A fireman with the Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) who did the unexpected inside a supermarket, thinking his action was hidden, held his head in disbelief when a video of his conduct was played back to him before his superiors.
The shop stands on the edge of a road which joins the Bolgatanga-Navrongo Highway from the direction of the Upper East Regional Hospital. It is painted in a deep shade of green and nailed atop its roof is an upright board boldly showing its trade name― Joy Step Supermarket.
The fireman, Ibrahim Mohammed Alemiakurugo, had joined a number of shoppers at the store on the hot and humid night of June 1, 2022.
Shortly after the fireman had stepped out of the shop, a polo-shirted young man, who had bought items at the store earlier and left, reappeared. He is Mohammed Sidi, a computer technician fairly familiar to some Bolgatanga residents.
With long strides and feverish haste, the young man made his way back into the supermarket. He looked very desperate.
He approached the sales clerks with a complaint that his mobile phone― a black Tecno smartphone― had gone missing. He told them he might have left it on the counter while paying for the goods he had bought.
His complaint interrupted sales activities temporarily. An unusual scene was created in the shop as a search for the phone began. But the sales staff had first asked among themselves who possibly was responsible for the disappearance of the device.
While the search was underway, the customer-turned-complainant stood speechless in front of the counter. Filled with disquiet, he ran his fingers through his hair and let out a long sigh of despair from time to time.
His worry was not just about the contacts on the missing phone. He had been contracted to execute some graphic-design projects under a strict deadline. The tasks had been completed but had not been forwarded yet to his impatiently waiting clients. Those pieces of work were on that smartphone, too.
The search was taking so long with no hope of recovery. But suddenly, the frustrated customer himself suggested that the sales personnel go into the store’s security camera system and view the footage recorded from his first visit onwards.
They abandoned the search upon that advice and moved to a desktop computer connected to the Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) system in the variety store.
An Unlikely Suspect Uncovered
All eyes were trained on the 12-inch screen of the security monitor. A string of clips was chosen from a file of video recordings on the computer. Then, a finger hit the playback button.
A uniformed customer appeared on the screen. His service cap was not on his head. The black beret was rather stuck halfway into a pocket at the back of his trousers and was partially hanging out from under his untucked shirt like a tail.
The officer walked through a passageway in the store and stopped in front of a stocked shelf. He picked a roll of powdered milk sachets from the rack, folded it and placed it back on the shelf. Then, he went for another roll of a different brand of powdered milk on the same shelf.
He stretched his neck and gazed over the top of the shelf in a manner quite similar to how somebody who is about to commit an offence would first check to see if they are being watched.
He then observed the product. Again, he stretched his neck over the top of the shelf with a watchful eye. Then, he folded the roll, thrust it into his left trouser pocket and pulled down his shirt to conceal it.
He kept looking over the top of the rack while using both hands to adjust his shirt to ensure that the items he had pushed into the pocket were well hidden.
The clip also showed him picking two more rolls. But he dropped those ones just before another customer appeared and joined him at the shelf.
Another scene involving the same firefighter came into view on the screen. This time, he was at the counter, where the complainant had suspected he left the phone. He was holding in his right hand a baked food item wrapped in a transparent polybag and staring indecisively at it.
At that point, the complainant appeared, walking towards the counter in a white polo shirt and a pair of black trousers. Slim and dark in complexion, Sidi was seen holding a black smartphone to his left ear with his left hand as he approached the checkout.
Upon arrival at the counter, he pulled out some notes from his pockets. He placed the phone on the countertop and began to check the money.
While the young man was checking the notes, the fire officer placed the baked food item beside a sachet of premix tea powder which was already on the countertop. He reached for a black polybag on the counter, removed a loaf of bread from the bag and placed the bread on a shelf that was standing within arm’s reach.
Sidi was seen making payment. But he left the phone on top of the counter after making the payment. He took his change and turned his back on the phone. But he remained around the checkout, looking in every direction except his back. The fire officer stood with a few customers near the counter. He was doing nothing except just looking and turning around in the same spot.
After a while, he drew closer to the counter. He looked around again and, certain that nobody was watching him, covered the phone with a black polybag and thrust the phone together with the polybag into the pocket of his trousers. He took the phone from the counter just before its owner picked up his own bag and left the shop.
Search and Investigation
After watching the footage, the owners of the supermarket were initially not quite sure that the man captured pilfering inside their shop was a fire officer. And none among those who had the firsthand view of it immediately knew where to find him.
