Ablakwa Okudjeto’s April Fool?

Feature Article of Monday, 8 April 2013

Columnist: Tsuo, Cedric

President John Mahama’s inordinate Ministers, Presidential Aides and Advisers rightly have outraged many Ghanaians. There are already 85 Ministers, but the President is not done yet. (Temptation to draw comparisons is hard to resist. In Kenya, a country two and a half times the size of Ghana, with a population of 41.5 million people, rumour has it that President-elect, Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, will appoint miniscule full 22 Ministers, Secretaries as they are called there.) Mr. Okudjeto’s intervention in the debate, titled “Debate on Size of Government—My Take” (Ghanaweb 1 April 2013), makes an interesting reading. First, the tone of his article resembles nothing like the arrogance and brashness he used to treat Ghanaians to when he was Deputy Information Minister. Now, those have given way to expressions like, “in my considered view”, “with all due respect”, “I hold the humble view that…”, “the good people and experts of our great nation”. That is refreshing, and I can only hope that the Deputy Minister of Education-designate has undergone everlasting sea change. Secondly, Mr. Okudjeto claims he writes “to express my own personal views on the matter”. I doubt that. Although he is yet to be confirmed, he is very much Government and NDC insider. More than likely, he was “selected” above the Minister of Information and Media Relations, Mr. Ayariga, who can’t open his mouth on any issue without putting his foot in it, to do a damage control job for the President over his disastrous appointments policy.

As a piece of writing, Mr. Okudjeto’s article is polished. However, his message is a contrived balancing act. On one hand, he tells Ghanaians to place their trust and faith in modest, sensitive and politically experienced President and just accept his inordinate Ministers, as he knows other ways to save Ghana money. On the other hand, he encourages us to continue our exercise in futility debate in the name of nurturing our democracy. Read the following passage: “I am without an iota of doubt that President John Mahama who is widely known as a modest and sensitive politician would set about to waste or dissipate scarce resources on what some have christened ‘job for the boys and girls.’ I believe strongly that with President Mahama’s tremendous and exemplary experience and conduct in public office, he is more than conscious of the fact that the matter in issue goes beyond just numbers and the salaries of Ministers.”

I am not sure that I understand exactly what opaque words “the matter in issue” refer to. But I think my interpretation above is generally right. Mr. Okudjeto starts with a gentle rebuke, saying that by crying over President Mahama’s over-bloated Ministers, Ghanaians are being “overly simplistic”. This is because our criticisms do not take account of other areas of government expenditure, which although not so visible nevertheless add more to the cost of running government than the salaries of 85 Ministers. He argues that “it is possible to have only 20 Ministers and yet spend more on them than we will be spending on 85 Ministers”. He explains that if these 20 Ministers were permitted: (a) to engage State-paid special assistants, (b) to use any fuel guzzling official vehicles of their choice, and (c) to have unlimited access to fuel coupons, phone calls and flight tickets to all manner of conferences and “we would have reduced the number of ministers and yet the State will be spending more on these few Ministers as compared to what will be spent on a 100 or 120 Ministers”. My short rebuttal of that argument is that there appears to be no such restrictions on Ghanaian Ministers. If there are, Mr. Okudjeto would have said so explicitly. Or, maybe, such restrictions exist but no Minister gives a damn about them. Now, we have 85 Ministers, and rising, with no restrictions or with restrictions that are simply ignored. To the 85 Ministers add the cost of the army of Presidential Aides and Advisers. The mind boggles at the cost!

We are perfectly right to criticise the President’s army of Ministers, Aides, and Advisers and their cost to the nation. Let us also look at those numbers and cost in terms of the functions that each appointee needs to perform, an issue Mr. Okudjeto ignores completely. I have never had the privilege, or misfortune, of serving in any government in any capacity. My naive outsider’s view is that the number of Ministers and other Presidency staff should be determined by the volume and nature of work each appointee is expected to accomplish and in relation a specific period within which to do so. I am not an adherent to that the President Mahama doctrine that we can solve Ghana’s massive social and economic problems simply by throwing masses of bodies at them. Nevertheless, I would support wholeheartedly appointment of 5 Ministers to, say, water ministry, if President Mahama could guarantee that those 5 Ministers were the number needed to ensure uninterrupted flow of potable water through our pipes, say, within the next 10 months. (There hasn’t been a drop of water flowing through my pipe in the last 12 months!) Most of the Ministers and Deputy Ministers have been around a long time, and a good number of them have registered next to zero performance in the past. Does the President really expect those Ministers suddenly to become high achievers? I am not holding my breath.

