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The African Regent Hotel: culture and corruption in Ghana and Nigeria

There are contentious circumstances surrounding the building of a luxury hotel. These circumstances raise questions about the relation of West African corruption to West African culture. There are several versions of the story.

1. Gyimah’s Version (1)

Dr Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi. Executive Director, Center for Democratic Development, Ghana (CDD), a leading non-partisan, pro-democracy NGO. 

G-B: The former President [John Kufuor, 2001-08] decided he wouldn’t use the Castle [where previous rulers had lived]. It wasn’t built for normal residence, it was built for the colonial government. Typically, they didn’t come with their families 

RS: So it was bachelor quarters. 

G-B: Yes. It has also got very bad historical associations. So it was a good decision for the President to decide to live in his own house. However, this also created situations that he was investigated about, seeming improprieties, allegations involving contractors. But a bigger investigation involved the large white building in front of his personal residence, the African Regent Hotel. His house shares a wall with it, behind the hotel, away from the roadside. … There was a real opportunity here to practice honest, clean government. But …  (At this point, Gyimah draws a diagram showing the relationship between the President’s house and the hotel. He then explains how, midway though the initial effort to build the hotel, the venture stalled for lack of money.)

G-B: When Kufuor became President and elected to stay in his own house, under the excuse that the private, uncompleted building posed a security threat to the President, he got the place acquired by his son. The son is a forty-year old chartered accountant who, prior to his father’s becoming President, was a partner at Price Waterhouse and had not owned property like this. In buying this hotel, he benefited from credit from at least one bank that is a state bank, which means the chief executive is appointed by the President.

Significant members of the Board are vetted by the President. These are tell-tale signs of the President’s influence. This forty-year old son’s bona fides … 

RS: And a word might not even have been spoken, it could just have been understood. Deniability.

G-B: Exactly. And that was the nature of it.

RS: What was the end result?

G-B: It became a huge public scandal. There was a quasi-judicial investigation that did not find the President involved. As you say, all of this may have been done without any spoken word. But there are too many tell-tale signs. 

RS: Who investigated it? 

G-B: CHRAJ [The independent Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice]. They could not find a smoking gun. To my mind, the question must remain. Half, at least, of the money for the investment came from banks over which his father had substantial control.

 

2. Nana’s Version 

Attobrah “Nana” Quaicoe, Research Director, Danquah Institute, a think tank connected with Kufuor’s party, the National Patriotic Party, or NPP. 

N: This is hard to judge. He [Kufuor’s son] had worked in finance in the US for a while. 

RS: So he was experienced in the money part –but not in the hotel business?  

N: Right. As an accountant, putting together the proposal was easy for him, but how come he got the loan approved?  I can’t tell if it was because he was the President’s son. 

RS: CHRAJ investigated, and there was no smoking gun. But how could there have been? The President needn’t have said a word. 

N: You never know. Maybe Kufuor did speak for his son. But the son is also a citizen, with proven business skills. So should he be prohibited from participating because he is the President’s son? 

RS: It’s the appearance of impropriety.

N: Exactly.

 

3. Steve Manteaw’s Version

Steve Manteaw, Campaigns Coordinator, Integrated Social Development Centre, or ISODEC, another non-partisan, pro-democracy NGO. 

Steve Manteaw saw nothing wrong with this deal: the son was qualified, he got the loans, his group got the building. I would later repeat the details of Steve’s argument to Gyimah. (See version 5.)

 

4. Kan Dapaah’s Version

Honourable Albert Kan Dapaah. Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Parliament Of Ghana. Dapaah is an NPP member who held four portfolios in the previous Government, but who is universally regarded as an incorruptible corruption fighter. The PAC is a non-partisan Government committee whose mandate is to monitor the budgetary process. 

KD: But Kufuor’s first son is also a Chartered Accountant. 

RS: I know, I heard about him. That hotel deal.

KD: It was one thing that I still consider most unfortunate. 

RS: Is it a public story? I’ve already heard different versions of it, from Gyimah and from Steve Manteaw. 

KD: They’ve all got it wrong! This guy works for Price Waterhouse.

RS: Isn’t he a partner?

KD: Yes, probably. It was his job to advise people on how to spend their money. He hears about this hotel, which was to be sold. He came to his own conclusion: that could be good business!

RS: Sure. To finish an unfinished hotel when the person who is not finishing it needs money, a good situation.

KD: “So close to my father’s house! We could even do some expansion, in future, probably when my father doesn’t need it any longer. Now where do I get the money?” To me, that is a key issue. He then goes to the Ecowas Bank for Development and Investment, based in Lome [the capital of neighboring Togo], to take up a loan. A foreign bank. He gets a local bank to give him a small loan, but the bulk of the money comes from Togo, from a public bank not controlled by his father.

