Red Tape under Military Government (1988)
A foreigner who enters Ghana nowadays is often greeted with “Welcome to Ghana”. The immigration officers are friendly and some even try to help the newcomer in his problems, e.g. finding a suitable taxi for a correct price.
According to my own experiences, such a behaviour was quite different in the 1980s, when a group of Germans from the University of Münster entered Ghana by way of Accra.
Early on the morning of August 15th, 1988, the four anthropologists (including myself), who were ready to start fieldwork among the Bulsa for one year, entered the Immigration Office of Accra. A large room was crowded with people, most of them white. We joined the queue for application forms and received a pile of forms in quarto format. Completing them took some time, because we always had to search our own documents for particular numbers and dates. The officer examined everything, then told us that we had filled in the wrong forms and the same procedure had to be repeated. After a second examination the officer instructed us that our coloured passport photos were not correct, they were to be black-and-white.
We left the office for a certain place in Accra, where a photographer with a big wooden camera took photos of our coloured pictures, and after some time they were converted into black-and-white ones.
At the office we joined the queue again, anxious to be served before closing time. We were lucky and our new photos were accepted this time, but when the officer was about to file our forms, he stopped and remarked that the forms had to be clipped together. We found some paper-clips in our bags, but these were not accepted. He asked for needles.
Rev. James Agalic, our companion, and I left the office in different directions of the administration block, knocked at various doors where we expected to meet officers and begged for at least one needle in each case. When we met again in the immigration office we had enough needles to satisfy the officer. He looked at his watch. It was only a few minutes before closing time, but magnanimously he accepted our forms. We had managed to complete our application for a residence permit within one day. In the office we had been told we could collect the residence permits after four weeks. Therefore, on the next day, we went to Sandema, about 900 km north of Accra.
Before the four weeks had passed, we were hit by another shocking event passed. On the morning of August 28th, 1988, a group of nine policemen (Special Branch) entered the compound Anyenangdu Yeri (Wiaga-Sinyangsa-Badomsa), where I was living during my one-year stay in Ghana.
Without answering my question for the reason of their “visit” they confiscated all my valuable luggage, my identification documents, most of my money and a pick-up car. I was ordered to present myself to the director of the National Bureau of Investigation at Accra. This officer, however, did not know anything about my case, and the group of the Northern policemen could not arrive, because a bridge on their road to the South had been destroyed by the flood. After presenting myself to the police every morning for six days, the head of the department said that some young policemen had probably been over-ambitious. He apologized and refunded a small part of my travelling costs.
Before leaving Buluk for Accra I had known that this police-episode would cause a tremendous waste of time and money, but my most serious concern was: How did my Bulsa friends and co-operators react on this incident? Would some of them perhaps be in doubt, whether I had committed some unlawful or even criminal act? In the evening of that embarrassing 27th August Anamogsi, my host and head of Anyenangdu Yeri, entered my courtyard and “thanked” me for my suffering. I have never fully understood what it means, when a Bulsa thanks somebody for a certain act which in Europe is not anything worth thanking. Once a woman thanked me when I had a puncture and had to push my mobilette and after attending an outstanding ritual event as an observer, the officiant came to me and thanked me for “helping them to perform the ritual”.
After his thanks Anamogsi even offered me to hide in one of the caverns that Bulsa had used as a refuge in the time of the slave raids, an old man had an attack of asthma and the Sandemnaab launched a complaint at the Regional Commissioner’s.
After I had not been successful collecting our residence-permits during my forced stay in Accra, Prof. Schott went to Accra and managed to receive a residence permit for himself, but not for the other three anthropologists, who should collect it after four weeks. The October visit in Accra was unsuccessful again. When, after four weeks in November, Barbara Meier and Martin Striewisch, the two assistants of Prof. Schott, returned to Sandema from their journey to Accra, they informed us about more shocking news. Not only were they refused the residence permit again. The immigration officer also claimed that they and I had not included separate invitations from the University of Ghana in the application forms, but only a single invitation for the professor and his assistants. We were requested to come to Accra immediately and leave Ghana within a few days. At the immigration office I was able to present my personal invitation from the University of Ghana and consequently was allowed to stay. The two assistants had to leave Ghana and apply by a letter from Germany to the University of Ghana for an invitation. Only after receiving this, would they be allowed to enter Ghana again. With deep gratitude I can state that the Institute of African Studies provided the two Germans with a post-dated invitation before they left Ghana, so that they could return immediately after their arrival in Germany and apply again for a residence permit. In January 1989 the two young anthropologists arrived in Sandema again, but of course without a residence permit.
My next visit to Accra in February 1989 was halfways successful: I was given the permit for myself, but not for the two assistants. I do not know when exactly they were permitted to stay in Ghana, but it was certainly before their departure.
Today I am wondering why this bureaucratic effort and expenditure was practised. It had consumed a tremendous amount of time and thousands of Dollars for the foreign guests but also for the immigration office, i.e. the state of Ghana. Was it, because a military regime wanted to show strength or did they display their fickleness? Or was it just the whim of one officer?
Red tape, i.e. unnecessary blown up bureaucracy, is a phenomenon distributed throughout the earth. Its motifs have not sufficiently been explored, but wherever it appears, all efforts should be employed to extinguish it completely.