Up until the very last moment they had kept hoping that not so many of Ghana’s top men of justice were so ready to be bought. In one particular court case a member of the investigative Tiger Team could barely stop himself from shrieking in disgust when a fully-dressed judge with wig and all, after pontificating about right and wrong and the need for justice, issued a verdict that was exactly what had been agreed with the violent robber’s ‘cousin’ sitting in the public gallery. It had cost 15 000 Ghanaian Cedis (about US$ 4000) to get ‘cousin’ a reduced sentence from this judge. Posing as relatives and friends of criminals, the Tiger team had approached fifty-five judges with bribes. Thirty-four judges had accepted.

Wheeler-dealing

The Tiger team’s investigation, led by Ghana’s ‘James Bond’ journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas was clearly a success. They had caught on video and audio not just judges, but also clerks, bailiffs, interpreters, ushers and even drivers working for Ghanaian courts. There was a veritable judicial mafia at work and in many places, in control. They had all been very eager to, in exchange for bribes, forge papers, attach judges’ seals, introduce ‘cousins’ of criminals to judges and facilitate ‘private meetings’ with these judges to discuss the cases of detained -sometimes even sentenced- ‘cousins,’ ‘nephews,’ ‘brothers’ and ‘friends.’

The team had also witnessed the performances of lawyers and prosecutors who, instead of considering the merits of cases, were wheeler-dealing with one another for an outcome that would financially benefit both parties. A total of 180 conversations were recorded. In not one of them anyone ever mentioned the words ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’.

Several of the bribe-takers mentioned that fairness was important

But that’s actually incorrect. Several of the bribe-taking intermediaries had mentioned that fairness was important. But they had meant fairness to them, the facilitators of corruption. “When you help human beings they will sing hallelujah elsewhere but they will have forgotten you,” a bribery intermediary by the name of Gyata had complained. His request for ‘fairness’ –a big percentage of the bribe sum- had been echoed by his fellow ‘intermediaries.’  No one, however, had a thought for the prisoners: the innocent ones who would not get out because no bribes were paid for them; or for the future victims of the bad ones, who should have been kept in jail but were now about to roam the streets again.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas had gone undercover to film and record wrongs in Ghana, his country, for the past seven years. He had been in brothels where minors were doing sex work; inside smuggling operations; in orphanages-from-hell; and in several state structures, such as the driving license authority and Ghana’s largest mental hospital. Most recently he had exposed quack doctors who were severely hurting and endangering their patients with impunity.

He had publicly stated his disappointment at the responses from his government. In 2014 he wrote an open letter to the director of the Ghanaian Health Services asking why criminal ‘doctors’ he had exposed were still roaming free. He had noted such lack of state action also in other cases. The brothel had been cleared out, but the underage girls were back on the street in no time. The crooked orphanages that exploit children kept popping up. The corrupt customs officers who were helping smugglers and the exposed driving license officials were arrested, but still neither institution functions the way it should.

Erratic pattern

This was part of the reason why the Tiger team now chose to target the highest institution of the land: the courts. If they, the very embodiment of justice and the rule of law, were also infected with corruption, was there any hope for Ghana? They wanted to test that. Based on the reports they collected from a number of Courts in north, central and south Ghana, they first pinpointed 55 judges whose verdicts showed an erratic pattern.

Simultaneously, they were conscious of the fact that many judges’ verdicts did not show an erratic pattern. As so often, next to the bad, there was probably also a whole lot of good. They decided that they also wanted to highlight that. It was, after all, good people inside the justice system who had asked them to do this in the first place. (If Anas and the Tiger team have achieved anything over the past years in Ghana, it is this: that they are now seen as an instrument that can be used not just to expose the bad, but also to build the good.)

The people who had suggested that they should look at the judiciary were working at all levels inside the courts. Some of them were lawyers, often so brave “they were like valiant soldiers,” as one Tiger team member put it. But these whistle-blowers confessed feeling powerless when dealing with the mafia. They had no clue where to start, how to expose the kingpins and their followers; let alone how to get rid of them.

Some lawyers were brave “like valiant soldiers”

Then, as they were getting shock after shock from the judges they approached –one was willing to reduce a rapists’ sentence, if they could just produce a paper changing the victims’ age from under to over sixteen; another was so greedy that he jumped out of his car to lunge at the bait money-, they met more such good souls, too. In some places the administrators were shocked to hear their corrupt proposals and responded that ‘this judge is not that type.’ Quite a few times they were sent packing as the scoundrels they were pretending to be. Then they smiled, knowing that, as they put it to their partner newspaper the New Crusading Guide, “Ghana was not lost.”

In the end, after going through courts in the north, middle and south of Ghana for one and a half years, they came out feeling that more than half of the people in the courts were such good people. Heartening as that was, it still left a sizeable rotten part. What to do about that? A formal investigation of the exposed 34 judges, as announced by the government, was a good thing. But it was unlikely to do much to change a system that practically breeds corruption. After these 34, there would be others.

Fighting the mafia

During the investigation the team had learned that many good people, who at one time had started doing their job honestly and with dedication, had been corrupted by the mafia that controlled their courts. They were told that ‘this is how things work’ and made to believe that ‘even prisoners don’t expect justice just like that.’ That there was always a financial element. That things didn’t get done otherwise. In the case of those –because there were also many who stayed upright- who kept resisting, the mafia would steal their seals and just sign papers on their behalf, without them even knowing.

Again, that there were so many, perhaps even more than half, who stayed upright in such an ocean of depravity, gave them hope.

The question, then, became: how can they be helped? If the only official response would be to take action against corrupt individuals who happened to be caught, the likely reaction would then be to become more cautious and less blatant. Some were already operating with such caution. Like that judge who would not meet in court, but only at a dark corner in his own car. Or the intermediary could only be sought out in a bar.

The question became: how to help the good?

To answer the question how to change the system, they then interviewed experts –retired judges, court administrators, judicial system specialists. They tried to wrap their heads around case management: how to streamline a process to weed out opportunities for interference? How can loop holes can be fixed and greedy fingers kept away from judges’ seals? How can court performance be monitored effectively? They planned analytical articles about such possible measures to be published in weeks to come.

Then came the writs and the injunctions –an avalanche of them. It was to be expected: the team had taken on judges, after all. Some of the writs were unsuccessful; one was. After drawing crowds in the capital Accra, the capital, the showing of the documentary compiled from the undercover footage, ‘Ghana in the Eyes of God,’ was stopped in Kumasi, Ghana’s second town.

To be continued.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas is Ghana’s, and arguably Africa’s, most famous investigative journalist. His undercover documentaries have been shown by, among others, Al Jazeera, Channel Four and CNN.