Visa fraud is common and involves people from all over Ghanaian society. As I was reporting this feature, the British High Commissioner in Ghana accused three Ghanaian members of parliament of using their diplomatic passports to assist in visa fraud.
One politician apparently claimed he was taking his 16-year-old daughter on a summer holiday to London. She disappeared after two weeks and still has not been traced by British authorities.
"The Ghanaian Parliament should not be a location where unregistered visa agents approach Honourable Members and act as a conduit for them to participate in visa fraud," the former High Commissioner complained in a letter that leaked in March.
After this story broke, I spoke with Rasheed Draman, executive director of the African Centre for Parliamentary Affairs, in Accra. Draman pointed out that the letter was apparently sent to parliament in January, but nothing happened until it was leaked to the press two months later. “Perhaps they wanted to protect their own,” he said: It seems politicians had no intention of acting on the allegations of visa fraud.
The letter also raised concerns about the fact that three Members of Parliament had access to diplomatic passports. Draman explained that the sitting government gets to choose who gets diplomatic passports, and it's not uncommon for politicians who travel frequently to have them: “[The British High Commissioner] has no business about asking who gets a diplomatic passport in Ghana. Our high commissioner in the UK could not ask the Speaker of the House of Parliament in UK such questions.”
The real problem, Draman says, is that the MPs used middlemen instead of going through official channels: “That’s where this borders on elements of crookery.”
Draman hopes the MPs will face penalties—given the overwhelming evidence of fraud—but doesn’t expect they will. “People are beginning to read meaning into the fact that there was an attempt at a cover up,” he said.
Politicians abusing power is not unique to Ghana, Draman said, pointing to the MPs expenses scandal in the UK. But those politicians faced sanctions. “The difference was that impunity was not allowed to reign.”
Stolen Land and Kickbacks in Accra’s Courts
While I was reporting visa fraud in Ghana, I spent much of my time in the courts. I met people handling legal matters large and small.
One of the most fascinating stories came from a woman named Belinda Dokor (her name has been changed.) Dokor wanted her own home, which for most people in Ghana, means buying land before putting up your own house. She bought two plots of land in Accra, for 30,000 Ghana cedi (just under $7000).
Then the people who sold her the land, sold the same two plots of land to someone else. Before she knew it, someone else was building a house on her land.
She spent almost four years trying to get her money back. She was being paid back, very slowly, in installments of 1000 cedi at a time. This was useless, largely, because each time she got a small fraction of her money back, she’d have to pay kickbacks to the police officers looking after her case: the CID, the prosecutors, the court clerks.
She was at the end of her tether in January, so she asked one of the police officers what she should do to speed things up. He told her to go to the one guy at the courts who could sort things out: the registrar: “Talk to him and everything will be okay,” he said.
She went to the registrar and told the registrar the whole story. How’d she’d been cheated out of two plots of land. How it was just her taking care of her two kids, a 6-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. How she could barely afford rent, which is 300 cedi (about $70) for a two-room apartment a shared bathroom. How even though money was tight she was trying to do the best by her kids, sending them to a fancy Montessori school.
She said the registrar took pity on her and talked to the judge—and here she was, sitting there with 20,000 cedi (about $4500) in her bag.
The most shocking thing, she said, was that after she got her money, she went back to the registrar to offer him a little something to say thank you, and he said he wouldn’t take her money. The registrar was the only person who didn’t want a kickback.
By 5:45am on most weekdays, there are already people waiting opposite the U.S. Embassy in Accra. They’re perched on huge rocks underneath the neem trees on the roundabout.
If you need to sit down, on the far side of the roundabout, you can hire a plastic lawn chair from a young man in a black t-shirt for two cedi (about 40 cents) and sit on the grass verge outside an on old building belonging to the Government of Ghana.
A well-groomed man in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and slacks with a sharp crease works the crowd like a carnival barker: “Did you remember your pictures? Are they the right size? Do you have the right forms? Let me see. I’m happy to check them for free. And if you’re missing anything, my shop is just down the road.”
Inside the house that was allegedly the site of a fake U.S. embassy in Accra, Ghana: The house, itself a solid old building, stately but decrepit, with layers of faded paint and cement patchwork, was built in the 1920s or 1930s—Susanna Lamptey, is not sure exactly when—but she knows her grandfather put it up well before she was born, sixty-one years ago. He left it to his eight children, and their children. Most of them gradually moved away, and cut the house up into flats.
“This battered old house has gone around the world,” another Lamptey tells me in the local Ga language. And not a single Lamptey understands why. The family deny the entire story. They have threatened to sue.
"They've disgraced this nation, and the family too,” says Susanna Lamptey. According to Lamptey, there was never even a police raid. She found out about the story at same time as everyone else. A former tenant, she said, called to say it was all over the Internet.