For the third time in the ongoing GHS217-million financial loss trial against former Ghana Cocoa Board CEO Stephen Opuni, businessman Seidu Agongo and his company Agricult, a witness has told the court that neither the businessman nor his agrochemical company influenced the processes of COCOBOD or its agencies.
Mr Peter Okyere Boateng, the sixth defence witness, told the court on Monday, 6 February 2023 that Mr Agongo and Agricult did not influence the 2015 Cocoa Health and Extension Division (CHED) report.
The witness said he did an independent work without any external influence from any other person(s).
The report contained the views and perceptions of some farmers on fertiliser and other inputs, including liquid fertilisers.
Mr Agongo and his company are being tried along with the former CEO of the Ghana Cocoa Board, Dr Stephen Opuni, for the alleged fraudulent procurement of Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser for Cocobod from the businessman’s company.
They are facing 27 charges, including defrauding by false pretences, wilfully causing financial loss to the state, money laundering, and corruption by a public officer in contravention of the Public Procurement Act.
They have both pleaded not guilty to the charges and are each on a GH¢300,000.00 self-recognisance bail.
In cross-examination by Mr Agongo’s lead counsel, Mr Nutifafa Nutsukpui, the witness said: “l worked under a director, who was Dr Frank Baah and, therefore, l took no instruction or advice from any other person.”
The GNA reports that Mr Okere Boateng said he managed the department solely and independently and had no external influence on his work.
The witness said he had the approval of his director for the work he did, noting in court that it was the first time he was meeting the accused person.
He said there was nothing unusual about the report 2015 CHED report, indicating that it was not the first time he had done something of that nature.
“l remembered at the Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Department of COCOBOD, l did an evaluation of the impact of the CODAPEC/HITECH on Cocoa production in Ghana,” he recalled.
Asked, whether the witness would consider the report as an official COCOBOD report, he agreed, saying it was presented to the COCOBOD authorities and kept in their custody.
The witness said apart from using the cocoa crop forecasting data to determine the syndicated loan to procure cocoa beans, it was also used for planning purposes and for the purchase of inputs like fertilisers.
Asked, whether he knew how COCOBOD pays back the loan, the witness said he did not know the actual procedures used in the payment processes.
Mr Nutsukpui asked whether it was the Board which actually paid back the loan contracted from the international banks.
The witness said as far as he knew and had heard while at the Research Department, the “Board pays for the loan, itself.”
He said in his 28-year experience at the Board, he had never heard on any occasion where a budget presented to parliament made mention of the fact that the government would pay for the loan contracted from international banks.
The witness said as far as he knew the processes, the Board financed its own operations.
‘I’m not aware’ Agongo, Agricult ‘influenced’ review of COCOBOD’s 2013/2014 budget; it was a normal Board function – Witness In March 2022, the first defence witness, Mr Charles Tetteh Dodoo, who served on the Board of the state-owned cocoa-buying company from June 2009 to December 2016, told the same Criminal Division of the Accra High Court, presided over by Justice Clemence Honeynuga, a Justice of the Supreme Court sitting with additional responsibility as a High Court judge, during cross-examination on Thursday, 17 March 2022: “I am not aware” the second and third accused persons – businessman Seidu Agongo and his agrochemical firm Agricult Company Limited – “influenced” the “review” and subsequent approval of COCOBOD’s 2013/2014 budget, which also contained the state-run firm’s procurement programme for that year.
This was his response to a direct question from Mr Nutsukpui about whether he knew if his clients influenced COCOBOD’s budgeting processes for the year under question.
Mr Tetteh told the court that COCOBOD’s procurement plan is always contained in the company’s budget, which, according to him, the Board of Directors of the company normally approve by “consensus”.
In addition, Mr Tetteh said every procurement is authorised by the Board
“My Lord, I have no knowledge of any supplier of goods and services having an influence on these processes”, Mr Tetteh told the court. “What I want to add is that the suppliers or their representatives come often to COCOBOD to follow up on their issued”. Read below excerpts of the cross-examination:
Q. Now, sir, according to you, on the 6th of December 2021, when a new Board was sworn in in January 2014, it reviewed the 2013/2014 budget. is that correct?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. And, according to you, this second Board requested that area for the coverage of fertiliser application be expanded? A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. This review process and the request for the expansion in the coverage area; was it a decision of the whole Board, if you remember?