RS: His father had nothing to do with that? 

KD: Nothing. All this furore is that the President had managed to steal some money and had given it to his son. 

RS: The way I heard it, the money came from banks that wanted to please the President. Not that the President had stolen money.

KD: Yes, but why would Ecowas want to please the President? 

RS: That doesn’t make any sense.

KD: Any time you hear about it, just ask, “Which were the banks?” 

RS: There may have been some small parts of the money that came from banks connected with his father. 

KD: Yes, one of the banks was the Prudential.

RS: You know what was wrong with the deal? The appearance of impropriety. People could use this as a hook to grab onto the President, to attack him. 

KD: Yes, because this lady [KD goes into the story of a woman who accused the ex-President of having fathered twins by her, and who also reopened the hotel scandal.] And people were prepared to swallow it. 

RS: Maybe Elvis was the father. [Or maybe it really was Kufuor.]

KD: These were deliberate lies sold to the people. Anytime you hear this story, especially from somebody as honest as Gyimah-Boadi, ask him that one question: which bank? And say that you were told it was from the Ecowas Bank. 

RS: Do they have branches in Accra?

KD: No, no. It’s like the African Development Bank. They don’t do commercial banking.

RS: Then, why did they give them a loan to develop a hotel?

KD: The bank is for investment. You can go there for everything.

RS: What’s the difference between that and a commercial bank?

KD: They don’t accept deposits. Commercial banks do. 

RS: So they give loans for projects which are considered development. Whether it’s, like, a home for orphans, or a big luxury hotel? 

KD: Yes. Then, he took a small percentage of the total as a loan from a local bank. One of the owners is known to be a close friend of the President.

RS: Oh. That’s what people seized on?

KD: No, at the time, it did not become an issue. What was the issue was the allegation by the lady, who said, “I was there when this thing was planned.” 

RS: The deal. She overheard, supposedly, and it was all based on her word? 

KD: Yes. Not only that – the twins allegation. 

RS: Bring them in for DNA testing. 

KD: “Bring them in”? Not for DNA, just for us to see them! [i.e. No one would think they look like Kufuor.] 

RS: That’s terrible. 

KD: Terrible! And the Opposition at the time managed to sell it. 

RS: Why does someone like Gyimah-Boadi believe the story? He’s very smart. 

KD: He may be looking at it the same way you are: that the bulk of the money was taken from outside, no problem with that. But some amount of it also came from Prudential Bank, a bank owned by somebody known to be a close friend of the President. 

RS: Yes, never mind the lady’s story, the lack of a smoking gun, and all that: there still is the appearance of impropriety. And nobody knows what conversations did or didn’t take place. 

KD: This is all I know about it. Whether there are other issues I don’t know is another matter. But, to me, when it came out, I was interested in how the hell this small boy got the money. 

RS: You asked the same question as Gyimah.

KD: Of course! Then it was explained to me: from the Ecowas Bank. I went quiet. Then, I was told there was also some small contribution from Prudential Bank. I know the Director, I’ve met him on several occasions in the President’s office. Well, to the extent that it can be proved where the money came from, I don’t have a problem.

RS: Not even the Prudential part? 

KD: I’m not very sure how he [the bank President] could have benefited from that particular deal. He had been a close friend of the President. He was the Chairman of the Board of the National Petroleum Company – before this matter came up. So he was already influential in Government circles. The President had taken it upon himself to tell us, in Cabinet, that “these are the facts, as I know them.” 

RS: To stop the whispering campaign.

KD: Yes. 

RS: In other words, the man didn’t need to do the President any favors, at this point. 

KD: I don’t think so.  But, politically, there was no way anybody was going to understand it. It was better the President had not allowed it to happen, at all.

RS: Because the opponents would make it a big deal.

KD: Exactly.

RS: Thank you for telling me about the incident.

  

5. Gyimah’s Version (2)

RS: When I told Steve Manteaw the hotel story, I was surprised by his reaction. He said there’s no reason to suspect there was anything wrong with the deal. As an accountant, the President’s son was the man putting the finance together for the consortium that wanted to finish building the hotel. But there were also experienced builders, developers, and so on. Even without him, that group would have gotten the loan. But how can he know that? It’s hypothetical. 

G-B: It’s too hypothetical, and, as I said, there are too many tell-tale signs. The original roots of the previous owner’s willingness to sell, the argument they used, were the security implications of the shared wall.

RS: So there was pressure on him to sell? 

G-B: Indirect. They may also have offered him a price he was happy to take. For me, that, alone, is improper. 

