An Ancient Obsession with Wealth

There’s a “levée des boucliers” since mid-October about wealth and its accumulation. Especially, wealth which is unaccounted for. The public is keenly interested in it. It strongly suspects that there are a few possessors of significant amounts of ill-gotten wealth. It wants a clean-up. It is holding the assumption that the malpractice of accumulating ill-gotten wealth will cease after an anticipated clean-up.

At the centre of this debate is a Bill which the government proposes to enact very shortly, accompanied by amendments to the Constitution, with the object of empowering a politically-nominated agency in a Ministry to forfeit what has been called ‘unexplained’ wealth in the Bill.

Several law practitioners oppose the proposed legislation on the ground that it is not rooted in our rule of law system. All agree however that accumulation of unaccounted for wealth and all the bad things it stands for should not go on because it necessarily involves the element of corruption. But the law practitioners seem to be asking the question whether in a democratic system, such as ours, “the end should justify the means”. Should the criminal justice system be set aside when dealing with what is obviously a ‘crime’?

The debate centres around this important issue.

Looking back in history

The history of corruption and ill-gotten wealth stretches back to the oldest records available. Despite all the opprobrium cast upon it since ages, it is still here, not only in Mauritius, but also in other countries in much more gargantuan proportions. This may indicate that this animal is very elusive and has kept evolving on ever increasing scales of sophistication the world over. For example, it is estimated that the allocation of public contracts in the European Union alone involves annual corruption money of $120 billion, despite all the safeguards in place. Surely, this money is stacked up in many coffers.

The historical persistence of corruption is no reason why a phenomenon, which appears to have defied the millennia, should not be tackled. Surely action taken against it (than not) will act as a deterrent against this malpractice in the public domain which has become so entrenched in certain countries as to have paralysed their very development.

Accumulation of illicit wealth and accompanying corruption happen when countries travel down the road of arbitrariness and despotism. We cannot be seen to be soft towards such a malpractice or any malpractice for that matter. There are some countries in the world which are known for upholding the law and being very strict against trigger-happy self-enrichers when they catch them. And they’ve been doing very well economically.

Moreover, where individuals stand up to best practices of personal conduct, they encourage others to be honest in their dealings. This acts against the facile inclination to transgress elementary principles of good conduct and arrests the tendency to go for making a morally corrupt quick buck on each occasion which presents itself. Wouldn’t it be better for our international image if the majority of our youth ceased to hold the view that you can secure a position in the public sector by adopting the corrupt route with the help of duplicitous politicians’ interventions? Surely, we’ll hold our head high if we explicitly reject across-the-board corruption — like what we’ve seen in decrepit other places – as a normal feature of our system?

The root causes of undue wealth accumulation

Many of those involved in unlawful wealth accumulation first seek to “take the law into their own hands”. The corrupt ones in the public and private sectors put themselves above scrutiny and above the law. These are the first signs of intended illicit enrichment. Once they are there, they take undue liberties to enrich themselves unlawfully, unchecked, as much as possible. Maybe the more they indulge in the malpractice, the more they take their abuse as a routine.

Big power wielders on Wall Street and in the Big Oil companies of America, for instance, are known to control almost everything, including perhaps who should be elected President of the US, let alone making Congressmen make laws suited to the corporations’ self-seeking wealth and power accumulating objectives, no matter adverse consequences on the well-being of the entire population. Influential big corporations are laying down the rules of the coming big international trade and investment partnerships of the world. They do this to keep thriving at others’ expense, so-to-say, lawfully, with laws crafted by themselves, for themselves and nobody else.

Such relentless wealth and power seekers defeat legislation meant for the public good. Some going in this direction are known to have bankrupted entire countries, let alone completely debased the responsibility they were originally entrusted with. There are examples in Latin America but also in Africa.

Power is usually employed by the already-wealthy to indulge in minor deviations – such as putting their own men in minor positions — or for making major hold-ups such as holding hostage entire boards of companies, even holders of the highest political power, to go on accumulating more personal wealth and power.

We sincerely hope that our country hasn’t gone too far down this road. That it is redeemable. That it can still aspire to the cardinal virtues which were once ours after we emerged from colonialism and weren’t tainted with this pursuit of self-enrichment no-matter-what! If so, we stand a chance to reverse the decline we’ve seen over past decades with so many light-fingered politicians stalking on the stage.

There is a current controversy. Some say the proposed legislation shouldn’t be backdated at all. Others want it to go back into the deep past. Contradictory as all this appears, there should be no reason not to shake up the tree and give back the corruption-free health that a progressive society should enjoy.

Conclusion

What one should target is not the modest wealth accumulation people resorted to in the beginnings of a freer society in Mauritius. In those days, descendants of slaves and indentured labourers had felt so deprived for so long of the basic necessities of life that they semi-starved themselves to “keep something aside for a rainy day” from their meagre incomes. It took the form of small plots of land they acquired with their savings to survive hard times.

But today we have wealth accumulation of a different sort, on a much vaster scale involving perverting the machinery of state. It is not the old kind of security of pre-modern societies the super-rich in typical capitalist economies are going after. They want to go on adding to their already exceedingly high levels of wealth even as others lower down the ladder are thereby getting even more deprived due to widening income disparities.

What’s the solution for all this? A lot of controversy has been raised about the government’s real intent as the element of trust in our political leaders has kept getting eroded. The suspicion that a civil administration (under the proposed legislation) may not be the best fit to deliver “justice” in cases of criminal wealth accumulation has aggravated this kind of perception even among well-meaning citizens.

One would recall a Commercial Court was established in years past to expedite the disposal of commercial cases that our normal court system was too slow in addressing. The new court was intended to specialize and take faster but not less effective decisions in cases in front of it. To really get to the heart of the matter of unlawfully acquired wealth and its aggravating impact on the country’s governance structure, it might be worthwhile commissioning a new specialized court dealing objectively under legal processes with all cases involving ill-gotten wealth, whether or not there are banking or any other records. Common sense should drive all such cases within our existing appeal system as well.

  • Published in print edition on 20 November 2015

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