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Ghana’s new independent prosecutor nominee accused of links to government

By Jonas Nyabor, in Accra
Posted on Tuesday, 4 May 2021 12:43

Special Prosecutor-nominee Kissi Agyebeng

The Ghanaian government is hoping to invigorate its fight against official corruption by pushing forward a new candidate for the 3-year-old Office of the Special Prosecutor after the unexpected resignation of the office's first Special Prosecutor in November 2020 -- Kissi Agyebeng.

For a government that won power on the back of a strong anti-corruption campaign, but then faced a barrage of public criticism over opaque deals, this is a fresh chance to prove its credentials. Not everyone is convinced.

Ghana’s Attorney General, Godfred Dame, has nominated a private legal practitioner and law lecturer to be the country’s new special prosecutor: his mandate is investigating and prosecuting corrupt individuals and organisations.

This comes after the sudden resignation of the first special prosecutor, Martin Amidu, on November 16, 2020, over claims that President Nana Akufo-Addo was interfering with his work and trying to make him a  ‘poodle’ of the government.

Amidu’s decision provided ammunition for the country’s biggest opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), to accuse the Akufo-Addo-led government of corruption during the heated December 2020 elections.

Three months after winning that contest, the government is making fresh attempts to get a new special prosecutor into office. Kissi Agyebeng, the nominee is 42, and a law lecturer.

He has also been in private legal practice in Ghana for over 18 years. However, compared to his predecessor, he does not have a well-developed, public, anti-corruption record. This last point is problematic, even though many contemporaries believe he is qualified to take over the special prosecutor’s office.

“He has the intellectual capacity to man that office because he is a criminal law lecturer,” said Abraham Amaliba, the director of legal affairs for the opposition party.

“What he lacks is the political clout to fight public sector corruption. I’m comparing him to his predecessor, because [in Amidu’s] previous life he fought corruption,” Amaliba said.

Agyebeng’s most significant influence has been in academia, with a few major cases to his credit.

He will have to fit into the shoes of a predecessor who succeeded single-handedly led a crusade against a known financier of the NDC — Alfred Woyome — and successfully secured a judgement to force him to pay GH¢51 million ($9.5m) as judgement debt to the state. Agyebeng will therefore face pressure to aggressively pursue corruption cases if parliament approves his nomination.

If for political reasons or personal relations he is not bold enough to challenge the government when it comes to interference with his work, then obviously, he is also going to fail,” said Vitus Azeem, former executive director of Ghana Integrity Initiative.

“I have had several conversations with him regarding criminal prosecution, and I know that if something is against his conscience and his professional judgment, he will not do it,” said Dominic Ayine, a former deputy attorney general who served in the NDC government.

Agyebeng’s connections to the ruling party

Political activists and observers have highlighted his close association with top members of the governing party, including Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko, a direct cousin of President Akufo-Addo.

As recently as October 2020, Agyebeng represented Gabby Otchere-Darko in a defamation suit against pro-NDC social commentator, Kevin Ekow Taylor.

For Amidu, the former special prosecutor, this is of serious concern. In a public statement three days after the nomination, he described Agyebeng as a ‘surrogate’ of the government and expressed uncertainty over his ability to be impartial and independent in prosecuting crime, citing his close association with Darko, and the attorney general who nominated him.

Amidu believes that the appointment of Agyebeng is to cover up investigations on the controversial Agyapa Mineral Royalties deal, that is to see Ghana handing over about 49% of future mineral revenues to private interests at a cost of $1bn to ease the country’s growing debt crisis.

For Amidu, Otchere-Darko — whose law firm Africa Legal Associates (ALA) is involved in the complex web of the Agyapa deal as transaction advisors — is a suspect in the currently botched agreement.

“Asaase Radio [with Asare Otchere-Darko as a shareholder] and the nominator [Godfred Dame] of the proposed new special prosecutor knows or ought to have known the extent of the involvement of their surrogate as a lawyer for suspects in pending suspected corruption cases in which the government showed an undue interest in the office of the special prosecutor which I await to see how independently and impartially those cases will be handled to conclusion should the president submit the name of the nominee to parliament,” he said.

Besides Amidu’s claim, other critics point to Agyebeng’s public comments in 2013 about his disagreement with some decisions taken by the supreme court against the New Patriotic Party (NPP) government during the country’s 2012 election petition.

Purging himself of such references and clearing doubts of Ghanaians about his independence and impartiality would mean aggressively investigating and prosecuting major allegations of corruption in the incumbent government, whose major figures he has been linked to.

For Vitus Azeem, former executive director of Ghana Integrity Initiative — the Ghana chapter of Transparency International — anyone occupying the office of the special prosecutor must be bold enough to take a strong stance against government interference in their work or risk failure.

“If for political reasons or personal relations he is not bold enough to challenge the government when it comes to interference with his work, then obviously, he is also going to fail,” said Azeem.

Among the recent allegations of corruption that are expected to be high on Agyebeng’s agenda, if confirmed for the job, is the renegotiation of Karpower contracts and the over $1bn Government of Ghana — Meridian Port Services (MPS) Tema Port expansion project involving French billionaire Vincent Bolloré.

Many will be seeking to find out his position on the Agyapa Mineral Royalties deal too, that has Otchere-Darko named as a suspect in Amidu’s report on the contract.

Agyebeng’s ideas and position on some of such recent issues are unknown.

A commitment by the presidency not to interfere with the work of the special prosecutor and adequately resourcing the office remain a critical need for the nominee to achieve significant results, if confirmed.

Indeed, the failure of the government to ensure independence of the office and adequate funding in the past are amongst the major criticisms that Amidu highlighted in his exit statement.

Ghana’s parliament is expected to vet and approve or reject Agyebeng’s nomination in the coming weeks after President Akufo-Addo formally writes to the house, notifying members of the nomination.

If approved, Agyebeng will still have a tough job of building trust and credibility with Ghanaians when it comes to prosecuting cases involving government officials.

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