Anas Aremeyaw Anas
17 March 2011, New Crusading Guide
Tema Harbour is a commercial beehive, the economic nerve centre of Ghana on the shores of the Atlantic. Gallant men and women officials, resplendent in their uniform, complete with their berets embossed with the sacred Coat of Arms, walk around in apparently high morale. Businessmen in their tuxedoes and clearing agents crisscross, moving from office to office with an air of tenacious dedication. But some of these men in Ghana’s iconic harbour city are stealing.
Tema Harbour has been turned into a goldmine for greedy security officials who are threatening to strip the mine facility to satisfy their selfish ends. Many officers from CEPS, the Ghana Police Service, National Security and the Ghana Ports and Habours Authority scramble to possess a piece of the prize. Security officials collaborate with clearing agents to steal money belonging to the state.
These discoveries follow over three months of investigation by The New Crusading GUIDE into the operations of the Tema Harbour. Posing as a clearing agent under the name “Oblitey Sowah”, alias “Koose” from “Tiger Shipping agency”, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, together with a team of agents, obtained secret video footage on the daily cases of bribery and corruption that greet any importer or businessperson who calls at the port. Most importers are made to face the harsh realities of delays, payment of illegal fees, destruction and stealing of their goods as well as the sheer greed displayed by some security officers.
The investigations also brought to light multiple cases of bribery, corruption, stealing, several cases of collusion between security officials and clearing agents as well as loss of goods belonging to importers as a result of inadequate security measures at the facility. The investigation uncovered some of the worst forms of bribery and corruption, lack of professionalism and glaring examples of stealing by these security officials at the port.
Amidst all these corrupt activities, many agents have devised ways of adding the cost of bribe charges to the fees they usually charge importers. As a result, people who import goods into the country through the harbour go through unspeakable frustrations, not least the payment of huge sums of illegal charges which end up in the pockets of private individuals. In the process, it takes months to clear goods from the harbour. Sometimes, the nightmares of these importers are climaxed by the loss of their goods through theft or damages through mishandling. Over the years, there have been many reports of how unattractive the Harbour has become, with many importers channeling their frustrations through diverse ways. It is striking how very little has changed in the system.
The New Crusading GUIDE also got access into the Customs Electronic system – a repository of all transactions that go on at the port – where we found very worrying cases of tax exemptions and unrecovered debts owed to the state worth billions of cedis. It brought to the fore many cases of tax exemption offered in the name of the Office of the President over the years. Many other exemptions were given out to individuals and companies on condition of “Awaiting Parliamentary Approval”.
Here, we discovered that monies lost in bribery, corruption and some tax exemptions could help usher Ghana into an era of freedom from foreign donors.
DODGY “AWAITING PARLIAMENTARY APPROVAL”, THAT NEVER WENT TO PARLIAMENT
Many businessmen and friends of politicians have over the years used their association to parliamentarians to evade taxes whenever they clear goods from the Tema Harbour. These individuals sometimes import goods in their names for family members and their companies. Undoubtedly, the use of the name of parliament has resulted in the state losing millions of Cedis, as some government officials over the years deliberately abuse the system to clear goods for their business cronies.
Our checks also revealed that even when the code is used to clear genuine goods, the much-awaited parliamentary approval never comes to validate it. It was horrifying to realize that some of these people never went to parliament for approval.
Between March 2007 and December 2009, over GH¢ 900 million (close to US$ 600 million) worth of tax exemptions was granted to some individuals and institutions in the name of “Parliament”. These tax exemptions were given out for goods ranging from medical equipment, household items, educational items and vehicles; with beneficiaries across public and private entities. Further figures obtained between January and November 2010 indicate that approximately GH¢ 17.9 million was lost by the state as a result of these special permits in the name of Parliament.
Parliament is constitutionally mandated to handle all tax issues that border on finances. Part of Article 174(1) of the constitution under chapter 13, sub-headed “finance” states that “no taxation shall be imposed otherwise than by under the authority of an act of parliament”. In this light, no taxes can be levied on anybody unless it is done under an act of parliament.
Although exemptions are given for special reasons based on parliamentary approval, The New Crusading GUIDE found out that the system was being abused by some individuals and organizations who always use the name of parliament to evade taxes. For the past six years, Parliament does not have any record of some of these exemptions.
In an interview with The New Crusading GUIDE, Chairman of the Finance Committee in parliament, Hon. James Avedzi said although parliament has conferred the power of granting exemptions on the Ministry of Finance, it does not have an idea which individuals or organizations have been granted exemptions over these years.
