They called him Mr Glenfiddich because that’s all he drank. Nobody knew anything about him except that everything he owned was expensive and new. The people in his neighbourhood would suck their teeth when he drove past in his huge black Lexus and think, “That man has too much money”.
One hot afternoon he stood on a mound of crumble-dry latrite and gazed out on a scrubby plain. His eyes scanned the horizon and he spun slowly on the spot, hoping to see a building that he knew wasn’t there. He sucked the last puff of relief from his Kingsize and kicked a discarded sandal into a pile of garbage next to a bush.
This was milder than his reaction at the first site, some two hundred miles up the road. With shaking hands he had lit two cigarettes in a minute, allowing the first forgotten stick to set fire to his car upholstery. He then almost came to blows with a policeman who had come to investigate the smoke. Only the politicking of his assistant had saved them from a tedious situation.
Back in Accra, showered and reinforced with two comforting balls of kenkey, he put on new clothes, jumped back into his Lexus and drove fast to the bar. He was enraged by the situation but he was also somehow exhilarated, for his worst suspicions had been confirmed.
The man they called Kofi Koko was already there waiting for him, aggressively eating a bowl of banku and okro. Kofi took a whole crab in one pudgy fist and his mouth became a rotating cement mixer, resulting in a fine pile of rubble which he delicately spat onto the edge of the plastic Alomo Bitters tablecloth.
“Oh!” he exclaimed as he barely looked up. “You’re putting on! God is good!”
Glenfiddich ordered three shots of whiskey and set another Kingsize smouldering.
“I visited some of the depots today, Kofi. I didn’t see the cargo.”
“These contractors… they’re unreliable.”
A beautiful young woman, wearing immaculate weave and tight-fitting black dress pushed through the glass doors of the bar and sat with them at the table, holding a takeaway pack. He recognised her. She used to sell him loose cigarettes at the spot at the end of his road. Her Auntie’s bar was part of a kiosk village on a big, undeveloped plot. She was a child then, no older than fifteen, sixteen at most, sent from Volta to be educated in Accra. She wore a Minnie Mouse T-shirt and chalewotes and watched WWE with her cousins. He had contributed to a collection she had organised to sponsor her school fees. Then one day the developers had come in and graded the land and the kiosks, and all the people had scattered as their world was dismantled like scenery on a film set.
She sat down and smiled at him shyly.
Then she turned to Kofi, “Baby, I’m going to the car.”
Kofi watched her walk up the steps then leered at him.
“Not bad, eh?”
“As I said, I went to the depots today, Kofi. The NPK isn’t there. The depots aren’t there, either.”
“Is that so? Maybe the fertiliser hasn’t cleared at the ports, yet.”
“It’s cleared, alright. It’s been in the country for three months.”
Kofi shrugged again and turned his attention back to the banku which was smeared over his fingers. Red oil ringed his mouth and he looked up at the man with wide bloodshot eyes.
“What do you care? You’ve had your money, after all.”
“It’s not about the money, Kofi.”
Kofi sneered into his banku. Not about the money, indeed. This guy always went on like this, but ultimately he did what he was supposed to. He was too deeply involved to do anything foolish.
“My friend, you have nothing to worry about.”
They both knew that the man had a lot to lose. The man thought back to the conversation that he’d had with his boss a year ago.
Peering into his laptop he’d seen the calm face of Karen Bryce, head of Agritek’s Emerging Markets Division. Her skin was pale against the bright, pure light pouring through the window behind her. At that time, he hadn’t secured any tenders to supply fertiliser or equipment. Not one. Questions were being asked. After all, as a Ghanaian he was expected to understand the local terrain. Was he competent to lead this project?
In response he laid bare to Karen Bryce why they had failed thus far. A long silence followed.
“What do you expect me to do?” she said at last.
“It isn’t enough to submit our application and be deemed worthy. We have to financially remunerate the individuals who make the decisions about who gets the contracts.”
Karen Bryce smiled and shook her head.
“That might be the way things are done there, but we don’t pay bribes.”
There was something in her voice that seemed to implicate him, and it infuriated him. But he kept silent. Eventually she went on.
“The most I can do is increase your expenses budget for hospitality.”
He stared beyond her at the blue, blue sky and the gleaming Chicago skyscrapers. And he sighed.
“Very well, Karen. Some of the restaurants here are very, very expensive. And they don’t all issue receipts.”
“I understand,” was the crisp reply. In hindsight, that was the only moment he could have argued she was complicit. How naïve he was to imagine that she hadn’t done this before.
Soon the contracts were all theirs. Kofi’s bosses weren’t interested in a multitude of bribes from different sources. They wanted one big bribe from someone who could fulfil all the orders. It was all or nothing.
He had grown rich within the year. Now came the problem of concealing this newfound wealth. For sure, if the ruling party left power the opposition would come in on a ticket of anti-corruption and he would be doomed.
So he built a beautiful house in Airport Hills in three months flat. He bought a couple more cars and then he started buying land. But he quickly realised that if everything was in his name, it was no less traceable than cash in the bank. So he built a house for one of his wife’s cousins, with the understanding that the cousin would pay him back in the future.
Sometimes, in bed at night, his head would swim with an unquenchable fear, a paranoia that gripped his heart. What if he lost everything? Thoughts of betrayal swam there too, and they begat angry fantasies. Murderous ones. He acquired a gun. His household grew nervous of his moods.
