Security, Surveillance and Safety …whose safety matters?

Esther A. Armah

Security, surveillance and safety. These words are the focus of high-profile cases, commissions and crimes in our national headlines. The most recent is the arrests of three men after the Ministry of Information (MoI) statement. The latter revealed a 15-month surveillance operation, the discovery of a cache of weapons, ammunition and a group whose alleged aim was youth radicalization.

This MoI Statement and the subsequent arrests come on the heels of still simmering outrage over the confirmation by Ghana’s Police service that human remains found in a septic tank are those of the four kidnapped Takoradi girls.

It matters that we connect these two crimes, these two issues when we think about surveillance, security and safety.

The MoI spoke of a 15-month surveillance operation through which the three suspects – and their accomplices – were apprehended. In the Taadi kidnapping, the police spoke of the main suspect being part of a kidnapping syndicate that had allegedly been operating for some time in Takoradi. He was living in Ghana. What surveillance operation did the police and connected agencies establish in order to apprehend all involved, and secure the safety of vulnerable girls – the syndicate’s target?

The MoI statement highlights the way the Agencies worked together, organized, strategized with the common aim of apprehending these persons. This is applaudable. This is how a nation should expect Security agencies to work in light of a threat. This cohesion was sorely lacking in the Taadi girls police operation. It seemed, again, to be present when the white Canadian girls were kidnapped.

My focus is our nation’s notion of national security and safety. With that in mind I have questions.

Whose lives matter when it comes to security, surveillance and safety in Ghana? The question is: whose bodies and lives do we mean when we say: ‘it’s a question of national security?’ If girls and women are part of a nation, then why doesn’t their physical and sexual safety also equate to questions of national security?

What if we thought about the bodies, lives and futures of girls and women in Ghana as part of our focus when it comes to national security? I ask ‘what if’ because we clearly do not include them as a matter of national security. When we speak about ‘terrorism’, we do not consider the emotional terrorism that comes from an unsafeness in moving around community, school, work and society. We do not consider the vulnerability of millions of girls in Ghana to violence as part of our question of national security.

We need to look at security and policing for the people of Ghana with the same care, thought, vigilance as seems to have been demonstrated with this latest issue highlighted in the Ministry of Information’s statement, and the subsequent arrests.

Law enforcement does not engage with an equality lens of citizenry. Class matters in Ghana. Wealth does too. Who your father is – big man or not, matters? Such questions matter. They can decide your quality of healthcare, it can decide your job prospects – it certainly decides whether or not you are priority on a national security ladder.

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That would mean making physical and sexual safety a national security issue. It would mean recognizing that teenage girls and women matter as much in Ghana as our president does.

It would mean girls’ bodies matter the same way our government body matters. That would mean all of that. But it doesn’t. And that is the tragedy.  But it can be changed, if we work to change it.

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Framing vs Facts

From Ayawaso to Alajo…..

The Government’s conclusion of failed impartiality by the Hon. Emile Short’s Commission’s findings from the violence during the voting for the Ayawaso Region told us this – the goal posts for an Enquiry will shift, if the political leadership doesn’t like its conclusion.

Essentially,  the government wanted the Commission to agree with its version of events, based on the evidence of its appointees’ testimony. And to acknowledge that Hon MP Sam George provoked SWAT officer Mohammed Sulemana, and that was ‘valid defense of provocation for the assault’.

With that framing, we are invited to privilege violence over de-escalation. Millions of us are daily provoked over all manner of wahala in Ghana, do we all throw up hands and dish out slaps here and there quoting that this is ‘The Sulemana Way’? Does that serve our security and safety when we head to the polls?

Absurd. But also, problematic.

What happened at the Ayawaso Region is also a question of security – that of the sacred democratic act of casting a vote, and doing so absent the kind of violence that terrifies, intimidates and triggers reminders of historic times that we celebrate as being behind us as a nation.

The Public hearing was the success of media advocacy and social media activity. Galvanized and organized they made an unrelenting call for an official enquiry that would be public after scenes of bloodied citizens, masked men and explosions of violence. What we saw and heard  during the Commission questioning of  some witnesses was an appalling window into dysfunctional police power, and the problem with the Executive naming crucial positions like the Electoral Commission chair.

From Ayawaso to Alajo…….

The courts will decide the facts of the case, the weight of the evidence and allegations made in the Ministry of Information’s statement regarding weapons and the hospital in Alajo.

The court of political opinion has framed the findings as an attempt at political instability. We should scrutinize this. The Statement’s language: of an ‘elaborate plot to destabilize the government’ is fear-making. It triggers dark days for thousands of an era of instability, violence and insecurity in Ghana. It is an era no-one wants to go back to. This was coup language without using the actual word, ‘coup’.

The lawyers for the three men, unsurprisingly, claim they are innocent, ridicule the allegations, and pooh-pooh the weapons found, disputing that they belong to any of the men.

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Security experts say the Government statement is premature. It is overreach. And given our nation’s history, their concern must be counted. Minister of Information Kojo Oppong Nkrumah did the radio rounds explaining what was known, highlighting what wasn’t and arguing that it was better to arrest the apparently culpable than stand and wait for a ‘plot’ to manifest with its subsequent potential chaos.

Some of the language of the Statement and the interview language by the Minister is a masterclass in framing. That’s when those in political leadership tell the public how we should think about a series of actions, as opposed to what actually happened.

Fact: weapons were found. There is an organization whose focus raises political questions.

Frame: this was an ‘elaborate plot to destabilize government’.

The simple truth is we don’t know what they were trying to do. The list of charges does not suggest ‘elaborate plots’ nor ‘government destabilization’. But,  the language is out there and we must reckon with the consequences of that with ongoing headlines, discussion and social media engagement.

I am not suggesting it may not be incredibly serious. But serious is a long way from ‘plots’ and ‘government destabilization’.

Prosecuting the Ministry of Information’s wording from a statement in a court of law will not happen. That is not the intention. It is the court of public opinion that some politicians seek to shape and make shudder at such chaos-inducing language.

The facts could simply have been announced. A cache of weapons were found, there is grave concern regarding the connections between the alleged actions of a group and the items that suggest a bomb was being made. But it would not have communicated the same emotion. It is unlikely to have triggered trauma or induced historical fear. Certainly, there were elders who lived through the coups who lamented that these three men were trying to destroy Ghana, and should not be allowed to.

The skepticism across social media reflects a deep distrust of both police and political leadership. It is not party specific – it encompasses the world that is our politics. That distrust is a clear question of leadership, integrity and the cost of politicizing every single thing in Ghana.

Much of social media chatter has dismissed the Statement is farcical. A hash tag ‘#CoupChallenge’ highlights that. With this hash tag, individuals gather items to, allegedly stage a coup.  Elders may argue the 140-character generation are not taking this seriously. The more accurate conclusion would be about political leadership and law enforcement investigation effectiveness.  Social media is not alone, there has been skepticism across the airwaves, on our small screens and with our commentary.

Thousands and thousands within a nation are telling its political leadership and its law enforcement: we don’t believe you. We are not convinced. We don’t buy it.

We don’t trust you.

That is about trust, mistrust and credibility. And that is not a matter of framing, it is a matter of facts.

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