, extinguisher, seat belt, etc, etc were all in order – left the car (smiling) to argue with them that he had not exceeded the speed limit. The speed gun, however, said otherwise.  

Negotiations ensued. Our driver returned. His smile did not. I suspect that a few of the notes in his wallet also failed to make the return trip. Our journey continued. 

As though our trip was a Ghanaian movie with a sudden ‘Thanks Be to God. Look out for Part Two‘ break right in the middle of the story, we were stopped a few minutes later by a second patrol. This time, we didn’t even get to see the speed gun. This was fine as far as I was concerned: I knew we had not been over-speeding.

After a few minutes of watching our poor driver negotiate (and by negotiate, I really mean beg) the police officer, I turned to my guests and said:

“Earlier in our journey you asked me whether Ghana has organized crime and I told you we didn’t. I apologize for having lied to you. We do. We call them the Ghana Police Service.”

After that, I got out of the car, approached the policeman, and explained to him as diplomatically as I could that we had already been stopped, as a result of which we had been monitoring our speed, and there was not a chance that we were over-speeding.

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Laughing, the well-fed-looking officer smiled at me and asked me to relax and remain seated while he spoke with the taxi driver. After reasserting my point, I returned to the car. A few minutes later, the driver returned grimly to the car. Amazingly, he had gotten away with his notes intact.

The whole experience got me thinking well-well about this speed gun thing. My problem with it is a simple, common sense one:

  • There was nothing to indicate that it was our car that was over-speeding and not the one before it or after it.
  • There was nothing to show that the police officer had simply failed to reset the gun after having stopped someone else who had actually been over-speeding, whether minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or even years before.

All we – as citizens – have to go on is the fact that it is police officers waving these things in our faces and making  allegations. This is deeply problematic in a place in which the police are not trusted by the people.

Of course, I am not saying that every single police officer in Ghana is a criminal. I am sure that there are thousands hundreds tens of police officers across the country who are good, honest people; serious about doing their jobs to the best of their ability, in spite of all the frustrations they face from colleagues, from management and – let’s face it – from we, the people. Or maybe there are cops who are good some of the time and bad some of the time.

My girlfriend’s father explained to me that in the US, the court has a means of independently verifying the results from speed guns. Of course, to work here this would require violations to end up being settled in court, but this does not happen. This is something that we are all complicit in. By paying bribes, we do not allow the system to work. 

That said, I honestly suspect that a lot of our road laws (and the punishments meted out for failure to adhere to them) are simply impractical and need to be reviewed to take into account reality. If the system is – for example – set up to send people to court two or three regions away, then of COURSE it will be used as an excuse to extort people of money and OF COURSE people will pay. In formulating laws to break such bad habits up, you must begin on these assumptions and think more creatively about how to make fines work without bribes changing hands.

Unless there is some aspect to it that I am not privy to, the new system of spot fines seems to fail this test completely. It is as though Ghana Police Service’s senior officers are operating on the presumption that their subordinates will simply stop asking for bribes. Because management has asked them nicely or something.

Mtcheew.

I am a citizen of Ghana and I do not wish to needlessly antagonize our officers of the peace. That said, I issue this challenge to our Police Service: 

I say we look at the figures for accidents in Ghana before and after the introduction of these speed guns. If the number of road accidents has remained the same or increased since these guns were introduced, then taxpayer money has been wasted and someone in the police service should frankly be held to account. Maybe even publicly flogged. At the very least, this person should be charged for the cost of the guns (and taxpayers should be refunded for the money that has gone into police pockets for misuse of the guns). After the flogging and the refund, they should also be fired. The Minister who sat and watched this all happen should go too.

Even if the accident number has however dropped, there are several gaps in the law and procedure regarding the use of speed guns by the police that need to be plugged if we claim to be aspiring towards a better Ghana. Democracies that are better rooted than ours rely on separation of powers through various checks and balances to ensure that the State does not abuse or restrict the freedoms of its citizens. The State is – according to liberal theory – a necessary evil.

Yes oo: evil.

There is no inherent reason for us to trust our police force. In fact, even if by some miracle (and it would have to be a big TB Joshua-endorsed miracle or something) they earn our trust, there still need to be checks on them. This doesn’t just apply to Ghana: bad cops exist everywhere that there are cops. Hollywood has an entire sub-genre of films focused on the theme of the corrupt cop. I also remember the late, great philosopher, J Dilla‘s take on the subject too.

If I have written anything that is incorrect, I will gladly dedicate another blog post towards explaining how the speed gun system works and why it is in fact a fair system. After all, we could all benefit from such information. Going further, I will even dedicate more blog posts to other decent initiatives by the Police. I’m actually curious to know what good they do.

On the other hand, if any of my concerns are valid, then I suggest the Service puts its house in order. Before someone files a civil law suit or something.

Meanwhile, whether in my comments or on your own blogs, I invite you to share your stories – positive or negative – of your encounters with Ghana’s Police.

One Reply to “Life: Policing Ghana’s Police (or Encounters with the Mafia)”

  1. It happened the same to me, twice during my last stay in Ghana. Once it was because I had a camera hanged on my shoulder. This was during a night walk in Adabraka. There was this checkpoint and the policeman approached me trying to catch the camera charging me to had taken pictures, asking what I was doing there etc.
    The other episode happened on the way back from Western Region, and it is very similar to your case.

    Anyway here in Italy I passed through worse affairs for less. I think it’s important to share reflections and to analyze the role this experiences have in the more wide social perception of the police as a representative of the State.

    Like

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