RS: I was very surprised that Steve defended the Kufuor Administration in this. Where was he coming from?

G-B: I’m surprised, but not too surprised. It may not have come across to him that, when you go and get a deal from a man that your father has substantial political control over … if you don’t want conflict of interest, you don’t even go to such a person, you don’t go to those banks, you don’t take part in the deal.

RS: But why wouldn’t that bother Steve? It bothers me. 

G-B: Me, too. 

RS: Why not him? 

G-B: Well, it may be the culture. In the same way that, if I nepotistically employ a relative, it would be tolerated.

RS: Even here? In this office? 

G-B: Even here. 

Gyimah went on to cite several cases of well-regarded pro-democracy NGO’s  that have been run by man and wife or willed to relatives. Gyimah then extended his point about nepotism to a generalization about how soft Ghana is on corruption. 

RS: Do you have some of your relatives working here? 

G-B: No! 

RS: Are you okay with the practice? 

G-B: We - all of us - tend to think bribery and corruption are synonyms. It’s very easy for me to understand why bribery is not African culture. But many other forms of corruption are not recognized as such [because they are ballasted by culture]. 

RS: Such as nepotism.

G-B: Yes. Or conflict of interest. You have a member of the Cabinet, the General Secretary of the Party, Asiedu  - known as “General Mosquito”- who is on the Board of one of Ghana’s largest public works projects. When it came out, when somebody brought it up, his response was, “What’s the difference? Mine is the best quality cement for the best price. What’s wrong with that?” 

RS: Do you think there’s anything wrong with that?

G-B: Sure! 


Conclusion           

Gyimah’s admission that no one - except him - seems to mind such practices as the purchase of the African Regent speaks of a deep acceptance in Ghana of what outsiders would consider nepotism and conflicts of interest. The lack of clarity on the part of Steve Manteaw and Kan Dapaah on the acceptability of these behaviours, or even their appearance, when both are such clear thinkers otherwise, prompted me to seek the opinion of several people including Florence Dennis, Executive Secretary, Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC), an umbrella group for non-partisan, pro-democracy NGO’s, on the possible cultural roots and ramifications: 

RS: There may be a culture of corruption now, but that doesn’t mean you can go back into Ibo or Ashanti society and find the roots of it. 

FD: People say it has roots in our culture because, for example, the extended family has to cater for everybody. Parliamentarians in Ghana complain that every morning they find fifteen people at their door. For school fees, hospital fees, transport. 

RS: So they have to steal the money to help these people. 

FD: But I ask them, on which basis do you campaign? You say you will give people better education, and so on. You’re a law-maker. You can only do advocacy for projects that will help the people.

RS: Also, indirectly, you’d be helping your family that way. But that doesn’t matter, when the person is on your doorstep. 

FD: Yes, as soon as you get the position, your whole extended family … 

RS: So present needs mitigate against honesty and the long-term general interest?           

But this idea, that culture causes corruption in Africa, is a dangerous truism that may also have racist overtones. Gyimah’s point contrasts with what I had previously heard from two eminent Nigerians, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, and the late Chief Anthony Enahoro (1923-2010), who was a lifelong champion of democracy. They both argued that local culture can act as a brake on bad government, including nepotism and other forms of corruption.

Wole Soyinka

RS: Most of the leaders of the independence movement were Yoruba. Is the success and failure of the democratic movement in some way related to the nature of Yoruba culture? 

WS: It's an ingrained habit of self-criticism, of controls, balances, accountability, which goes all the way back to even the so-called monarchical tradition. In Yoruba society, the kings were never absolute monarchs. We use the system of ruling houses. There is no succession, a prince does not succeed the father: he has to wait until the turn comes back again to the ruling house to which he belongs. Yorubas have fought fierce wars of protest against the attempt of a king to designate his son as the next king. 

Anthony Enahoro:

When you go down to the villages, you don't hear of money being stolen, because if it happens the thief's family is in disgrace forever. But the government is something else.  If you can rob people and come home to build a church or a school, it's like going to war and getting booty! Heavens, you're a hero!  The whole concept of government is so distant from ethnic communities.  What made the Eastern and Western regions successful in past days was that you had a cultural base.

If the story of the Ghana Regent Hotel leads to one clear conclusion, it might be Kan Dapaah’s view that people should spend less time going after individual malefactors, and more, pushing for institutional reform. 

 

 

The Ghanaian interviews, conducted by Ron Singer in Accra, October 24 - November 7, 2011, will be incorporated in his forthcoming book, Uhuru Revisied: Interviews with African Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Pres/Red Sea Press).

About the author

Ron Singer has taught for thirty years at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in New York City. He has written a number of articles concerning African and Nigerian politics.


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