Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Kinapharma Raid: Just Another Assault on Rights in Ghana

The Ghanaian pharmaceutical company KinaPharma found itself at the end of a practical joke when the might of the Ghana police force descended on it to kick some pharma(medicine) out of their Kingdom because the police had "reasonable suspicion" that the company was dealing in banned narcotics. With adrenalin pumping, the law enforcers did not only move drugs that had supposedly tested partially for cocaine out of the company premise for further testing, but also arrested some of the company's managers for "possessing substances prohibited under Ghana's Narcotic Control Law" even before test results were ready. Almost a week after test results proved that neither the company nor its directors did anything of that sort, they were still struggling to get the police to say three words- "We are sorry". Instead, the police through the director of CID, DCOP Frank Adu Poku, justified their raid on one of Ghana's success stories as far as indigenous businesses are concerned, emphatically stating that they owe the company no apology. It doesn't seem to matter that their 'reasonable' action and the indiscreet manner it was carried out, needlessly almost destroyed a company's reputation and impugned the reputation of its directors and officials some of whom were arrested when we were not even sure a crime had been committed. In another country, beyond rendering an apology, the police will re-examine its intelligence and other processes to avoid repeating the KinaPharma fiasco. But that is not the Macho Ghana Police Force, they are without regret.

What befell Kinapharma brings to fore a worrying truth that confronts every civilized society. The processes that ensure law and order are susceptible to both institutional and individual errors, and sometimes abuses. When the institutions that dispense justice are faced with such failings, they easily choose the path of bullishness and lies to hide the truth. In so doing, our attempts to seek justice end up perpetrating injustice on many citizens. For countries like Ghana, the situation is further blighted by the indifference of citizens towards such abuses. These institutions are therefore under little pressure to improve the processes to minimize such frailties. In fact, compared to others without the wherewithal to garner public interest in their cause or to hire the best lawyers and experts to prove their innocence, KinaPharma had it lightly. The police raids a neighborhood arrests the homeless, parades them as armed robbers, they are remanded in prisons around the country and forgotten- no prosecution. The police guns down ten young men and presents them as armed robbers, the dead stay dumb. This sad narration does not only indict our security system but also underscores the attitude of our society to the rights of people.

Seventeen years ago, I learnt that, when the police are involved, it is important to apply Jesus' admonishing in Matt 5:25 (Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison), if you value your freedom. It doesn't matter if you're right or wrong. On that day, somebody pulled my wallet from my back pocket while we were struggling to get into a "tro-tro" at a bus terminal close to a police station in Accra. I got down from the bus shouting for my wallet to be returned. Then I saw this giant of a man walking away from the bus holding a polythene bag. His demeanor appeared suspicious and his huge frame scary. I mustered courage and asked him to return my wallet. He swore that he hadn't taken my wallet, but I convinced him to walk to the police station for a search to prove his innocence. He grudgingly followed me to the station. That is when the show began. Before I could finish narrating my story to the police officer at the counter, another officer approached from behind and gave this guy a good slap, even I was taken aback. Of course, the thick tall man returned the favour after which three or four police men pounced on him, subdued him and threw him in the police cells. I was totally stunned. Is that how easy it is to get somebody locked up? The man stayed locked overnight without admitting to the theft, neither was my wallet found on him. Somebody claiming to be his brother visited the station and paid the amount of money that was in the wallet, the police advised me to take the money since there is little evidence to tie him to the crime in a court. However, they were sure the guy was an accomplice to the theft, because they found out that he had a previous record. Whoever stole my wallet dumped it somewhere near the station without the money but with my id card, a biker found it and dropped it in my hall of residence. The scar of that incidence remains on my conscience till today. What if the guy was innocent? Maybe he is a jailbird but does that mean he took my money?

We have handed over authority to institutions like the police that allow them to curtail our individual freedoms for the common good of society. How do we ensure that these powers are not exercised for the wrong reasons? Yes, the police have the power to detain me for 48 hours but at what point do we know when the power has been exercised recklessly? I was once stopped by a policeman who I had always admired from a distance because of the enthusiasm with which he directed traffic. He accused me of jumping a red light, and I knew I hadn't, and if I had, from where he was standing, it would be difficult for him to swear to it. His point was that another car in the dual lane stopped whiles I didn't. I explained that that car was well behind me. The policeman gave me a simple advice, if I continue challenging him, he will waste my time. He was right. The traffic lights had no cameras to prove who was telling the truth. He will ask me to sit at the police station for hours before he takes my details. I will spend more hours at a court over a traffic incidence. The judge will believe him because of who he is and impose a fine after all the hours spent trying to prove my innocence. Time was one commodity I didn't have, so I took his advice, I stopped challenging him, but he lost my respect that day.

In more serious cases, limbs and lives are lost as a result of "reasonable actions" by law enforcement agencies. In 2006 policemen shot and killed four people they mistook for armed robbers. In another incident a 26 year old man was mistaken for a robber and killed by the police. In both cases the police had initially insisted that they killed armed robbers until loud noises in the media forced them to back track. The fact that even with the most noble of intentions, law enforcers may end up injuring innocent citizens makes it imperative for our police to exercise circumspection especially in the use of lethal force. The only way to ensure that the police get into the habit of exercising such care is to inspect what they do. Humans will only do what you inspect and not what you expect. Any police action that results in the death of any human being must be examined by an independent body. Those found to have acted recklessly or criminally leading to the loss of human life must be withdrawn from the force and other sanctions applied as stipulated by law.

The expression of machismo by the police will never stop until the covert and overt endorsement of such acts cease. Human rights activists are subjected to all manner of vituperations, especially on radio call-in programs, when they raise issues with the number of people killed in police operations. The impression is created that human rights activists love 'criminals' more than they love the police, but that is not true. I am an advocate for the respect of everybody's right including armed robbers' but I detest armed robbers especially those who maim and kill innocent people whose property they have no right to take. In fact, I am not against the death penalty for willful murderers in principle, but I am more scared of an imperfect judicial system that wrongly tags innocent citizens found at the wrong place at the wrong time as killers, and committing murder by putting them to death in an attempt to seek justice. For this reason, I will drop my support for the death penalty. A black American has just been released from jail in the USA after spending over thirty years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. If the death penalty had been applied, restitution would have been impossible for this man wronged by the society. This is what many Ghanaians including law enforcement officers lose sight of- not everybody who looks like the culprit really committed the crime. If we exact our own kind of justice before the truth emerges, we may end up with blood on our hands.

I sympathize with the management of KinaPharma, but they will be lucky to get an apology from the Ghana police force because to our macho police, their pain is business as usual. DCOP Frank Adu Poku couldn't have delivered the message better.

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