The storm clouds swirling around the National Democratic Congress since the eruption of the Airbus scandal show no sign of lifting. Nor is there any indication that the finger of suspicion about the ultimate beneficiary of bribes the European company paid to secure a multimillion-dollar military deal with Ghana will point to anyone other than the top man in the party: John Dramani Mahama.
A January 31 judgment by the United Kingdom Crown Court entered into an arrangement with the European aerospace multinational to pay a record corporate fine of £3 billion (US$3.9bn). This followed findings that Airbus had, among charges relating to four other countries, paid over €3 million in “commissions” to a close relation of an elected Ghana government official and two of the relation’s associates.
The purpose of the payments was to induce a decision, within that official’s control, to buy three of its C295 transport airplanes for the Ghana Armed Forces.
The deal and payments were made over a seven-year period between 2009 and 2015, when the NDC was in power.
The judgment, delivered after a three-year-long investigation, did not name the relative or the designated “Government Official 1”, but set out enough detail that interest groups have identified the official convincingly as John Mahama. The backlash from press, party, opponents and pundits has been swift and leaves the former President deeply damaged.
Franklin Cudjoe, president of IMANI Ghana and a frequent critic of the Akufo-Addo-led NPP government, was first out of the blocks.
Speaking to the Accra-based Citi FM, he said: “It is most likely that because it was his [Mahama] administration that has been fingered in this matter, definitely his campaign will take a bit of a hit, to the extent that, although he has not been mentioned in particular, it was his administration that was involved – partially as a vice-president and later, a president.”
As speculation mounted about the identity of the two main actors in the Ghanaian deal, named in the UK court papers as “Government Official 1” and “Intermediary 5”, Sulemana Braimah, executive director of the pro-free speech Media Foundation for West Africa published a devastating reading of the Crown Court judgment.
In a breakdown of details in the Crown Court judgment, set out on his Facebook wall on Monday, Mr Braimah presented an argument singling out former President Mahama as the government official. Importantly, his reading showed that the government official had to be high-ranking enough to have had power of decision-making in the Airbus deal; that the person was an “elected government official” rather than appointed, or an elected public officer; and that his tenure spanned 2009 and 2015, the year before the NDC’s defeat in the last general election.
Mr Braimah has a high profile as a critic of the New Patriotic Party government.
Ruling out the three Defence Ministers who served during the period – Lieutenant General Henry Smith, Mark Woyongo and Ben Kunbuor – he focused on the last two individuals who fit the brief: President John Evans Atta Mills and Vice-President John Mahama, who became President Mahama three and a half years in to the NDC government.
“But President Mills died in July 2012,” Mr Braimah wrote. “He, therefore, could not have been the elected government official who was still in power in 2015 referred to by the court document. At this stage, we are left with Vice/President John Mahama.”
He continued: “Vice-President Mahama was elected in 2009 together with President Mills. He was, thus, an elected government official. As Vice-President, he was the Chairman of the Ghana Armed Forces Council. He was thus a key decision-maker in the procurement of military equipment including aircraft. In 2015, he was still an elected government official, this time as President. So could he be the one in question?”
Chew on this
Mr Mahama has kept a studied silence in response to questions from the Ghanaian public since the judgments linked to the Serious Fraud Office and Department of Justice investigations. But the outpouring of calls on all sides for him to come clean has been overwhelming.
Posting on his Twitter handle, Manasseh Azure Awuni, author of the recently published Mahama biography The Fourth John: Reign, Rejection and Rebound, wrote cryptically: “If you catch a politician on top of your wife, he will start denying the affair even before he withdraws.” The “Voice of Conscience” also reposted Sulemana Braimah’s reading of the judgment on his Facebook wall. His meaning was clear.
From within the NDC, scores of commentators took to social media to heap criticism on Mr Mahama, some calling on him to step down as the party’s presidential candidate.
“This matter has turned out to be a piece of meat difficult to chew, and difficult to vomit,” wrote Dela Coffie, a prominent NDC activist and ally of former President Jerry John Rawlings, on Facebook. “JDM … is so fried, he’s damaged goods.” Ben Pipim responded. “Who can redeem him? Except so-called cadres and bootlickers shouting inconsistent invectives in a rainpour.”
