Starr News has uncovered fresh facts that suggest the Upper East Regional Director of Health Services, Dr. Kofi Issah, may have deliberately misled the public with claims that some five official cars were ‘stolen’ from the regional directorate.
In what is the latest development on the longstanding controversy about the alleged missing vehicles, Dr. Issah has not only rendered an apology to authorities for his action but Starr News’s investigations also have dug out an official project vehicle he is said to have unduly taken from the directorate for his wife.
Dr. Issah, in a letter captioned “Regret over Situation of 5 Vehicles in the Ghana Health Service”, confessed soberly to the angry Director-General of the Ghana Health Service, Dr. Ebenezer Appiah-Denkyira, saying: “It is [my] poor, rural and humble beginnings that influenced my approach to the situation surrounding the five vehicles for which I wish to state that it was regrettable. The experience has taught me a revealing lesson regarding the operations of the service in general…”
Further, the letter, a copy of which Starr News has in possession, reads: “In this regard, I regret whatever was caused to you, the [Ghana Health Service Council], colleague Directors, and health staff and ask that we look forward in order to build a strong team for service delivery.”
He had told international donor agencies and the general public in August, 2016, that the vehicles had gone “missing” at the directorate before he took over the office from his predecessor in 2015. Some, following the announcement, concluded the claims were only an attempt to “tarnish the image of his predecessor”. But a section of the public, angered by the alleged theft, called for the recovery of the vehicles and for a suit against whosoever was responsible.
Starr investigates GEHIP reportedly given to wife
Sources within the Upper East Regional Health Directorate hinted Starr News in October, 2016, that Dr. Issah had unduly given out to his wife an official project vehicle, a grey pickup, meant to “sustain the gains made” under the Ghana Essential Health Intervention Project (GEHIP).
The sources added that he rubbed out the “GEHIP” originally labelled on the body of the car before “donating” it to his spouse. That car belongs to a set of the same project vehicles he had declared missing in August, 2016.
For several weeks, Starr News prowled in disguise day and night around the official residence of Dr. Issah (where he lives with his family) in the regional capital on the lookout for the said pickup. On the night of Friday November 11, 2016, Starr News spotted a grey pickup parked alongside two saloon cars under a car shed on the monitored compound. The investigation, as monitoring and efforts to take shots of the compound through the wire-mesh fence continued for days, at a point almost came to a crash when the security officers, always seen around the premises, appeared to have sniffed a spy.
In the late-morning hours of Monday December 19, 2016, Starr News finally gained access into the yard in disguise as a desperate basket hawker seeking shelter from a wild lunatic in the street. An unsuspecting security officer let in the ‘basket hawker’ who took some video footages and photographs of the vehicles on the compound with a secret camera.
Release of findings on the pickup was withheld in a long wait for a credible document to confirm and back the discoveries. A month after the December breakthrough, Starr News laid hands on a GEHIP project material showing a list of project vehicles including a Toyota Hilux pickup with the same registration number as the grey Toyota pickup spotted at Dr. Issah’s residence- GN 3439-12. The findings gave credence to what sources had hinted.
Seeking a reaction to the finds, Starr News asked Dr. Issah via SMS on Wednesday January 25, 2017, if he gave out a GEHIP pickup to his wife as inside sources claimed. Obviously unaware that Starr News had fetched some evidence from his residence, this was his reply in a text:
“There is also one given to my mother and another to my uncle in the village. I believe you have seen them driving the vehicles in town. Kindly let me know where you are so that they come around so that you can take pictures for evidence.
“I am also planning to allocate one vehicle to my grandfather, another vehicle to my village to my village chief, and leave with two when I’m going on retirement. Maybe I can loan you one of them so that you use for rural reporting. Thank you and happy new year.”
Another text message came, 25 minutes apart from the first and from the same source. It reads: “Eddie we are looking for you so that you take the pictures. Kindly let us know where you are. In the meantime expect a delegation from the village with the other GEHIP vehicle for the evidence you need for your story.”
