Thursday, February 21, 2013
Have you got anything for me?
Generally, we don’t get the law enforcement we deserve.
I suppose a great litmus test on the quality of a culture is the behaviour of its police force. In the UK, a vast, conspiratorial network of corruption has recently been uncovered relating to football tragedies, phone hacking, framing suspects and everything in between. But on the streets, generally, you feel that law and order prevails without the taint of bent behaviour on the law’s part.
Wherever I have travelled, either for work or for pleasure, I can, more or less, remember what the police were like. Back in 1968 when I was in Paris during the student revolt as an active supporter, the police were baton crazy against these leftist destabilisers of the State. On one occasion we were relaxing away from the barricades having a picnic on the Seine. A police van drew up and a half dozen stick wielders charged down. “Speak English, for God’s sake,” said a French friend. We did. They said we were there for sex and would soon have our clothes off. We pretended, vociferously, not to understand. Eventually they went off, batons unbloodied.
I was in an insolvent New York in the early 1980s. The train from the airport was as heavily guarded as I can ever remember. In fact an entire train had been ‘stolen’ not long before. I had to ease past two police officers at the doors of an extraordinary caterpillar of a machine, multi-coloured carriages with inner city graffiti, as though it was camouflaged to pass through downtown garishness. They were brusque – and frightened. When we set off they walked up and down the aisles as though one of us was Matt Damon from the Bourne Trilogy and they were going to discover who. What do you do? Shut your eyes and ostrich the journey out, hoping that when you open them you will be in Grand Central Station and safe?
In Uzbekistan I was giving an impromptu lecture on the street when I got jostled by secret police, remnants of the KGB, I assume. They had taken exception to my using the word democracy. I remember that their firearms seemed more threatening because they were in plain clothes. As though wearing a uniform ensures that the would-be shooter is constrained by ‘procedures’. While in Tashkent, a Canadian friend had some money stolen. The police came and took away the house staff and beat them for a couple of days until one owned up. We never knew whether the boy had committed the act or couldn’t take more bruising. We wouldn’t have told the police had we known – even though the theft was quite major.
I could go on and on with stories but want to say something about police in Ghana. Everyone without fail here knows that corruption is everywhere. Whatever your misdemeanour (mostly on the roads) you will find yourself searching for a polite way of offering them money. They are not interested in your explanation of being stranded on a crossroads because you avoided being hit by a taxi running a red light, for example. An attempted explanation is met with the non-sequitor, “Are you trying to tell me my job?” In this case I eventually dredged up a useful phrase from my wide lexicon, “Can I make a contribution to the police station?” And we were free.
A driver of ours, gentle and late middle aged, was cuffed and thrown into a police cell for training a learner without his licence which he had left at home along with the boy’s. They were taken to court and outlandish fines levied by a judge whose complicity with the police was painfully evident and whose loyalty to the State’s revenue stream via fining was paramount. Police can use a variety of indirect requests for palm greasing but my favourite euphemism, at a barrier on the way to Cape Coast, is “Cleanse my blood.”
Ghana has everything to be a prosperous nation. It has an extraordinary GNP largely from oil and cocoa, a genuinely peace-loving population, enough rain to help farming feed its population. There is no reason why corruption should be endemic from politicians all the way down to a police force that is reimbursed reasonably well when compared to the rest of the population. But everyone pays their bribes, from doctors to road sweepers, from water sellers letting traffic cops take a sachet without payment to allow them to sell illegally by the lights, to bankers wanting to park on yellow lines. You cannot deal with governmental bodies such as customs without bribes if you are in international business, or your goods could remain forever untouched and gathering hamatan dust in a bonded warehouse.
For Ghana to become a developed country, corruption has to be tackled. Loyalty to family, clan and tribe – which pressurizes individuals to bend the rules and siphon off money – must somehow be subordinated to a loyalty to the State. In return the State must reward public loyalty with fair justice for all. Trust in the police at a day to day level is paramount or the economy will always fail.