Ghana’s leading undercover reporter uses disguises to expose trafficking rings and government corruption. His work has led to convictions and the recovery of millions of dollars in state funds. He talks to Libby Powell
What was your first investigation?
I got a tip-off that the police were taking money from street hawkers to allow them sell on the Tema motorway – a major freeway in Ghana. The police were not willing to talk about this and none of the hawkers I interviewed confirmed this allegation.
To get the story, I decided to immerse myself as a hawker to see the situation on the motorway for myself. I worked as a hawker – selling peanuts – and within a week, I discovered the police were indeed taking bribes.
What was your motivation at that early stage?
The police and politicians often ask for evidence whenever journalists break meaningful stories. I felt they were calling for journalists to go beyond the role of the sentinel; to find the information and leave no stone unturned. Undercover reporting unconsciously became my personal response to this call.
Many journalists inspired me from the beginning and they still do – my editor, Kwaku Baako Jnr, Kwaku Sakyi-Addo and a list of others.
Undercover reporting however is something I had to figure out on my own.
Your aim is to ‘name, shame and jail’. Do you trust the Ghanaian penal system to finish what you start?
I believe democracy is a process; one that becomes effective when institutions collaborate towards the development of the nation.
Most institutions in Ghana and many developing countries are in their nascent stages and suffer from some limitations. What I do is to extend a hand whenever I can (to the Police or the Judiciary) to ensure that the villains in my stories are dealt with.
Rooting out corruption is a collaborative effort. It is tackled most effectively when the various institutions of state, the media and civil society play a part.
Other than convictions, what results of your work are you most proud of?
Each investigation comes with its own life. I try to treat them all independently and I measure my results in how far each investigation drives the debate for change.
Do you see a surge of African-led independent reporting around you and if so, what is aiding that?
Media ownership plays an important part in what gets covered. It has not entirely been a case of western reporters. It is a case of western media ownership and the decision of who the storyteller should be. Without any ownership of a global media organization by an African, the decision of who tells African stories will always rest with the Western media.
You seem to have accepted the necessary risks and sacrifices that arise as a result of your work. Looking back, do you still feel the stories were worth the risk?
I take it that risk is inherent in everything we do; just that some risks are more apparent than others.
Do you worry that using a disguise erodes any core journalistic principles, or perhaps, enables them?
Undercover is a method of last resort. It is aimed at dark worlds that would remain closed if there were no other ways to get in. It often comes at great personal risk, but also provides high rewards when done right. As a journalist, I believe stories that do not impact society in any way are not worth telling.
Many of your features expose high level corruption. Do you ever worry about perpetuating media stereotypes of Africa?
I think context is important in the stories we tell. While stories such as Watergate or the collapse of Lehman Brothers or hydraulic fracking may not attract the same attention in Africa, illegal mining or child prostitution are stories which can only be appreciated in the given context. Africa’s development is unique and the stories I tell speak to that.
How long do you think you can sustain this work? If you are not doing this in 10 years time, what will you be doing?
Apart from journalism, I am also a trained lawyer and a member of the Ghana Bar Association. I also work as a private investigator. If it ever becomes necessary to move away from undercover reporting, I’ll still be involved in the business of driving change within my society.