A popular radio social commentator met with Starr News in Bolgatanga on Thursday 26th January, this year, saying the regional director and somebody had met with him. The said meeting allegedly was aimed at preventing the investigative findings from being published. The social commentator said he had made it clear to them that it would be difficult to stop the story from being published but, however, assured them of his readiness to forge a friendship between the director and the journalist, going forward. Subsequently, Starr News crafted a trick by forwarding a 500-word-long whatsapp message on Saturday 28th January, this year, to him, requesting to meet with him in secret and telling him that the findings made would no longer be published.
The trick was to extract further details from him. One of the pictures taken from his residence was attached to the message sent to him, to commit him to the meeting. But he had not responded to the proposal as of the time of filing this report. Inside sources say his delay in responding to the proposed secret meeting was due to the caution he received that the proposed meeting might be a trick to “expose” him further.
How the “missing vehicles” came and disappeared
Starr News also launched an investigation into the whereabouts of the vehicles which Dr. Issah had told the world were missing, beginning with how they arrived in the region in the first place.
In 2009, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) through the Columbia University funded the procurement of 7 vehicles to help the Ghana Health Service execute the Ghana Essential Health Intervention Project (GEHIP) in the region.
Dr. Awoonor-Williams, who is credited for initiating the project and putting together a comprehensive proposal that attracted funding for it, allocated six of the vehicles for the implementation of the project and reserved one for rapid response to such emergencies as disease outbreaks.
The six project vehicles were Mitsubishi Pickup GE 9289-10, Toyota Hilux Pickup GV 447-11, Toyota Hilux Pickup GN 3439-12 (the vehicle captured on secret camera at Dr. Issah’s residence), Mitsubishi Pajero GE 9291-10, Toyota Hilux Pickup GM 9929-13 and Toyota Hilux Pickup GV 261-09.
The project’s life, just six years, ran from 2009 to 2015 in three deprived districts- Bongo, Garu-Tempane and Builsa. Excited and encouraged by the amount of success realised at the close of the first phase, the partners decided to redirect their resources outside the region to replicate the same project elsewhere. But Dr. Awoonor-Williams, through another proposal development and mindful of scaling up the successful GEHIP project in the remaining ten municipalities and districts of the Upper East Region, convinced the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to launch a scale-up phase in the region.
The agency agreed to provide a grant of 9 million US dollars to cover the entire Upper East Region for five years (2016 – 2021). The agency would withhold the agreement later because of Dr. Issah’s “false alarm” about “missing vehicles”. But the Director-General also would succeed thereafter in convincing the “apprehensive” donors that project resources were safe in the Upper East Region.
A document available to Starr News also indicates that the Ghana Health Service and the donors, following the expiration of the project period, arrived at a decision in August, 2015, to retain three of the project vehicles in the region to “sustain the gains made”.
The vehicles were the Mitsubishi Pickup GE 9289-10, the Toyota Hilux Pickup GV 447-11 and the Toyota Hilux Pickup GN 3439-12. Whilst the Mitsubishi Pickup GE 9289-10 and the Toyota Hilux Pickup GN 3439-12 were allocated to the regional directorate to support administrative activities, the Toyota Hilux Pickup GV 447-11 was allocated to the district health management team in the Builsa South District to support health services delivery.
The other three vehicles- the Mitsubishi Pajero GE 9291-10, the Toyota Hilux Pickup GM 9929-13 and the Toyota Hilux Pickup GV 261-09- were also reallocated to the national headquarters of the Ghana Health Service for the launch of the same project in the Northern and the Volta regions. It is also on record that Dr. Awoonor-Williams successfully lobbied the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for 8 million dollars to support the implementation of GEHIP in those two regions for five years.
Controversies and drama of the year
Dr. Issah took over the administration of the region from Dr. Awoonor-Williams on Monday October 26, 2015, in rather controversial circumstances.
He initially was due to replace the then Northern Regional Director of Health Services, Dr. Akwasi Twumasi, who was due for retirement, but some residents of Tamale, the regional capital, met his appointment with wild protests in open preference for one Dr. Jacob Mahama, a Deputy Director in that region. Following his rejection in the Northern Region, Dr. Issah was asked to proceed and take charge of the Upper East Region- a move that detonated another barrage of protests staged by groups and individuals opposed to the transfer of Dr. Awoonor-Williams.