A. I recall that after the inauguration, the Board met and discussed this programme and that next to the expanded programme.
Q. As far as you are concerned, this was a decision of the whole Board and not any single individual on the Board. Is that correct? A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. Now sir, this process of reviewing the 2013/2014 budget, as far as you are aware, was it influenced in any way by the 2nd and 3rd Accused Persons?
A. My Lord, I didn’t know them.
Q. Now, the decision to expand the coverage area for fertiliser application, as far as you are aware, was that decision of the Board influenced by the 2nd and 3rd Accused Persons. A. My Lord, I am not aware.
Q. Sir, would you consider from your experience from serving on the Board that the budget review process and the decision to expand the area for fertiliser coverage were normal Board functions or normal decisions made by this second Board that you served on?
A. My Lord, what I recall at the time during the discussions was that new products, by way of fertilisers and agrochemicals, do come on the market and so COCOBOD needs to make allowance for these products as and when they are tested and approved by CRIG. So, in the midst of this discussion, this expansion was discussed and the review was requested.
Q. My question to you is: Would you consider that as a normal Board function that the Board was carrying out? A. My Lord, I do not see anything odd about these discussions given the fact that board members come from various backgrounds and they are supposed to make meaningful input to board discussions. Agongo & Agricult never influenced me or Cocobod to buy Lithovit fertiliser – Ex-Board Chair Ohene Agyekum
In June 2022, a former Chairman of the Board of Directors of COCOBOD, Ambassador Daniel Ohene Agyekum, also told the same court that the decision by the Board of COCOBOD to buy Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser for farmers was devoid of any influences from Mr Agongo and his company.
“When the board meets, most of the decisions were arrived [at] after a thorough discussion of the issues that were presented to the board as agenda items”, adding: “Those issues will be on our agenda and decisions were taken by consensus”, he explained to the court during cross-examination by Mr Nutsukpui. Asked if it was possible, during his tenure as Chairman between January 2014 and January 2017, for an individual board member to take decisions on behalf of the board, Dr Opuni’s fourth witness said: “My Lord, no”, explaining: “When the board meets, any of the issues presented by each board member is given the opportunity to make his or her views known to the other members and if there is a need for clarification to assist him or her in arriving at a decision, this was normally provided by any member of the board who has knowledge on that particular subject, a clarification could also be provided by the experts who are invited by the board to attend our board meetings”.
Mr Ohene Agyekum also said COCOBOD’s budget and procurement plans were dealt with by the board in a similar fashion. He said from January 2014 to January 2017, it was the board rather than an individual that approved the budgets and procurement plans for COCOBOD.
“Those decisions are taken by the board, as a whole, after a thorough discussion”.
Regarding whether any of those decisions were influenced by Mr Agongo and/or his company Agricult, Mr Ohene Agyekum answered: “My Lord, they could not have had any influence whatsoever because they did not attend any of our meetings”.
Asked if he had any personal dealings with Mr Agongo and Agricult Company during his tenure as Chairman of the Board of Directors of COCOBOD, the witness said: “Mr Lord, my answer is definitely no. Never! And anybody who knows me [knows] it is not my style of managing any institution that I have been made the head of”.
Prior to Ambassador Ohene Agyekunm’s testimony, Dr Opuni’s first witness, Mr Charles Tetteh Dodoo, had told the court that the Entity Tender Committee of Cocobod used the right channels and due processes in approving the procurement of Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser for the state company. Under cross-examination by Mr Nutsukpui, Dr Opuni’s witness told the court on Monday, 11 April 2022 that not only did the ETC give the procurement of Lithovit a clean bill of health but also the supplier had nothing to do with the ETC’s meetings on that matter.
Additionally, he said he treats the claim by one of the witnesses of the State that the fertiliser was “worthless” with the “contempt it deserves”.
Read excerpts of the cross-examination below:
Q. Please confirm to the court that between 2014 and 2016 when you served on the ETC, as far as you can recall, all fertilisers that were purchased by Cocobod and paid for went through the ETC approval process? A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. Now, sir, between 2014 and 2016, while you served on the ETC, did Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser also receive the concurrent approval of the ETC as far as you can recall?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. Now, please confirm to the court whether any supplier ever determined the agenda for the meetings for the ETC while you served on it between 2014 and 2016. A. No, my Lord, it never happened.
