Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born ends with a scene in which a soldier stops a trɔtrɔ; then some ostensibly commonplace exchanges occur. Here is some background: Kwame Nkrumah’s government has just been overthrown by the military who have set up security checks to ensure stability. Now back to the scene: after being stopped at this checkpoint, the driver takes out a booklet, sticks a note in it and hands it to the soldier. The military man peruses the booklet with a serious demeanor, removes the note and hands the booklet back to the driver who continues his journey. The military personnel, driver and his passengers behave like this is a banal thing, but Armah wants his reader to note a problem.
It is telling that most readers will know why this incident reeks of corruption. For the non-initiated, the note in the booklet is bribe money – the driver hands the money to the security personnel so as not to have his papers or vehicle checked to occasion some possible offenses. Armah sets his scene in 1966 (and the book was published in 1968) but in 2013 this scene can take place at any Ghanaian police barrier or highway. Thankfully, our country is no longer under military rule yet the problem persists.
Personally, I have always wondered why the driver puts the money in a booklet. I have called it corruption but is it really corruption? If you are tempted to say no, then one would ask why the offending drivers do not present the money in the open and smile into the cameras while shaking hands like people do when making donations. Since everyone knows what’s going on why not just give the police the money in an open sense? Of course that is a naïve question but it’s still interesting – how and why we dress up corruption in pantomime.
I think it’s a pantomime because the exchange is a farcical performance in which the actors know and play their roles very efficiently. Sometimes they even joke as they do it, adding a tragicomic veneer for all participants, including commuters in the vehicle. And it’s not as if the passengers are less guilty, mind you. You and I are complicit by looking on or pretending to look away. Some people might mutter some indignation under their breath but our general inaction means that we all ultimately aid and abet this crime.
This problem is as Ghanaian as extra white-sugar in early morning kooko, choked gutters and ECG’s lamentable nature. I therefore would like to think a bit about how we can dwork around it. Should we end at joking about it and ridiculing it? Should there be an Anas-style exposé to indict the briber, ‘bribee’ and witnesses? Who is at fault here anyway?
Think about it though: when the officer stops the driver, who is more motivated to do the right thing? The driver doesn’t really care for wasting huge amounts of time and money due to court and fines for something he or she considers a minor infraction of the law. So why doesn’t the police feel the need to process the offender? This is because I daresay (from an ignorant perspective of course – I cannot verity this) that the police does not benefit directly from doing the right thing. In other words, the policeman or woman simply is doing his or her job with no extra perks. In some countries however, this officer would receive financial reward for apprehending a traffic offender. This reward isn’t something inconsequential; it is a hefty sum which encourages the person to do the job with enthusiasm. While I’m not saying that the police should be paid 100 GHC for catching someone who drives with expired papers, stakeholders can come up with a decent sum which will render bribes a poor alternative. To my mind, there can even be an official receipt that is handed to the offending party to document payment of on-the-spot fines. Then a portion can be allotted to the police officer while a smaller portion can go to improving the particular police station.
In this way I think we should empower the police. Some people are altruistic and others work assiduously because they love their job. But in these times such examples are becoming increasingly scarce. And you cannot blame them, really. If your salary can be better (and even big-time CEOs say this for themselves, how much more a policeman or woman?) and you don’t have clear opportunities to complement it, you will create your own means.
After all, as the Akan say, nipa nnyɛ aboa*.
*The literal translation is a person isn’t an animal, but the socio-cultural import in the context of this post implies that a person deserves to have a decent standard of living