For days, pensioners, some in wheelchairs, others with the support of walking sticks, gathered at the premises of Ghana’s Ministry of Finance in protest against a decision by the government to include their investments in its debt restructuring programme.At their age, and having toiled for the progress of the country for decades, the last thing they deserve in their later years is unnecessary worry.
But the announcement by the government that it decided to include their investments in bonds in its Domestic Debt Exchange Programme, which means they would be deprived of their yields and principal investments for at least five years, has left them restless.
Most of them said they depend on their investment returns to cater for their needs including their numerous medicals and would become destitute and may die before their time, should the government go ahead to include them in the programme.
But the government would not yield to their demand and its Finance Minister wouldn’t listen to them.
They have picketed continuously at the Ministry hopelessly, with the minister driving in and out on them, until Friday, February 10, 2023 when one but important person of the state showed up and gave hope to their demands.
Former Chief Justice Sophia Akuffo.
“I find it totally wrong because you don’t solve your problems by sacrificing your aged. That is the last thing you should do especially when you don’t have services that are specially geared at the comfort and the relief of the aged,” Madam Akuffo recently told the media after joining the protest.
The 73-year-old was the head of Ghana’s Judiciary, which is the third arm of the government, until her retirement in December 2019.
Though a pensioner and a bondholder, her retirement benefits by virtue of the position she held is ample enough to sustain her. If she wanted to, she could choose not be bothered about government defaulting in paying her yields.
Even if she was bothered about her personal survival, she has a close relationship with the current administration and could have simply used her influence to get herself exempted without having to protest.
But for the stateswoman, she chose not sit unconcerned when her peers are being unfairly treated and denied what is due them because she is privileged.
She believes her privileged position, rather, places a responsibility on her to stand up for the vulnerable and be their voices and she would not relent in that regard.
“If by the grace of God, I’ve a voice, why shouldn’t I use it.”
What Madam Akuffo considered a mere solidarity with her colleague senior citizens drew applause from majority of Ghanaians.
For many, she has not only proven that she has the ordinary Ghanaian at heart but also her commitment to go the extra mile to ensure their rights and dignity are protected.
In an extremely partisan country where even constructive criticisms are regarded as opposition, appointees and close associates of the government rarely speak up against its actions and inactions even if they are upset about them.
This is because doing so will automatically make them enemies of the government and they are likely to be victimised.
So for Madam Akuffo to join the protest and publicly criticise the administration, which elevated her to that high office and in which she still plays a role, is considered bold and daring.
Human rights activist and convener of the Individual Bondholders Association, Martin Kpebu described her as a heroine.
Mr. Kpebu said the action of Madam Akuffo “has strengthened and changed the face” of the country’s democracy and therefore, urged others to emulate her so that they could effectively contribute to the betterment of the country.
“I call her the Yaa Asantewaa (a heroine who led the Ashanti Empire to war in 1900) of our time. We need more people to speak up,” Mr. Kpebu lauded.
But not everyone is pleased with her boldness. Some members of the governing party including a cousin of the president have taken issues with her, accusing her of engaging in populism and seeking to make the government unpopular.
They say the former Chief Justice could have, at her fingertips, had the ears of the Minister or any official of the government to address any concern she may have about the programme if really she had a genuine one.
But Madam Akuffo would not be perturbed by such criticisms.
She, again, joined the protest on Monday, February 13, hitting back at her critics.
“Nobody can tell me what to do with my time and what to say about anything going on in this country. Thank God we have a constitution, flawed though it might be but at least, the right to say what I want to say and the freedom of conscience, that’s mine and nobody will trample on it however influential they are, wherever they’re influential.”
She argues that the government must be transparent, accountable to and accessible by every citizen of the country and not just a privileged few.
“So I’m the former Chief Justice, therefore I can have access to him (the minister) but those people sitting outside the ministry of
Finance can’t have his ears, really, is it right?” she queried.
Madam Akuffo’s participation in the picketing at the Ministry, some political watchers say, was a vote of no confidence on the government’s handling of the affairs of the country, a situation which compelled it to yield to the pensioners’ demand.
It began talks with the group the very day she joined the protest and on February 16, announced that they had been exempted from the debt exchange programme and assured them of paying their matured bonds.
Madam Akuffo says she is pleased with the outcome but will continue her activism.
“I decided that after this, I’m always going to find a course to espouse. Why shouldn’t I? That’s why God has given me life beyond retirement, and I think that every day after retirement, I must use it to worship God and there are many ways of worshipping. And part is loving your neighbour as yourself,” she stated.