Q. And when Cocobod is procuring for the season, it procures the agrochemicals that are determined by the scientist as required for application for that particular season. That is correct?
A. Yes, my Lord but I want to add that more specifically by the CODAPEC HI-TECH Unit.
Q. You told this court that the CODAPEC HI-TECH Unit was made up of scientists from CRIG. Is that correct? A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. And it is these scientists that determined the agrochemicals, including fertilisers and their prices which Cocobod must procure for any particular season.
A. Yes, my Lord, up to 2013/2014 financial year.
Q. Now, these scientists are the only persons who will determine the suitability of any agrochemicals including fertilisers for use on cocoa. A. Yes, my Lord, in conjunction with CRIG.
Q. Now, this determination of the suitability of agrochemicals for use on cocoa is not made by the Board or Management of Cocobod; that is correct?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. While you served on the Board between 2014 and 2015, the Board had no reason to doubt the integrity of these scientists? A. No, my Lord, the Board had no reasons to doubt the integrity of these scientists.
Q. As a result, the Board will not question a recommendation made by these scientists to procure particular agrochemicals; that is correct?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. And, sir, because of the process of recommendation by the scientists, no individual board member or individual member of management could have gotten Cocobod to procure a particular fertiliser outside of these recommended by the scientists. Is that correct? A. No, my Lord, nothing of that to my knowledge.
Q. And, in fact, Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser got recommended by the scientists for procurement, as far as you are aware. That is correct?
A. Yes, my Lord.
Q. Now, sir, it was suggested in this court by PW7 on the 1st of March 2021 that when both the ETC, on which you served as well as the Board approved the procurement of Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser, they did not know what they were doing. What do you say to that? A. My Lord, this assertion is not correct and it is an affront to the members of the ETC. If I may go further, CRIG has inspectors who follow up to the field and report on the performance of the various agrochemicals being applied on the field. There was not any single instance where an adverse report was made on Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser which would have informed the ETC’s approval of further purchases of Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser over the years. Q. Now, sir, from 2014 to 2016, would you remember whether the Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser was bought by Cocobod and applied by the farmers in all of the cocoa seasons of those years?
A. My Lord, any time Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser was procured, I have personally signed letters to haulage companies for the distribution of Lithovit Liquid Fertilisers from various warehouses to the district offices and they have been utilised.
Q. Sir, what will be your reaction if it was suggested that in buying and paying for Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser, Cocobod paid for a worthless product for which it received no value?
A. My Lord, I will treat it with the contempt that it deserves. Cocobod trial: Agongo, Agricult didn’t cause financial loss; bring back Lithovit fertiliser – Farmer In May of that same year, a cocoa farmer who benefitted from the agrochemical told the court that Mr Agongo and his company did not cause any financial loss to the state by supplying COCOBOD with the Lithovit Liquid Fertiliser.
According to Mr Thomas Amo Amankwaa, the fertiliser was a “great saviour” to cocoa farmers and must be brought back.
He was the second farmer to have sung the praises of the agrochemical at the centre of the trial.
Mr Amo Amankwaa, who is from Berekum in the Bono Region, took the stand as the third defence witness for Dr Opuni. While under cross-examination by Mr Nutsukpui, Mr Amankwaa told the court on Friday, 27 May 2022: “I am not here for anything but to plead with the government to bring back Lithovit liquid fertiliser because it was good for cocoa farmers”.
Mr Amankwaa disagreed with claims by the state that the fertiliser was “useless” and a waste of money, arguing: “It is not true Cocobod wasted money buying Lithovit liquid fertiliser”.
“As I have said earlier, cocoa farming is a business for [us], the farmers. That’s is why I, Amankwaa, have four farms and I am testifying with one”, he averred.
“Lithovit was a saviour for farmers in the seasons 2015/16”, he insisted, stressing: “Lithovit was a great saviour for farmers like myself and others who used it in the year 2016/17.”
He noted: “Lithovit fertiliser helped me a lot and I bought my car and I made more money as can be seen in my passbook and I was able to buy a saloon [car]; that is a Toyota Corolla.”
