Lessons Learned: You Will Be Unprepared for Scams and Corruption


This post probably goes in the one named “Being an American Has Its Disadvantages” but I think it’s worth separating it from the others.

I feel pretty confident operating in America.  I attended a good undergrad university and a great business school, I scored at the top of the range for the GMAT, and I have worked at some large companies as well as some cool small ones.

Americans are known for being forthright and transparent.  In our culture, we view these as good qualities.  For example, “My word is my bond,” “He looked me in eye,” and “Let’s shake on it,” are all common phrases that suggest that the two parties are acting in good faith and will do as they promise.  If you betray the implicit pledge, you are considered a scoundrel.

In business, both parties will draft a legal contract that outlines the terms.  It is backed by the integrity of the courts.  For many companies, e.g. Fortune 500 companies, they can trade on their reputation alone.  It is assumed that you wouldn’t be in business if you were too dishonest.

As I have alluded in a previous post, Ghanaians are not forthright.  There’s is tremendous pressure to maintain “face”.  As a foreigner, you cannot expect Ghanaians to deal with you honestly.  Sad but true.  There’s probably an angle they have thought of that you never considered.

Despite my academic and professional credentials and given my American transparent self, I often feel like a novice when it comes to dealing with Ghanaians.  Corruption and an “us vs. them” philosophy” are at the heart of it.

When I arrived in Ghana, I understood that corruption would be an issue when dealing with government officials.  I decided that though I may be inconvenienced on occasion by waiting longer than normal, I would minimize my dealings with the government.  What I did not recognize, however, was “corruption” is endemic to the society as a whole.

According to Wikipedia, “corruption” can take on three forms:

  • Petty corruption: “occurs at a smaller scale and occurs within established social frameworks and governing norms. Examples include the exchange of small improper gifts or use of personal connections to obtain favors. This form of corruption is particularly common in developing countries and where public servants are significantly underpaid.”
  • Grand corruption: “corruption occurring at the highest levels of government in a way that requires significant subversion of the political, legal and economic systems.”
  • Systematic corruption: “corruption which is primarily due to the weaknesses of an organization or process.”

Let’s be clear that corruption exists in America but is often legitimatized by established processes.  For instance, it is legal to influence (bribe) political candidates with money through campaign and party contributions.  There are legal limits on soft and hard money donations but let’s not pretend it is not an attempt to influence politicians to achieve favorable legislative outcomes.  Other examples include:

In Ghana, I almost hesitate to call corruption by this name because it seems to pervade every aspect of society.  What’s worse is that the line between corruption and scams easily can be blurred.

I believe corruption occurs because individuals feel they are limited in legal opportunities to profit so they use their position in government, a company, or within a tribe/clan/social group to take advantage of one or more parties.  As more people engage in corrupt practices, others feel that the only way to get ahead is to participate.  Eventually, a parallel system of favors emerges alongside the legal one.

An obvious example is trying to get anything processed through a government agency.  I recall a young, African-American lady complaining that Immigration had held her passport for 2 months as they were trying to renew her visa.  She was becoming desperate because she wanted to return to the US for the Christmas holidays.  Such a long wait should be an implicit message to the lady to pay “something small” to expedite the process.  Eventually she contacted a local friend who called a guy.  Within a week, somehow they “found” her passport and she could travel again.

In other cases, corruption finds you.  In 2011, I was driving with a British-Ghanaian friend who was stopped by a police on motorbike.  The police claimed my friend had run a red light.  I believe — though I’m not sure — that the police do not give tickets because there’s no way to enforce their payment.  The police can take you to the local police station to do something… Basically, it will waste 2-3 hours of your time.  Most of the time, the police are looking for “something small” to allow you to go back on your way.  Depending on the person being stopped, this can be as low as 1-2 cedis for locals to 50+ cedis for us obrunis.

In the private sector, it’s not uncommon for an advisor to try to arrange funding between two parties.  Once the two parties have met, one or both will try to circumvent the advisor to avoid paying the arrangement fee.

Ok, I can deal with this stuff but what’s hard to anticipate is when someone rigs a process and/or singles you out because you are a foreigner.  It makes me feel unwelcome being here.

I think the most common scam involves selling gold.  Ghana used to be known as the “Gold Coast” and people have been involved in mining for a long time.  It’s a highly regulated process to remove gold from Ghana.  A friend once introduced me to someone who said he could arrange for me or a group of investors to buy gold at below market prices.  This happened two years ago when gold was trading below what it is now.  For the sake of the example, let’s say gold was trading at $1,000 per oz.  The connection said he could source gold from the mines near Kumasi at $800 per oz.  Once mined, the gold would be transported to Accra where it would be inspected by ?the Minerals Commission.  Once the gold was approved for export, you could then sell the gold on the open market for $1,000 per oz, thus pocketing an easy 25 percent.  All you needed was $200,000 to start.  The reason I even considered it was that I trusted the man who introduced the other guy.

Not For Sale

Not For Sale

Besides gold, another common scam is to sell land that you are not the owner nor the proper agent for.  These people target locals and foreigners.  Land ownership in Ghana is not clearly titled and frequently results in legal disputes.  You will frequently see hand painted walls stating, “This Property Is Not For Sale”.

This an extreme scam that I heard this happened in Nigeria.  A foreign man was looking to buy a car for $40,000.  On the way to purchasing the vehicle, the man was arrested by a (crooked) police officer.  The police officer then took the man to a remote location where he was sodomized and photos were taken of him engaged in the activity.  Note: being gay in Nigeria is illegal and is punishable with prison time.  The police officer along with the man purporting to sell him the car then blackmailed him to pay the $40,000 for the car and release him from jail.

If you read the local paper, you will occasionally find stories where people dressed up as police officers to commit crimes and/or dupe unsuspecting citizens.  Other times, you will read about occasions when a crooked cop was involved in a crime.

Americans are not equipped to deal with corruption for several reasons.  First, the US govt bans us from practicing it.  Second, we do not know where the boundaries are for other people to act.  Third, we tend to wear our thoughts and feelings on our sleeve so people can read us and adjust to our indignation.

When engaged with locals, you have to anticipate what they will do first if they are honest and second if they are dishonest.  The latter is the one you have to worry about because they know how the system works and will be, at least, two steps ahead of you.  Given these anecdotes, I really try to avoid dealing with locals on any transaction involving serious money.

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