Publicans at the airport

The publicans were the most detested people in ancient Israel during the time of Jesus, when the Roman Empire ruled the nation as an imperial occupying power. They were Jewish tax collectors employed indirectly by the Roman government and classified by their fellow Israelites as collaborators of the enemies of Israel.

Roman businessmen usually established companies through which they would acquire certain Jewish provinces for renewable periods of five years, and charge taxes on behalf of the imperial government. These entrepreneurs would then employ local Jewish men in their acquired territories to collect those taxes comprising duties on imports and exports, bridge tolls, poll tax, and levies on merchants who came to Israel to buy and sell.

The position was open to bids and the highest bidder, invariably a wealthy Jew, got his proposal accepted and won the right to do business in the territory concerned. Such collectors would be given a threshold of revenue expected from them. Whatever they got over and above the threshold was theirs. And so, they used all kinds of unethical methods to collect it for the government and themselves.

First, they would impose a fictitious assessment on property or income and  inflate the rates at their discretion in order to rake in a higher percentage of tax and make maximum profit at the expense of the hardworking and helpless people. Moreover, these unscrupulous tax collectors harassed the people and charged them on the spot.

And it did not end there. Hours or even minutes after your unpleasant encounter, you were likely to meet another tax collector who would also demand tax. Sometimes, the publicans were accompanied by Roman soldiers and the oppressed people had no recourse to justice anywhere.

For their corrupt practices, these cruel tax collectors were regarded by their fellow Jews as, not just traitors working for their oppressors, but also, as extortioners and leeches that drained the lifeblood of the people by their exorbitant taxes.

Even more condemning of these hated people were the rabbis, that is, the religious leaders, who considered them unclean because of their contact with the Romans. They excommunicated them from the synagogues, forbade them from exchanging their money at the temple treasury, and prohibited them from testifying as witnesses in court. Thus, despite the substantial wealth they made, these publicans were derided and ostracised from their own communities. Yet, in defiance, they furrowed their brows and shrugged off the jeers and sneers. Now, Israel is a democratic country; they are not under the hegemony of any empire, and thankfully, the publicans are nowhere to be seen.

But, sadly, the publicans have resurfaced, not in Israel, but in Ghana. They are everywhere but in this article, those on the radar are the kind operating at the airport. They are encouraged by the powers that be for the share they would get. The operations of this new breed remind me of a certain woman somewhere in the Ashanti Region nicknamed, “Maame Ap3nkwa nya wuo,” which translates to, “The woman who got death while looking for life.”

It happened that the woman’s pastor proclaimed a fast for the congregation with the following instruction: “You may do it continually for seven days from six to six, or you can fast-track it by doing three days dry fasting,” which implied that you could not drink any water or eat for three days. The woman weighed the options and chose the latter. After just one day, she realised that she was gasping for breath. In anguish, she exclaimed: “Ei, me b3 p33 nkwa anaa s3 owuo,” meaning: “Did I come seeking life or death,” That is how she got her name.

The inception of COVID 19 brought in its wake the loss of precious lives. The National Security Coordinator, Mr. Joseph Kyeremeh, a family friend, known among my siblings as K-Joe, succumbed painfully to the virus. Another heavyweight who was not spared by the deadly virus was Dr. Jacob Plange-Rhule, FRCP, FWACP, FGCP (July 27, 1957 –April 10, 2020), a Ghanaian physician, academic, and Rector of the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons from October 2015 until his death in 2020.He was the private doctor of my first son about three decades ago in Kumasi, and one of the finest gentlemen I ever came across. How can I forget the loss of Nanabanyin Pratt, my own former Managing Director at New Times Corporation who, perhaps, in admiration of my straight talk, called me “Wogyafo.” You have to find out what that means.

Given the frequency and scope of death resulting from COVID, it became imperative for the Government to adopt stringent measures to stem the tide. As part of the interventions, personal protective equipment were supplied to healthcare workers. The wearing of masks was enforced while the use of sanitisers was also recommended. Mass gatherings were banned, compelling churches to go online, and become financially unstable. Funerals suffered a drastic cut in donations adding to the sorrow inflicted by a COVID-related death.

Another intervention adopted in the heat of the pandemic, was the introduction of a regime of testing by the Government to determine the COVID status of arriving international travellers, and prevent a situation where a positive person would slip into the country and spread the virus. The Ghana Airports Company Limited, in collaboration with a group calling itself the Frontier Healthcare Services Limited, is in charge of the programme at the Kotoka International Airport. All these measures were taken because we were seeking life. But, like the Ashanti woman in the tale related above, we are gasping for breath.

From the way things are going, I see some similarity between Israel’s ancient experience at the hands of the tax collectors and the imperial government. In those days, the Roman government just waited for what it deemed its fair share. Whatever the publicans imposed on the people was none of their business. I smell the presence of the publicans at the airport and other places. Fortunately, we are not under the hegemony of any foreign power. “Y3n ara asaase ni.”“This is our own land.” Yet, unfortunately, the publicans are operating as typical of them, with all impunity and the Government, through its agent, has given them the latitude to impose an unjustifiable and unbearable testing fee on the people.

In many jurisdictions the world over, the fee has been drastically reduced due to mass vaccination everywhere and the reduction in the spread of the virus. So, for what justifiable reason should the testing cost $50 for Ghanaian and other ECOWAS citizens, and $150 for other nationals? The most painful and irritating aspect of the whole thing is that even people with proof of being vaccinated within the stipulated timeframe before arriving, are still compelled to undertake the test.

Yet, according to information on their own website, passengers must possess a COVID-19 negative PCR test from an accredited laboratory in the country of origin. The test should have been done not more than72 hours before the scheduled departure time from the country of origin. You take all this precaution, and they still insist on taking the test and charging you unjustifiably.

Annoyingly, they have the guts to tell travellers arriving from the US or UK, with all their stringent testing regimes that they have tested positive for COVID and must be quarantined at a hotel at their own expense, which is all part of the grand scheme to extort money from people.

Is the Government not just folding its arms and waiting for its “fair share” of the revenue from the “publicans?” Have they considered the pain it takes to make $50? That is more than GH¢300 which is somebody’s monthly pay in Ghana in this day and age. Miss Mercy Agyei-Ankomah, a former English language teacher at the Juaben Senior High School, now based in Vietnam, says she used to be paid GH¢1,500, Do you know how much that is in dollars? It is about $250. That means Frontier Healthcare Services charge a fifth of a teacher’s monthly salary for a few minutes they spend testing an arriving passenger.

For all you know, the Government just gets a token while the collectors pocket the biggest chunk of the money accruing from the testing. That is the way it worked in ancient Israel. There must be an immediate intervention to save passengers from this rip off by these latter-day publicans.

In January, the MP for North Tongu, Mr. Samuel Okudzeto-Ablakwa described the fees as an extortion and cautioned that if the cheating was not stopped by February, Parliament would intervene. Please, Homourable, February ended a long time ago, and March has already crossed the half-way mark. We are anxiously waiting for your next move.

Meanwhile, another legislator, Mr. Davis Opoku Ansah, the MP for Mpraeso Constituency, has added his voice to calls for a drastic reduction of the fees, saying that even though we need to keep track of the virus and deal with it through interventions like testing, we must reduce the charges because they are harming trade and tourism.

Whoever the cap fits, let them wear it. Over to you, Joe Lartey!


By Tony Prempeh

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