Closely allied to the issue of numbers is the question whether Ministers’ jobs match their competences. How many of those Ministers have expertise or special knowledge in the work of their ministries? We would never know unless, of course, we accessed their CVs, freely placed in the public domain or under duress of a freedom of information statute, which we do not have at present. One female deputy minister-designate was reported as confessing that she first heard of her appointment on the radio while sitting in a saloon having her hair done! I can only hope she knows her job.

Deflecting the public outcry over the cost of Ministers’ salaries, Mr. Okudjeto reminds Ghanaians that “there are many Chief Executives of State Enterprises and Authorities who earn far more than the President and his Ministers hence the impression being created that there is a few privileged elite politicians bent on draining the national kitty is not only unfair but also unsupported by the evidence.” That may be so, but that comparison simply is disingenuous. The position of Chief Executives of State Enterprises is analogous to that of Chief Executives Officers (CEOs) of private companies, such as banks, airlines, retail conglomerates, factories, etc. Worldwide, CEOs are a very highly paid group of people. This is because of their exceptional expertise in their respective fields, combined with drive and matched by outstanding performance. The BBC a few days ago reported that the former British Foreign Minister, Mr. David Milliband, who is stepping down from the House of Commons to become the CEO of International Rescue Committee, an American NGO, would be earning more than President Obama!! I might add that in the rest of the world under achieving CEOs are sacked. In most cases, their bonuses which often run into millions of pounds in cash, kind or both are held or clawed back. In Ghana, we don’t sack non-performing public sector CEOs. This is either of because of corruption, political connection, or sheer lack of guts.

Whilst welcoming and encouraging the on-going debate, Mr. Okudjeto suggests that we should not only keep our eye on the number of Ministers but also on some six other areas which could save the country money: (1) we should abolish state-paid special assistants and special aides to Ministers; (2) there should be “public interest” in the number of Presidential Advisors, Aides and Staffers and their list should be made public in the interest of transparency and good governance (It is unclear what specific actions the words ”public interest” are intended to convey.); (3) we should vet all invitations to international conferences that require funding from government. (As worded, that would exclude Ghana’s own foreign-generated travel. Ministry of Sports and Youth is notorious for packing delegations to sporting events with all sorts of people, including mistresses and girl friends.); (4) we should ban the use of cross country vehicles for intra-city usage; (5) we should match fuel coupons to registration numbers of official vehicles; and, (6) we should develop new specifications for the kind of vehicles that will be designated as official vehicles.

One cannot seriously argue against Mr. Okudjeto’s sensible six-point suggestions. What one can question, however, is their feasibility. How are those suggestions to be implemented, by administrative directives, subsidiary legislation, or what? Not least, who will oversee or force compliance, given the corruption and timidity of our officials?

Finally, Mr. Okudjeto invites Ghanaians who may have other cost-saving ideas to add to his six-point suggestions. I have a few of my own: (a) amend the relevant provisions of our Constitution to bring sanity into presidential powers to appoint; (b) rid Ghana of corruption in all its forms; (c) amalgamate and/or abolish some ministries (the Ministry of Information and Media Relations should be the first to go, as it is not fit for purpose.); (d) publish the CVs of all Ministers, Presidential Aides and Advisers, with job description or mission statement, for public scrutiny; (e) publish at the beginning each budget session a break-down of the cost of running the Presidency, each ministry, including assistants, vehicles, petrol consumption, and utilities, foreign travels, etc.; (f) salaries and other benefits of CEOs State Enterprises should be linked to performance; (g) last but not least, Parliament should pass Freedom of Information Act.

Nothing Mr. Okudjeto says dissuades from my view that President Mahama’s inordinate Ministers and Presidential Aides and Advisers has all the hall-mark of “job for the boys and girls”. Quality, not quantity helps solve problems. Early this year, I posted an article titled “My Pennyworth Advice to President Mahama” (Ghanaweb 7 January 2013). In it I offered the President advice on a wide range of issues, including the need for a focussed development plan, with a time-frame and mechanisms for measuring achievement, size of his future government. Regarding the latter issue, I wrote: “Size of ministerial appointments is a moot point. Over-bloated ministerial appointments in the past, some of which clearly look like job for the boys, have aroused justified public anger. For instance, in the last administration the Ministry of Information had two deputy ministers!! Ministers and Deputy Ministers do not come cheap. Their salaries, allowances, free residence, cars, telephone, water, etc., etc., are a heavy drain on the nation’s scarce resources. The President should, therefore, be sensitive to the feelings of Ghanaians on this issue, although Article 76(1), Article 78(2) and Article 79(1) of our Constitution give him considerable discretion in the matter of making ministerial and deputy ministerial appointments.” Hence, it came as a great shock and disappointment to some of us who were confident that our new President would turn round Ghana’s murky and corrupt governance system. My question, asked more in sorrow than in anger, is the following: if President John Mahama can’t, who can?

Cedric Tsuo