“l have not seen anything like that as a deputy ranking member of the committee in 2007-2008 and as chairman from 2009 to 2010. l have not seen anything”, he admitted. Although he conceded that “the Ministry of Finance [is supposed] to do that on daily basis and report back to parliament after a period of time”. He was unable to state what period of time parliament is supposed to revise such exemptions.
When presented with the evidence of exemptions to institutions and individuals as we discovered on the Electronic system, Hon James Avedzi simply said, “l will not talk about the value that we have seen because l do not know what goes into that 18 million Ghana Cedis you are talking about but it is possible that there is something like that you can see from the system”.
Coming back from diaspora: your possessions disappear at Tema
Many Ghanaians leave the shores of the land to go and work in foreign lands in order to return someday to build a better life for their kith and kin. These men and women toil in sweatshops and endure harsh conditions in foreign lands just to provide for themselves and their families. They return to Ghana, their homeland, only to have their hopes dashed at the Tema harbour. Long held dreams are blown apart, as they are not able to get hold of their valuable possessions.
It usually is a tale of toil defeated by treachery, as Ghanaians who return from the diaspora are always greeted with the grim reality of seeing their hard-earned properties stolen and destroyed by men at the Tema Harbour. When this happens, they are treated by port officials with disrespect and heartlessness. It is assumed that these Ghanaians have a lot to spend, little time to stay and fight for their goods. They [goods] are never found, although they spend sums of money in wearisome clearing process. Many are distressed in the process; those who endure usually leave the shores of Ghana with sad songs about their beloved country. It is a disturbing cycle of evil trumping goodwill.
Becky Mensah is a Ghanaian-born philanthropist based in Canada. In January last year, Becky, with the help of some friends and benevolent institutions in Canada, collected some materials to help students of an educational institution in Cape Coast.
They shipped a 40-foot container loaded with educational materials, computers, sewing machines, food items and a boxful of household effects to help support Ghanaian school children.
Although the container, which was addressed in the name of the Paramount chief of Cape Coast, was originally destined for the Takoradi Harbour, it never arrived. Becky eventually had to travel from Canada to Ghana to locate it. After a long search, the container records were finally found at the Tema Harbour in June 2010.
She was asked by Port authorities to pay the necessary duties in order to have her container released. With the help of her agents, she paid the required fees, totaling about GHc 5000. Yet, it took another five months and a trip back to Ghana to see her container. When she finally got access to it in November 2010, it had been broken into, with almost half the humanitarian items stolen.
“When we got there, the customs officer checked without tag on our papers, the tag number and check the thing that closes the container, the seal that seals the container and the numbers did not match but the thing that was to my surprise was one of the carrier there just got closer to it and he just wiggled the thing and the whole thing opened”, she told The New Crusading GUIDE in an interview.
Among other things, three laptops, 800 stuffed backpacks for students, 68 bedspreads, 4 sewing machines, a boxful of household items and several bottles of water were stolen. Nobody gave her any answers and she had to make do with a half-empty container which she took to Cape Coast to support needy students. Becky has finally returned to Canada after this trouble with port authorities. In all, she lost goods worth over one 120,000 dollars.
When she approached security officials at the port, they refused to pay any attention to her. “I was actually shocked, but the customs guy never said a word. l started to complain to him and he just walked away”, she said with tearful eyes. “There was a group of them sitting under a tree and I said to them ‘will you guys help us’, they just stared at our face and didn’t say one word. It was so humiliating and painful, these people in uniform at the harbour, we their customers were standing there and saying ‘can you see what has happened to us’; our container is almost empty. But all four of them sat there and just stared at us as l looked on helplessly”.
Like Becky, countless individuals have harrowing tales of abuse they endure when they ship goods from various destinations to Ghana through the Tema port.
Emmanuel Ahulu, a Ghanaian who recently returned from Virginia in the United States of America also had a similar story. After shipping a brand new car, together with goods through the Tema Harbour, Emmanuel got to Ghana only to realize that all his goods were stolen and his car badly dented. This was after he had engaged the services of a clearing agent, done the necessary documentations and got assured that “things were under control”.
“Everything in the car actually was stolen. l couldn’t find anything, items that were bought and packed in the car actually in their brand new state – in boxes and in bags – everything was gone, nothing had been left”, he told The New Crusading GUIDE. “The car trunk was broken and they entered it and took every item that l brought”, he added.
When he approached port officials, Emmanuel was greeted with the same fate as Becky: he could not get anyone to listen to his plight. He has since threatened legal action.
“l believe that the next line of action is that the authority be held responsible, whoever is in charge of those terminals, whoever is in charge of those containers or all the cars that come in. l think he should be held responsible and he should be accountable for if that is done, l believe very well we are going to get somewhere; we are going to get to the bottom of this”, he said.
