At a dusty gas station in Accra, a man in a fake UPS uniform gestures frantically to a hidden police officer while trying to keep a suspected con artist talking.
The delivery man, whose brown shirt bears a hand-embroidered UPS logo affixed with safety pins, carries a package that ostensibly contains a senior citizen’s life savings, but actually holds only an empty box of Bleu de Chanel cologne. This is a sting orchestrated by Ghana’s most famous anti-crime crusader.
Anas Aremeyaw Anas, investigative journalist and private detective, has got himself institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital to expose wrongdoing. U.S. President Barack Obama has praised him for work that seeks to lock up the corrupt officials, crooked healers and criminals plaguing modern Africa. His outsized influence reflects the difficulties facing Ghana and other developing countries that lack resources to tackle corruption.
Stepping into the void, Mr. Anas has become a sort of ethereal, omnipresent watchdog keeping wayward Ghanaians in line.
This type of work has made Mr. Anas enormously influential: Ghanaian superstar rapper Sarkodie – who appears on Samsung smartphone billboards across Accra – even invokes the journalist’s ethos in a song about hardship, hustling and corruption called Pizza & Burger, warning Ghanaians in the Twi language to watch out because “Anas is coming!”
Mr. Anas normally wears disguises, so few people know what he looks like, even if his exploits can be rhymed off by street vendors. And that’s part of his alluring mystique in a country where petty corruption and bribe-taking is the norm.
Ruth Ntiamoah, a roadside bread seller in Accra, heard his name called out as a threat on a visit to a hospital. “Someone behind the counter was [taking bribes], and someone else said, ‘You just keep doing that! Anas will catch you!’ ” recalled Ms. Ntiamoah, 32.
“I’m here selling my bread. I don’t know what’s going on in the offices. But when Anas goes there, I will know. … Since nobody knows what he looks like, Anas can be everywhere – he could be anyone.”
Mr. Anas described his anti-corruption mission in military terms. “Corruption must be engaged in direct and full-frontal attack,” he said, in an interview at his office shortly before he changed into the UPS disguise. “Institutions in Africa and other developing countries are not well developed. … It’s a challenge. But we are all on board developing this country – or, better, this continent.”
Not all his crime-stopping efforts are immediately successful.
At the gas station, for example, the police officer didn’t see Mr. Anas’s signals and the suspect started getting suspicious. That’s when the crime fighter’s cameraman, filming from the back of a black SUV, blurted out: “He’s going to make a run for it.” The suspect did, flip-flops flying off as he tore down a red dirt road. Mr. Anas sprinted off in pursuit, joined by the cameraman and a muscular undercover cop with a black earpiece. A crowd of stunned bystanders gathered. “Are they filming a movie?” someone yelled.
This sting ended without an arrest, but another operation that afternoon – with yet another furious footrace – scored an arrest. A few days later, Mr. Anas, a slight, lanky and soft-spoken 35-year-old, helped police arrest the main suspect – accused of defrauding seniors in Europe – and caught it all on film. Mr. Anas, who finished law school in Ghana, is methodical and calculated as an investigator, ensuring there is enough evidence for prosecution (even though some of his tactics, such as the empty cologne box, seem purely for dramatic effect).
Over the years, Mr. Anas has taken up the causes of Africa’s stigmatized minorities and the powerless. At the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, where he was pretending to be insane, he used hidden cameras to show patients eating out of garbage bins, and unearthed abuse at orphanages in an undercover operation that stretched across West Africa.
In rural Ghana, he exposed a priest willing to kill babies thought to be bringing parents bad luck. In Tanzania, Mr. Anas documented the plight of African albinos, who are sometimes killed or mutilated so their body parts can be used in witchcraft.
But Mr. Anas said he has also “stepped on some big toes.”
He has taken on bribe-taking border guards, a Chinese prostitution ring and successfully uncovered a cocoa smuggling ring that stretched into neighbouring Ivory Coast.
That’s why he wears disguises not just during his investigations – where he’s gone undercover as an imam, a woman and even a rock near a border post – but in all public appearances.
He said he also sleeps in seven different apartments and has TVs near his desk showing security camera footage from around the building.
Mr. Anas often works on several levels simultaneously. He is a private detective with a business called Tiger Eye P.I. (there are hand-painted images of tigers on the walls of the office), sells videos of his investigations, co-owns a newspaper called The New Crusading Guide, and works with foreign media as a journalist and investigator.
The gas-station operation, for example, was a collaboration with German reporters who traced their investigation of Internet scammers to West Africa, where Mr. Anas finished it off.
It was also, obviously, in collaboration with the police. This journalist-government partnership was born of widespread frustration with Ghana’s chronically weak institutions. Despite being one of Africa’s most stable democracies, Ghana’s government lacks the resources to properly enforce its laws.
While unorthodox for journalists, this type of collaboration is widely viewed here as essential to the sometimes messy task of building a strong state. The government even approaches Mr. Anas with suggestions for investigations, sometimes of its own employees.
Nana Essilfie Conduah, chair of the journalism program at Accra’s African University College of Communications, said that although some of institutions targeted by Mr. Anas remain in bad shape, this type of journalistic partnership can benefit society. “The system has necessitated this,” said Prof. Conduah. “Until there is a modicum of cleansing … [we] will have to be dependent on this sort of arrangement to at least find a balance towards making the system work.”
Mr. Anas is more blunt. “What I’m doing is necessary in every country,” Mr. Anas said. “All the mechanisms are there. We need to whip the people into line.”