Dr. Issah was directed to return to the Brong Ahafo Region, where he was a Deputy Director until his appointment as Regional Director, and to temporarily assume office there as a regional boss as the substantive Regional Director, Dr. Timothy Letsa, who was in charge of that region at the time, had proceeded on leave of absence. But Dr. Issah, a native of the Upper East Region and backed by some of his kinsmen in the region, looked decided on taking the reins of regional administration in his region of birth. He courted the sympathy and support of some members of BONABOTO- a voluntary association of natives of the Frafra zones in the region- after he reportedly had complained that he had become stranded because Dr. Awoonor-Williams had refused to vacate the office for him.
Whilst his admirers continued to fight for his stay, Dr. Awoonor-Williams spent his last months in the region reportedly receiving text threats anonymously sent by groups and individuals believed to be rooting for Dr. Issah. Sources at the Regional Health Directorate also disclosed how there were threats and plans by supporters of Dr. Issah to embarrass him by staging a red-band demonstration in the yard of the regional directorate and locking up his office on Monday October 26, 2015.
According to sources, Dr. Awoonor-Williams, in a bid to avoid the impending humiliation, spent the entire weekend of Saturday and Sunday 24th and 25th of October, 2015, respectively preparing handover notes. There was little time for him to pack his belongings, sources revealed, and drama was already waiting for him when he arrived Monday to hand over. Demonstrators were on standby. Dr. Issah had arrived very early at the directorate and introduced himself to the staff on the 3-storey block as the new regional boss.
Whilst Dr. Awoonor-Williams was still on his way to the office to hand over, Dr. Issah had demanded access to the office of the regional director. But secretaries at the front desk, now torn between two overlords, nervously held on to the keys and burned with indecision. Dr. Awoonor-Williams finally arrived in the middle of that drama and graced an emotional handover ceremony that passed as quickly as a flash.
The hall was in funereal silence, differentiated from a sepulchre only by the whisper of pens on rattling notepapers. In ten minutes, it was all over. Dr. Awoonor-Williams left the scene immediately. He drove out of the yard and out of the region, all by himself in a saloon car. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) dubbed the development “a mini coup d’état” and many observers described it as “the drama of the year”.
The “truth” behind the curtains
In a letter dated 22nd January, 2016, Dr. Issah told the Director-General that “five vehicles [are] captured in our inventory but physically not available for service delivery”.
On Thursday April 14, the same year, he wrote another letter, reminding the Director-General about “five vehicles missing” from the region. The details he gave on the vehicles were Toyota Landcruiser GV3520-09, WW Passat (Saloon) GE9632-09, Mitsubishi Pajero GV9291-10, Toyota Hilux GV2914-14 and Toyota Hilux GM9929-13.
Dr. Issah wrote another letter dated 24th June, 2016, to the Director-General, indicating that he had not “received any written responses to the issues raised” about the “missing vehicles” and that “any decisions we take without the written advice of your office might be the only viable alternative left for us”.
The Director-General replied with a letter dated 7th July, 2016, explaining that the WW Passat (Saloon) car was being used officially by Dr. Awoonor-Williams as the headquarters had not provided him with a vehicle following his transfer to the headquarters as the Director in charge of Policy Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (PPME).
He added that the vehicle would be returned to the region as soon as the headquarters “is able to provide him with one”. It was the same official vehicle Dr. Awoonor-Williams used whilst he was the Upper East Regional Director. And as of the time he left the region, the headquarters had procured new saloon cars for all regional directors- one of which Dr. Issah uses today.
“Concerning the project vehicles, the Director PPME has indicated his preference for the Station Wagon which he used for the past 7 years to the newer V8 Landcruiser at the PPME Directorate. The Transport Department has therefore, been directed to dispatch a Toyota V8 Landcruiser to Upper East Region as a replacement. The V8 can better serve the terrain and support the proposed Family Physician Programme.
“The three pickup vehicles as explained in the attached letter from Prof. Jim Philips of the Columbia University (Principal Investigator) are to be used for the second phase of the project which is to be implemented in the Northern and the Volta Regions, since no vehicle shall be procured under the current project. It must however, be noted that the continuation phase of the project in the Upper East Region will be supported by KOICA which will provide support for vehicles,” the Director-General clarified.