It appears security officers who are mandated to take care of the port have failed woefully in the performance of their duties. Apart from the numerous cases of bribe-taking we witnessed, little can be said about the role these officials play at the port. Sometimes, they look on as agents and some people break into and sell goods in containers belonging to some importers in the full glare of the public.
Johnson Clarkson, an investor from the United Kingdom also faced a similar ordeal at the port. In an interview with The New Crusading GUIDE, he narrated how over hundred bicycles which he shipped from the United Kingdom to support Ghanaian farmers in the Brong Ahafo Region got missing.
“After going through hell to pay all those duties, I was bewildered when I found more than half of my goods missing”, he told the paper. He has since returned to his country, after he could not get any response from the Harbour Police and port authorities.
Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman, a Ghanaian living in the Diaspora, once posted an article on Ghanaweb titled “Belly of the Beast”. It was a recount of his experiences in clearing a car at the Tema Harbour sometime in 2005. Nii Lantey, in an apparent state of exasperation, wrote about how his car got “trapped” in the “jaws of death” [the Tema Harbour], citing an unending web of bribe taking, bureaucratic bottlenecks and acts of collusion which hamper the smooth clearing of goods from the port.
More than five years on, it appears little has been done to turn the toxic-breathing jaws of the harbour into a friendly environment for importers. The cases of Becky Mensah, Emmanuel Ahulu are the recurring features in the unchanging script of the Harbour story.
THE CANADIAN SAGA
Following the experiences of Becky Mensah, The New Crusading GUIDE made to a trip to Canada to assess the Canadian situation. True to Becky’s accounts, the ports in Canada – including Port Calgary, where she shipped the container from – are orderly and well managed. There is an absence of corruption and most of the systems are automated. It is difficult to find port officials demanding bribes from importers and exporters. Also, goods shipped to meet humanitarian needs are exempted from all taxes or duties.
There were also no reports of stealing as exists in the Ghanaian setting. Undoubtedly, Canada provides an example for Ghanaian officials in-charge of the ports to emulate. Like other developed countries, the Canadian ports have very efficient systems which make shipping less stressful.
In an interview with Prof Atsu Amegashie, an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Guelph in Canada, he stated that the problem of revenue leakages can only be solved if the authorities take serious actions.
“There’s the need for a committed leadership, that is willing to incentivize and induce agents to go after corrupt officials who are in charge of tax administration”, he opined.
The Professor, who is also a Ghanaian, maintained that the Canadian situation offers a shining example for Ghanaians to follow.
The office of the president and the tycoons
Beyond the disturbing spate of corruption between security officials and clearing agents, the abuse of the name of Parliament and the fate of those from the Diaspora who clear goods through the Harbour, The New Crusading GUIDE also uncovered a tide of sleazy deals which stretch even higher. The “Office of the President” has also been used over the years as a rubber stamp by certain individuals and organizations to rob the state of its needed revenue.
Section 44 of the Customs, Excise & Preventive Service (Management) Law provides the legal basis for CEPS to grant exemption from the payment of import duty to privileged persons, like the president. This position is exemplified as Tariff No. 3AF.1 of PART A of the third schedule of the CEPS Tariff at page 653.
Thus, “OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT”, which is under the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, is different from “THE PRESIDENT”. Office of the President does not enjoy any duty and tax exemption under the laws of Ghana. The exemption covers items imported or purchased locally by the President for his personal use, not items imported or purchased locally by the state. These exempted items are the personal property of the President. For the present purposes, these are items imported or purchased by the person who, for the time being is the President of Ghana. These are items that he will continue to own, even when he is no longer President of the Republic of Ghana.
For instance, an official who works in the office of the President cannot clear his goods for free simply because he works in the office of the President. The New Crusading GUIDE however, discovered that the rights given to the President were abused by senior officials of various governments. Goods, which had nothing to do with the President’s person, had found themselves being cleared in the name of the office of the President by various government officials. This is done usually without the President’s knowledge.
Discoveries on the system total exemptions under the code, indicated that the office of the president comes to GHC14, 190, 336 (an equivalent of 9, 511, 000 dollars). An examination of the entries as sighted had questionable declarations, including luxury vehicles imported under the name of a member of parliament, assorted used vehicles, used clothing, fish meal, second hand air conditioners, second hand sewing machines and rather non-presidential materials.
“I am shocked at this list because I know our Presidents do not use used cars. I also do not know any of our Presidents who has a poultry farm. So why these second hand cars and imported fishmeal by the Office of the President?” asked an official at the Finance Ministry when he saw the list of special permits in the name of the President.
