They say when the gods want to destroy you, they first make you partisan. Judging by the reaction of the ministers and supporters of the governing National Democratic Congress(NDC) to the jailing of the Montie Trio, I suspect the gods may have it in for them. Ministers and supporters are mounting pressure on President John Dramani Mahama to invoke powers under Article 72 of the constitution to pardon the three men who were jailed on contempt charges by the Supreme Court.
Top officials including Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hanna Tetteh; Deputy Minister of Education, Okudzeto Ablakwa; Valerie Sawyer, Head of the Presidential Unit, Minister for Tourism; even the Secretary to Cabinet, Roger Angsomwine have all signed the petition to compel the president to forgive the three. While acknowledging that the comments made by the three were unacceptable, these officials insist the four-month sentence is too harsh and have organised vigils and rallied senior colleagues and foot-soldiers to sign the petition.
The three – Salifu Maase (also known as ‘Mugabe’: the host of a political talk show on Montie FM) and two panelists, Alistair Nelson and Godwin Akogun – were sentenced to a four-month jail term for threatening the Supreme Court judges with harm, rape and death over their handling of the case on the credibility of the current voters register.
It has to be noted that Montie FM is a known pro-NDC station. Not in that way that all stations are branded NDC or NPP-leaning. No: this runs deeper. Those who have listened to the show in question say it has a no-holds-barred format where everything from slander to attacking opposition parties and miseducating supporters of the party is allowed, just as it is on other radio stations set up by politicians to misinform their followers and create hate for the other party. That is, in fact, the real issue we should be addressing, had people we respect and assumed to have some integrity not started signing that useless petition: the idea that politicians can set up radio stations and use it to threaten and undermine their opponents and state agencies.
‘Mugabe’ is said to be skilled at goading his guests to do and say the unthinkable. It is said that anyone who criticises the president or the governing party is attacked and threatened on the show. It is therefore not surprising that they took their casual abuse of other citizens a notch higher by threatening the lives of judges.
Perhaps it is loyalty to the NDC that has blinded party folks to their appalling behaviour.
If we are honest, four months in a Ghanaian jail for threatening judges with harm is nothing compared to the fate of the many who have been in prison for years after having been rounded up in police swoops. Some petty thieves get 10 years in jail for stealing mobile phones and plantain. Or prisoners who have been on remand for years and years without even knowing when they will be given their constitutionally-defended day in court to decide whether they are innocent or guilty of any crime in the first place. Sentencing was once acknowledged by the Chief Justice as being very harsh on poor people. In all the years that some of these officials agitating for a pardon for a group of thugs have been in office, they have never advocated for fairer sentencing and reform of the justice system.
But I digress. Threats of death and rape against anyone – not just superior court judges – is a crime under Ghanaian law. Crimes come with specific punishment. Had the state agencies mandated to deal with such offences done their job, the Montie Three would have faced a minimum sentence of three years.
The Minister for Gender and Social Protection, Nana Oye Lithur, is among the pack who signed the petition. She is a lawyer who understands the importance of the court to our democracy and a woman who has fought her whole life to get longer sentences and harsher punishments for rapists and people who threaten violence against women. How do you advocate for such an appeal for leniency for people who threatened the women on the court with death and rape?
Had this happened to any other group, the government and its acolytes would have applauded the court. In fact, they once did: when the court jailed two persons for contempt and banned Sammy Awuku from its premises. This was in 2013 when the New Patriotic Party (NPP) was challenging the validity of the 2012 election in which President Mahama had been declared the winner. Back then, NDC officials did not see flaws in the actions of the court. There was no talk about the court attacking free speech/media when it jailed Ken Kuranchie and Stephen Atubiga. Of course, in that particular case, the two involved were NPP advocates.
Before the petition, neither the NDC nor any of the ministers condemned the men for their vile comments. Save for that tepid and badly-written statement issued by the BNI, there was no word from the government or any of the agencies mandated to deal with criminal attacks on the judiciary, at the time the tapes became public. The Police, the Bureau of National Investigations and the Attorney General’s office too often seem to look away when foot-soldiers and officials of the governing party step out of line. This left the Supreme Court was with no other option than to tackle the issue itself, but partisan lenses can be so opaque and blinding that NDC executives and government officials are contorting themselves to make it seem like the Supreme Court did something excessive. They are working so hard to portray the three as victims and the sentence as a curtailment of free speech and media. It isn’t.
Even if we believe that a government that once arrested the CEO of a media house over an online story (and a journalist for refusing to disclose their source) cares about freedom of speech, the sentence is not an attack on free speech. It is punishment for criminal intent and conduct. There is no way to know what the President will do under the circumstances, with people in Cabinet asking him to overrule the court. But going by his track record of reassigning ministers caught in scandals to the Presidency, he might just fall into the trap of the gods and pardon the Three. I hope he does not. Any attempt to interfere with the court’s judgement will undermine its independence and authority, and no Ghanaian would trust and accept the finality of the court’s decisions after that.
Whatever happens, these calls are destructive and pernicious. They have the potential to entrench impunity and create a culture of fear and legal instability that will undermine our fragile democracy. The NDC has a history with judges in Ghana: 30 years ago, three judges were kidnapped and killed by agents of the PNDC; the military government that would later birth the NDC. Given that particular history and context, is a presidential pardon for people who threatened death of judges really the best ask?
All of this is bad for our democracy and stability. The very issue the Montie 3 were talking about in the first place – the credibility of the voter’s register – is still in contention. Should we end up with another case of alleged vote rigging, who do we plan to consult: our village gods? Then again, perhaps this is the strategy of the very same gods to take down Mahama and the NDC administration and save us all from further doom.