A former Simon Fraser University student president is leading a high-profile campaign against corruption in Ghana’s justice system.
In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight in a Commercial Drive coffee shop, Clement Abas Apaak explained that he got involved in this issue last year after four lawyers in the West African country were blacklisted by the Association of Magistrates and Judges for speaking out at a public forum about judicial corruption.
“I was expecting a hue and cry from the rest of the nation,” Apaak said during a visit to Vancouver over the Christmas holidays. “To my surprise, no one was really speaking out in defending the lawyers because they had exercised their constitutional right to free speech and were stating what we believe is the obvious.”
Apaak pointed out that the country’s chief justice, Georgina Wood, had previously made similar comments without suffering any criticism. He said that this apparent double standard prompted him to create a group called the Forum for Governance and Justice, which is collecting stories from victims of judicial corruption. It’s also calling for a public inquiry and promoting reforms to ensure that justice is not for sale in that country.
“I’m happy to say the people of Ghana have embraced my advocacy and we feel we are on the right course,” Apaak commented. He also expressed appreciation to the media in Ghana for giving this issue a great deal of coverage.
Clement Abas Apaak explains why he's fighting judicial corruption in Ghana.
In December 2010, Apaak returned to Ghana, the country of his birth, after obtaining a PhD in anthropology at SFU. He spent more than a decade in Vancouver, where he spearheaded a national campaign against genocide in Darfur and hosted the African Connection program on SFU’s campus radio station. He was the first international student elected as a student-society president at SFU and as a student representative on SFU’s board of governors.
Now a lecturer in the archaeology and heritage-studies department at the University of Ghana in Accra, Apaak said he is applying lessons he learned in Canada to how he’s mobilizing opposition to judicial corruption. “I had years of training in Vancouver, which is the hotbed of activism,” he noted.
Although Apaak described Ghana as Africa’s most successful democracy, he claimed that corruption is undermining public confidence and victimizing people without much money or the right connections. He cited one case of a man being unable to enforce a court ruling for seven years because justice officials claimed that the written decision had been lost. The man eventually died, and Apaak issued a media statement about this situation. Then, he said, the judgment was located and turned over to the man’s heirs. “This is only one example of numerous cases that have come to my attention,” he commented.
Apaak is focusing on the courts because this is where cases of bribery are supposed to be addressed. “We cannot fight corruption if we have a corrupt justice-delivery system,” he stated. “It’s really that simple.”
Ghana’s elected president, John Evans Atta Mills, is a former Fulbright scholar at Stanford University and was a visiting scholar in 2002 at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues. Apaak described himself as a supporter of Mills but noted that he hasn’t spoken to the president about his initiative, which is receiving widespread media coverage in Ghana.
Apaak is also calling for criminal charges against judges and magistrates who engage in corrupt practices. “And they should be prosecuted in a very public way to serve as a deterrent to others who may be willing to do the same,” he stated. “We believe that this would reinforce the confidence of the people in the fact that the system itself has the ability to weed out miscreants from within itself.”
He acknowledged that he’s not aware of any other anticorruption campaigns in Africa targeting judges and magistrates. When asked if he faces any personal danger, Apaak replied: “I have no reason to believe that my life is in jeopardy, but you never know. The more my advocacy is gaining prominence and the more I’m bringing forward people who are speaking about specific issues—and citing specific judges and magistrates—the more likely my safety is going to be in danger. So for now, it’s okay.…I am taking all precautions because I know in this type of advocacy, you are likely to step on big toes and entrenched interests involved in big money. Once that begins to happen, you become a threat. So I’m being very cautious in the way I’m approaching things.”