A syndicate involved in massive drug thefts, which caused the stores of Ghana’s Upper East Regional Hospital to run out of medicines for years, was unmasked on Friday, 4 August 2023.
During the period in which they outsmarted the system, several patients suffered preventable deaths at the state-run hospital.
And the conditions of other sick persons seeking healthcare services at the facility deteriorated as they were turned away because the government hospital was short of drugs at its pharmacy.
When Media Without Borders launched an investigation into public complaints about drug shortages at the hospital, it trailed the illegal movements of drugs from the hospital’s stores for months, finally uncovering a near-abandoned structure where the stolen medications were being hidden, pending resale miles outside the region.
Before the undercover monitoring began in 2022, the drug thefts were already going on. Tons of government drugs, packaged in boxes labelled with a bold notice that the medications were NOT FOR SALE, had been stolen and sold by the cartel.
No fewer than 34 boxes were found when Media Without Borders’ investigative journalist, Edward Adeti, gained access into the hiding place on Thursday, 3 August 2023.
The boxes contained drips, doses of injection powder, metronidazole injections, antimalarial tablets and anaesthesia among others.
The 34 boxes, procured and dispatched by the Ministry of Health to the hospital, were the second batch of medicines stolen from the stores in July alone.
Mode of operation
The hiding place is located just behind the Holy Ghost Temple branch of the Assemblies of God in the region’s capital, Bolgatanga.
It is facing the southward fence wall of the official residence of the Upper East Regional Supervising High Court Judge.
And it is a few steps away from a road lined on either side by the mostly two-storey houses of other judges, the region’s topmost state security chiefs and the Catholic Bishop of the Navrongo-Bolgatanga Diocese.
To avoid the public eye, the hospital staff involved in the illicit drug relocation and resale often move the drugs from the hospital at night to the hiding place.
And for the same reason, they always move them from the place under the dark cloak of the pre-dawn hours to the Northern Region for sale.
But before a driver, who normally comes with a pickup from the Northern Region to take the medicines away, leaves Bolgatanga, he secures an invoice from private pharmacies in the region to deceive police at checkpoints that the drugs were lawfully bought from these private pharmacies.
The police are easily outfoxed on the road by the driver because they scarcely care to check to see if there is a notice on the boxes that the materials are not for sale.
Media Without Borders alerts police to effect arrests
There are some of the hospital’s staff members from whom the internal members of the cartel have kept this secret.
Later, it came to the management’s notice, with pictures of some of the stolen drugs from an inside source.
But how to locate the hiding place remained a challenge for the hospital’s management.
Media Without Borders could not approach any of the hospital’s management members at the time with its findings on the grounds of trust.
At this time, the cartel had got a hint, too, that a spotlight was closing in on where they were keeping the drugs patients needed urgently at the hospital.
They planned to move the drugs from there as immediately as possible to another location, pending their passage to the resale destination.
Because of this, Media Without Borders kept a closer eye on the hiding place and finally revealed the findings to trusted officials of the Ghana Police Service on the morning of Friday, 4 August 2023.
At about 8:30 pm on Friday, a red-shirted driver at the hospital by the name of Raymond Asoke, who has been part of the syndicate, drove a red car with registration number GE 1532-21 to the yard where the medicines were kept.
When he started packing the boxes into the car, Media Without Borders alerted a team of armed police officers already standing by.
The law enforcers arrived in no time on a police pickup and halted on the edge of the fenceless, weedy yard.
On seeing them, the driver quickly dropped a box he was carrying towards the car and began to move away from the yard on his feet at a hurried pace.
The officers, numbering about seven, stormed into the yard in scattered directions, and scurried after him as they shouted for him not to move further.
He was outpaced, captured, handcuffed and interrogations began.
Hospital’s administrator says drug thieving happening for the past two years
During preliminary interrogations at the scene, the driver disclosed that the boxes contained medicines and that Fasilat Raheem, the hospital’s storekeeper whom he repeatedly referred to as Hajia, sent him to convey the drugs from the location.
He said the red car belonged to the same storekeeper.
And just moments after saying so, he got a phone call from the storekeeper.
Placed on a loudspeaker, the storekeeper was heard questioning the reasons for his delay at the location.
The driver had loaded twelve boxes inside the car before the police arrived. The police went into the building and brought out twenty-two more boxes.
Shortly after the retrieval had been completed, the hospital’s administrator, Samuel Atuba, came to the scene from behind the interrogating police officers.
After introducing himself, he told the officers that the stealing had been happening “for the past two years” at the hospital.
He said although the management later saw pictures of some drugs rumoured to have been stolen from the hospital, it could not locate the hiding place, and had no idea how to “catch them red-handed”.
“Raymond, you?” said the administrator, almost in tears as he pointed his forefinger in total shock at the driver.
He paused, looking into the driver’s eyes. “Raymond,” he called his name again.
The driver eyeballed his boss without a blink. He did so in silence— with a look of guilt and in handcuffs at the scene.
It was not clear how the arrest came to the administrator’s notice.
The extremely loud barking noise from the dogs in the neighbourhood, alarmed by the strange sight and raid, had drawn public attention to the scene.
One of the individuals attracted to the scene may have identified the handcuffed driver as one of the hospital’s employees and brought the incident directly or indirectly to the administrator’s attention by phone.
Afterwards, the driver led the police to the storekeeper’s house.
She, too, was arrested there and taken together with the driver and the stolen drugs to the Divisional Police Headquarters.
Another key suspect and wife of an administrator of a Ghana Health Service (GHS) regional directorate, Bridget Banoeyelle, was arrested early on Saturday, 5 August 2023. She works at the regional hospital’s pharmacy.
The three suspects are still in police custody pending criminal court trial.
More people are expected to be arrested in connection with the thefts.
Source: Edward Adeti/Media Without Borders/mwbonline.org