We found out that, the Ministry of Finance had also had its fair share of granting exemptions. It had granted permit for the clearance of goods without permit to the tune of about 5million Ghana Cedis (an equivalent of over 3 million two hundred dollars).
GHANA’S GOLDFIELD STRIP-MINED BY MEN IN UNIFORM PAID TO SECURE IT
The police, Customs Excise and Preventive Service, Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority Security, officials from National Security are fully engaged in bribery and corruption. They usually demand specific amounts from agents who are found evading tax through mis-classification, under-valuation or over-valuation of goods. Sometimes, they demand money before allowing entry into certain points within the port or before signing documents for the agents.
It is common to see security officials admonishing agents to learn how to give bribes. “Without this, you cannot succeed in this business”, they usually say. On one occasion, we encountered a Senior CEPS officer named Mr. Kwakye at the CEPS laboratory who demanded money before approving our goods. When The New Crusading GUIDE could not pay the money the officer demanded, this is part of what transpired:
LAB MAN: You! See you should always remember that, this is like when you come, next time come here again, and then you have become our friend. You see!
TIGER: Yeah! Yeah!
LAB MAN: So how much are you saying?
TIGER: Boss! Boss! Let me give you GHC 50
LAB MAN: How much? GHC 50, add something
TIGER: Pardon sir?
LAB MAN: Add something; is that all you have?
TIGER: That is why I am saying…
LAB MAN: You cannot say anything
TIGER: We can be saying something which will be looking so provocative, you being in the system and this being our first time, you can tell us this is how we are doing it and we also say oh! So far as this is our first time, Boss we, we are now becoming friends.
LAB MAN: You just make it GHC 100
LAB MAN: Nice lady and nice like this, you are thinking of opening your company in the future, you have to know certain things on the ground, you see!
TIGER: Yes sir!
LAB MAN: But if you start with your hands like this…
TIGER: Oh! No sir that is not that
LAB MAN: If you open your company things will not go well
On another occasion, this reporter met a GPHA Security official who demanded money before allowing him entry into the port:
SECURITY MAN: You be agent?
SECURITYMAN: Then you get money, bring am make l chop inside. Yes! Bring your requirements. I go chop ooh!!
TIGER: You go chop?
SECURITY MAN: I go chop small one
TIGER: No! Problem
OFFICER: No be big one
Clearly, the case of bribery and corruption as it exists between agents and CEPS has far-reaching consequences as far as national revenue mobilization is concerned. As these shady deals come to a head, current and potential investors are seriously frustrated as agents normally include the proverbial “Bribe-fees” to their charges. Though most importers overlook the illegality and pay these monies, they sometimes go through hell to get access to their goods. The cases of Becky Mensah and Emmanuel Ahulu typify the order at the Tema Harbour.
BETWEEN CORRUPTION AND FOREIGN AID
Financial and policy experts have suggested that Ghana could wean itself off donor support if those in charge of Ghana’s ports city worked hard enough and cut out the corruption and negligence. The exemption system granted under the name of Parliament and the Office of the President has been abused, and this has taken a toll on the National treasury.
“The situation where it seems as if these exemptions were being abused instead of bringing in materials and the rest that will prop up our economy becomes worrying”, says Dr. Lloyd Amoah, a policy analyst and professor at Ashesi University. To put an end to the incessant borrowing by government, he maintains that the Harbour, as an entry point, “provides a lot of revenue and so it means that fundamentally for a developing country this ought to be looked at critically”.
A senior fellow at IMANI Ghana, Kofi Bentil, also argued, that “If we manage our ports well, we could actually make more money out of the port system than we are making out of cocoa for instance”. He continued: “If we were to make services a central issue in this economy, it is possible that we will improve the economy, l means government revenue, and actually serve the sub-regions, and one of the areas l identified as a note for such service economy is the port system. Between Tema and Takoradi port, we can actually establish a system which will serve the whole West Africa sub-region”.
The question of Ghana’s inability to meet its revenue targets is more an issue of mismanagement and corruption rather than the lack of resources.
The World Bank Country director to Ghana, Ishac Diwan, believes Ghana’s revenue mobilization efforts needs to be improved.
“ The various taxes need to be linked together in a database so that, knowing how much VAT, how much volume of business which is useful for the VAT, informs the tax authority about incomes and profits so that cooperate taxes can be collected. So, there is the need for more efficiency in terms of the different services working together and finally, also, facilitating the entry of business into the formal economy”, he says.
“It is very important to close the loopholes and to have a more disciplined system. There are just too many exemptions that have been granted left and right through lobbying by the various industries, sectors, companies”, he points out.