Contrary to claims by the state that Mr Agongo and Agricult sold a useless product to COCOBOD, thus, causing financial loss to the state, Mr Amankwaa said: “My Lord, they have not caused financial loss to Ghana, as we, the farmers, know, because the Lithovit liquid fertiliser we, [the] farmers, used, gave us a lot of yield on our cocoa farms, which we have never seen before”. “The COCOBOD (CHED) officials that supplied us with Lithovit are aware that it [Lithovit liquid] was very good”, he added.
The witness said during the 2017/2018 crop season when he was told by COCOBOD’s CHED office that the fertiliser had been seized at the head office in Accra, he went to the open market to see if he could get some but to no avail.
“My Lord, I roamed everywhere but I could not get some to buy. If you come to Berekum, the people call me ‘The Cocoa Consultant’, so, I went to the COCOBOD CHED officials with about 100 cocoa farmers with the intention of embarking on [a] demonstration to plead with the government to bring back Lithovit liquid fertiliser because it gives us good yield in our cocoa farms”, he told the court.
“The COCOBOD officials told me this will not have any effect, so, we should rather go to the radio stations”, he recalled. He said he personally went to Akonoba FM in Sunyani, as well as Chris FM, Ahenfo FM and Shallom FM, all in Berekum, to appeal to the government to bring back Lithovit liquid fertiliser because “it gave us good yield on our cocoa farms.”
Also, on Monday, 17 May 2022, Mr Samuel Torbi, the second defence witness for Dr Stephen Opuni, told the same court that Lithovit Liquid fertiliser was the “farmer’s messiah” since it gave them plentiful yield.
The Assin Fosu farmer in the Central Region, who said he was born into cocoa farming but has been doing it commercially for 17 years, told the court that he first used Lithovit in the 2015/2016 crop season.
He said COCOBOD directly introduced and distributed Lithovit fertiliser to the farmers and not Agricult Company Limited, the third accused in the case. Mr Torbi told the court that he and other farmers were trained on Lithovit by CHED under COCOBOD in Assin Fosu and not Agricult who they “don’t know”.
He said he harvested the “highest” yield in the 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 crop seasons all due to the use of Lithovit liquid fertiliser.
After those two crop seasons, he said he has not harvested yields close to that quantum again.
In his view, Lithovit fertiliser was what made the difference in yield in the 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 crop seasons and not any other factors. He said Lithovit Liquid fertiliser “widens” the leaves of the trees, gives them a “pure green” look and makes the flowers “very strong” so that they do not fall off when using the mist blower to spray fertiliser on them as the other fertilisers do.
“That makes the Lithovit liquid fertiliser different from other fertilisers and makes cocoa grow very well. That was why we, the farmers, were happy with the Lithovit liquid fertiliser”, he told the court.
As the chairman of the cocoa farmers’ cooperative in Assin Fosu for 12 years, he said, “when I used it, it made me happy and I did not get any negative effects about it”.
He also said, “nobody complained to me but rather the happiness I had was the same happiness they [other farmers] also had and they said that it is now that they have believed that if they say that cocoa farming is a business, Lithovit liquid fertiliser has made them realise that.” He also denied claims that farmers drank the fertiliser in place of water.
”No, my Lord, because the training they took us through means any agrochemicals we spray on our cocoa, when it enters our bodies, it will give us problems and, so, when we are spraying any insecticides or liquid fertiliser, we put on gloves, we also wear nose masks, we wear spectacles and we put on overalls and wellington boots and, so, if anyone tells you that you can drink Lithovit liquid fertiliser when you are thirsty then that person is not a farmer and no farmer will say such a thing.”
“My Lord, that will not be true because even a junior officer at the CHED office at the district will not say that let alone an officer at the head office”, he stressed.
He said all the farmers in his cooperative were happy with the Lithovit fertiliser. “My Lord, when we meet the only effects they talk about is Lithovit liquid fertiliser makes cocoa grow very well and brings about more yield so all our farmers are crying [about] whether we could get the Lithovit liquid fertiliser for them”. Asked what he made of claims that the fertiliser was of no value, he said: “Farmers will never forgive that person because Lithovit liquid fertiliser is a farmers’ messiah and I also don’t believe that any staff from COCOBOD will come out and say such a thing”.
Asked if there will be any justification to condemn the company or the person who brought the fertiliser, Mr Torbi said: “No, my Lord because we need it”.