Kofi had finished his meal now. He looked up with round eyes, expecting Glenfiddich to help him wash his hands with the jug of water and the little bottle of Sunlight on the table. But Glenfiddich didn’t move, so Kofi had to do it by himself.
“I’m not comfortable, Kofi, with this John Deere order. I’m told you’ve got the funds signed off but I’m to search for an inferior brand… and then what, you keep the difference in cost?”
“You’re worried you no get chop?” Kofi grinned. “You’ll get yours.”
“I’m worried we’ll get caught.”
“Doing what? Claiming a commission for services rendered?”
There was real indignation in his voice.
Corruption is a process. A person doesn’t wake up rotten one morning; it happens in stages.
A gradual compromise of learned moral standards, excused to oneself through reasons of necessity.
Eventually a man feels so justified that he boils with truly righteous anger if challenged. Kofi had been through the stages long ago, now it was Glenfiddich’s turn.
He knew that he would do it. And Kofi knew it, too. This fat man, ugly inside and out. Venal, greedy, reckless and without decency. With horror, Glenfiddich understood the thing he hated most about Kofi; that they were truly alike.
Kofi left him with the bill, as usual, and made his way to his car. Glenfiddich turned to watch him go. As he opened the Land Cruiser door, the overhead light came on, casting a warm glow on the Ewe girl’s face. She smiled at him faintly, then the door closed and her face was lost in darkness again.
And so they continued with the profitable business of embezzling state funds. A government scheme to plant a million trees meant he could supply less fertiliser than paid for, and simply keep the rest of the money, while somebody else delivered fewer trees. For a second time, Agritek was awarded a large contract to supply John Deere tractors, with inferior quality vehicles being supplied.
The money kept rolling in, Karen Bryce and his superiors were very satisfied, but he was no more comfortable. In fact, he was wracked with anxiety about the upcoming election, convinced that the incumbent party would be ousted. His contracts would dry up and he would be engulfed in scandal.
But against his expectations, the government won a second term. The contracts would all be his for another four years. Finally, there was daylight at the end of the tunnel. By the end of this administration he would have enough money to stop altogether, as would everyone else who knew the truth about these ill-gotten tenders.
He could always remember the day when the whole scheme unravelled at last. The official that he used to clear containers at the port had succumbed to a disease of the kidneys. His replacement was a sharp-eyed young man, astute and inquisitive. In fact he asked too many questions. Glenfiddich moved him on after just two months because those sharp eyes made him uncomfortable.
But two months was all it took.
One rainy night Glenfiddich sat on his porch watching the big snails climb the walls of the compound and heard the rain pound the aluminium roof before it poured out of the gutter onto the slick, wet grass.
His phone rang.
“Are you watching TV3?” Kofi demanded. It was obvious from his hoarse tone that something was badly wrong.
“You need to.”
Reluctantly, he ascended the marble stairs and switched the TV on in his bedroom. His wife briefly stirred but then rolled over and slept.
The screen lit up and filled with the image of Anas Aremeyaw. The journalist’s face was obscured as usual by a dense beaded curtain hanging from his hat. But he seemed to be staring directly into Glenfiddich’s heart as he spoke. The phone rang and he almost jumped out of his armchair.
“You watching now?” asked Kofi.
“Yes,” he gasped. Suddenly it was hard to breathe
“They wouldn’t give us advance copy. The documentary goes out tomorrow night. They know everything about what you’ve been doing.”
There was a long silence.
“What I’ve been doing, Kofi? Have I done it alone?”
“This isn’t the time for blame. Can you think of anyone who might have infiltrated the operation to expose you like this?”
Of course, he could. The sufferer of food poisoning always remembers the meal that caused it. He had seen that sharp-eyed young man in his mind’s eye as soon as he saw Anas. They had to discredit these journalists at all costs.
“Ok,” Kofi agreed. “I’ll handle it. But my boss wants you to come in tomorrow to discuss the matter.”
All night he lay staring at the ceiling. At one point his wife rolled over and stretched her hand out across the pillow. So he held it.
By the time the sun came up, Glenfiddich had already made a plan, even before he heard the shocking news that a young investigative journalist had been found shot dead in Asylum Down.
They had to leave immediately. He promised his wife an explanation when they got to America, and she trusted him. She had always trusted him to do the best for their family.
There were no goodbyes. Within hours he had bought tickets from his agent, checked that their multiple-entry visas were still valid, and packed his wife and son into the Lexus. As the driver sped down Liberation Road the afternoon traffic was surprisingly light. He felt the terrible weight lift from his chest as they approached Kotoka Airport and imagined drifting into deep sleep as the plane ascended from the troubles of Accra.
Now he didn’t care about the money, the houses or the cars. All he wanted was to be free. Like a snake, he would wriggle out of this dead skin and slither into the bush to start again.
He almost laughed out loud as he thought back over the events of the previous two years. It was like a Hollywood movie. What an adventure it had been.
But as the car rounded the long elevated curve that led to Departures, he began to feel that something wasn’t right. There were police everywhere.
“Turn around!” he hissed to the driver. But behind them were three police SUVs, ensuring that they move forward. As they proceeded in silence, he saw how many police there actually were, and in the midst was Kofi, as he had never seen him. Kofi looking tired and flustered as he explained himself to a senior-looking official. He had also tried to run. For a moment he looked around and met Glenfiddich’s gaze with eyes that were full of fear.
Glenfiddich clutched the gun on his hip as if it were his saviour, but in his heart he knew that now was his time to be afraid.