But Dr. Issah still goes ahead
On Wednesday August 24, 2016, Dr. Issah stood in front of international donor agencies among other major stakeholders and declared that five vehicles had vanished from the directorate before he assumed office. The public announcement came after he had reported the same “development” to the Bureau of National Investigations (BNI) and the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) as well as BONABOTO.
“As we took stock of 2015, somewhere along the line we realised that five vehicles were on our inventory but the transport manager could not account for them physically. The vehicles were not around where we normally park them. We followed administrative procedure by writing to the Director General that this is the situation.
“We wrote to him and we’ve written to the Regional Minister to advise us. They are not bicycles; they are not motorbikes. These are vehicles- one car, one Mitsubishi Pajero, one V8 and two pickups,” he had affirmed his claim at the 2015 mid-year performance review held in Bolgatanga, the regional capital.
Although he did not mention names, a divided public believed he was pointing an accusing finger at his predecessor.
The announcement, trailed by widespread media reports, drew mixed reactions. Some called for the head of the nameless “thief” and chanted for the return of the ‘vanished’ vehicles. Others, particularly those who hailed the contributions of Dr. Awoonor-Williams to health service delivery as unequalled in the region, called it a well-rehearsed move to demonise an innocent legend and condemned it.
KOICA, who was to fund the new scale-up project in the region, became “apprehensive” in the wake of the alleged disappearance of the automobiles. Consequently, it also decided to put on hold an agreement it was initially scheduled to sign with the GHS for the execution of the 9-million-dollar project in the region.
A saddened Director-General summoned the Regional Director: “Media reports on your address at the region’s [just-ended] 2016 [half-year] review also harps on allegations that you made about missing vehicles in your region. This has been after you had received my [above-mentioned] letter that had indicated the whereabouts of the vehicles in response to your letter on the issue to me. The vehicles as indicated in my letter to you are not missing as you alleged and they are still in the Ghana Health Service.”
Also in a letter written to the then Upper East Regional Minister, Albert Abongo, and copied to the Minister of Health and the Chairman of the Ghana Health Service Council, the Director-General concluded that Dr. Issah was only out to destroy a legacy.
“The GEHIP Project chose to retain some of their vehicles in UER and relocate three (3) vehicles from the UER for continuation of the project in two regions long before Dr. Issah assumed duty as Regional Director of Health Services for UER. Without taking his time to find out details about such issues, Dr. Kofi Issah decided to embark on a programme to tarnish the name of his predecessor and also bring the image of GHS in general into disrepute.
“Instead of working to consolidate and build on the gains and achievements chalked in the region under his predecessor, Dr. Kofi Issah appears to embark on a programme to drag the name of the Ghana Health Service in the mud. In this quest, which I do not really understand, he appears bent on dragging all powers that be in the fray,” he pointed out.
CHRAJ, BONABOTO and fear of the unknown
Starr News also learns from credible sources that Dr. Ebenezer Appiah-Denkyira is likely to go on retirement in May this year, with Dr. Awoonor-Williams among some top medical chiefs most likely to replace him as the Director-General.
Dr. Issah may have apologised as evidenced by his regret letter, but the fire he stoked may not peter out now. The CHRAJ is said to have commenced investigations into the “missing” vehicles.
Not all members of BONABOTO support Dr. Issah, who is a member of BONABOTO himself. Some, both high-ranking and ordinary members of the group, have condemned his open strike at a man many say came to love the region like his own.
But BONABOTO has been widely cited by an angry public for not only setting loose a commission for administrative justice on Dr. Awoonor-Williams and the Director-General for alleged administrative injustice but also for vigorously fanning the flames of disrepute against the former (who has not spoken in public since he became the centre of “stolen” official property) not only to ‘kill’ his chances of rising to the peak of a career where, with an overall ‘arsenal’ at his absolute disposal, he might take a decisive revenge on those who “unjustifiably” hunted him to the core but also to jointly pull down the ‘giant statue’ once erected in his honour in the hearts of many to immortalise him.