One of the store’s managers, Joyceline Abiire, related the development to a relation who is also a fire officer at the Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) national headquarters in Accra.
“I forwarded the video to him and asked him if it was their uniform,” she told The Fourth Estate. “He looked at it and confirmed that it was their uniform.”
“He reported the matter at the national level. Then, they called the Regional Commander here. My interest was to get the customer’s phone back to him.”
Subsequently, the Upper East Regional Fire Commander, ACFO Anthony Gyasi Boateng, reached out to Abiire by phone. He promised to dispatch a team to the supermarket to conduct an investigation into the reported act.
Following that telephone conversation, the team visited the store and addressed its enquiries to the staff.
But before the visit, the Regional Commander had received clips of the footage from the national head office and summoned the fireman to his office.
“I brought him here,” the Regional Commander told The Fourth Estate, pointing at an upholstered seat in his office with a glow of disappointment in his eyes. “The video was shown to him. He confirmed he was the one in the video and he admitted the offence.”
“We set up a committee. They met him. All that he said was put on paper and we forwarded it to our head office.”
The Regional Commander also retrieved some of the stolen items from him― the mobile phone and the rolls of powdered milk and premix tea powder—before the team visited the supermarket. The man had consumed some of the milk and tea.
The mobile phone, which had remained switched off for weeks since the day it was taken away from its owner, and the remaining food items were sent back to the supermarket by the investigation team. The team paid back Gh¢20:40p to the store for the already-used items.
Soon after the enquiry visit, the fireman was interdicted, pending a final decision by the GNFS national headquarters.
“I least suspected that the person who stole it was a fire officer,” said Sidi in an interview with The Fourth Estate after the retrieval of his phone. “I was worried and angry about the loss. It affected my business.”
“People had given me some work to do, but because I couldn’t do it on time due to the absence of the phone, they had to take the work elsewhere. Some wanted to give me some fresh work to do but my line was off when they called me. They, too, changed their minds. I lost those coins that could have been mine.”
Dismissal and reactions
Several GNFS officers say they are crestfallen because Alemiakurugo was wearing the service uniform when he committed the act.
“If he was in mufti, it may have been a different story,” the Regional Commander said. “But in uniform, in fact, it’s so pathetic for us.”
On July 17, 2022, the fireman was fired. The GNFS’ Public Relations Officer in the Upper East Region, DOIII Callistus Nibunu, confirmed the dismissal to The Fourth Estate.
He also shared in the worry voiced by the Regional Commander that the development had significantly dented the image of the GNFS.
“Conclusive evidence was made that he committed the act, so his dismissal letter came. The act was committed in uniform. That sends a very bad signal as far as the image of the service is concerned.
“No organisation will want to be tagged with such an act. It’s indeed a dent on the image of the service and the service has also used the Legislative Instrument 1725, which we are all bounded by, to apply the appropriate punishment as expected,” he said.
The Regional Commander disclosed that the dismissal came just when the fireman was about to take his first-ever promotion examination. He would have been promoted from Fireman (FM) to Leading Fireman (LFM) if he had taken the examination and had passed.
Reacting to his dismissal, the fire officer described the punishment as “too harsh”. He said the eyes of some of his coworkers were filled with tears of sympathy after he received his release letter on Saturday July 30, 2022.
“It is true that it happened. But I thought the committee would have tempered justice with mercy. I don’t want to go scot-free, but the dismissal is too harsh,” he said.
He added: “Recently, an officer stole our office items in the Savannah Region. You reduced his rank. You didn’t dismiss him. As a first-time offender, they should have taken my salaries for some months.”
Opinions are divided in the region over the removal of the firefighter from office. Some residents say anything less than firing would have been a disappointing outcome.
“It shouldn’t end at dismissal. He should be prosecuted. Once it has been established that he stole the things, I think the laws of Ghana need to follow,” remarked Eric Abambire Nsoh, a healthcare worker.
For some, he ought to face punishment not only for the damage done to the image of the GNFS but also for some possible financial losses the victims of his theft may have suffered. But they think his dismissal is too severe for a married man.
“I’m of the view that the rule of law has not been applied. I condemn what he did. But this is petty stealing. He should be punished but not to the extent of dismissal. I think a reduction of rank, or transfer, would be fine.
“We know people who have done worse things in the fire service and are still in the service. The rule of law has not been applied because if he had been taken through the lawcourt, it wouldn’t have ended in dismissal but in being fined. The fire service has no right to dismiss him because no court of competent jurisdiction has found him guilty yet,” an educationist, Tii-roug Zumah Yaro, opined.