“Mahama’s cup is full,” another poster agreed. A third said: “He had power and authority and threw it to the dogs. The old boy advised them they never listened.”
“Finally, the chicken is coming home to roost,” said Nehemiah Asinga. “There is no defence system from JM that can intercept the Airbus bribery missiles,” another commentator said. Yet another poster wrote: “NDC, change your candidate for 2020. It’s not too late in the day. At least by next election you will stand a 50/50 chance of victory. There is the high possibility of leadership struggle after Nana in 2024. So market someone new and stand a chance of coming back in 2024. As it stands now your candidate is at a bigger disadvantage.”
Felix Hamilton, an NPP activist, cited the Mabey and Johnson bribery scandal of 2009, which led to the indictment of three high-ranking NDC government ministers, and mused: “History has a way of repeating itself.” Other commentators were more direct: “It is a known fact … who the GV1 is. He’s a well-known associate of Mills. He has now been elevated to the tables. He chaired the procurement process, which saw the minority raise issues over pricing. He repeated same during the AMERI power deal.”
The Office of the President has announced that Ghana will “conduct a prompt inquiry to determine the complicity or otherwise of any Ghanaian government official, past or present”, and instructed the Office of the Special Prosecutor to carry out an investigation.
The Minister of Information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, demanded disclosure of the identity of the Ghanaians involved in the scandal. “It is embarrassing when you meet international investors who during the coffee break say, ‘Is this what happens when Ghana government officials do deals? They take bribes before they do deals?’ It is not fair to Ghana,” he told reporters for Joy FM.
Mr Mahama’s spokeswoman, Joyce Bawa Mogtari, published a defence of the former President arguing that claims that Airbus had paid bribes to “any past Ghanaian Government Official” were false. The company had merely confirmed it had paid “commissions”, she said. There was no evidence of financial loss to the state: Airbus had just accepted that the commissions were in excess of payments allowed under OECD trade rules.
“The fact, as has been established, that the hands of no official of Ghana was soiled is truly pleasing,” Mrs Mogtari wrote.
The former Attorney General Marietta Brew Oppong Appiah also published a statement arguing that it was “a gross distortion by the media to conclude that officials of the Ghana government between 2009 and 2015 were bribed or paid any commissions by Airbus for the acquisition of the Casa C-295 aircrafts” but the response to her argument was no more favourable than the one to Mrs Mogtari.
P K Sarpong wrote: “In sum, you are insulting our intelligence, creating the impression that we do not grasp or understand the court’s ruling. Madam, the judgment was not written in Latin or Greek … Your defence is too porous to withstand critical scrutiny [and] ward off the damning effects of this scandal.”
The anger provoked by the court judgments on the Airbus payments has left the former President badly damaged. Political pundits believe he may not be able to sustain his position as NDC flagbearer to the end of the year.
Billion-euro profit boost
The probe by the United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office began in 2016, supported by investigations launched later by the United States Department of Justice and the French Parquet National Financier. The three state financial monitoring agencies found grounds to believe that a secret division of the European aerospace multinational had paid bribes to secure multimillion-dollar contracts in a number of countries over a 13-year period, boosting the company’s profits by €1.02 billion ($1.5bn).
Court judgments last month in France, the UK and the US confirmed the suspicions in relation to five countries – Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Taiwan and Ghana. Investigators discovered a secret network of well-connected agents whom Airbus used to influence decision-making on deals with each of the five countries.
In the case of Ghana, the Crown Court found that Airbus paid over €3 million to a close relation of a government official to influence the country’s decision to acquire three C295 transport planes between 2009 and 2015. The Crown Court is the highest-ranking court of first instance in criminal cases in the UK.
Although the well-connected agent, described as a brother of Government Official 1, his associates and the official involved in the Ghana deal were unnamed in the UK and Washington court judgments, lawyers suggest it is only a matter of time before Mr Mahama will be called to answer questions.