Combating Corruption: Walk the Talk

The past few weeks have seen a distraction from government work.

A couple of ministers have got entangled in scandals which potentially involve acts of corruption. Instead of leaving the government free to attend the work to do, these developments have cast a shadow on the overall agenda set by the new government for the country.

Unfortunately for us, this kind of distraction is not happening for the first time. Many will remember how much attention was focussed away on the doubling of the MedPoint Clinic price during the term of the preceding government before its acquisition on the edge of time by the government. The public has not been informed till today of who would have actually influenced this unexplained doubling of the clinic’s price and why. The then government was destabilised. From then on, the pursuit of a purely political agenda became the centrepiece of its action.

Due to this and other matters, Mauritius has been losing the international goodwill it has garnered in past years as a relatively well-governed nation. The American State Department in its latest report highlighted several abuses of power, notably by the police holding under arrest people on flimsy charges or intruding upon the professional activities of Attorney Pazhany Thandrayen on his return after a call on his client overseas. Any objective observer should be able to make out the selective arrests made under the so-called ‘provisional charges’, only to be eventually thrown out by the courts.

We recently saw how quickly the issue of falsification by car owners of the true horsepower of their vehicles in a bid to pay less road tax was suddenly played down. Question marks are still hanging in the air.

People may ask the question as to why we are becoming so disoriented. The answer is that, just as in the case of goods and services, there is a supply of corruption (usually by those occupying public offices) and there is a demand for corruption (usually by members of the private sector, but also including members of the political class in their “private” private sector garb).

True, corruption is not a monopoly of the public sector. It is also practised in the private sector, e.g., in its procurement and hiring activities. Some of its members give bribes to public officials and politicians in order to secure specific advantages to themselves (the demand side) and thus to maximise profit by such unfair means.

But the springhead (the supply) of corruption is the public sector. Governments make laws, rules and regulations for the conduct of society. Politicians and bureaucrats who have an inclination towards corruption interpret them in a free, abusive and flexible manner in order to confer power upon themselves or on the few they choose to favour. Transparency and accountability in the conduct of public office are set aside.

This has been happening to some extent since quite some time. State lands have been given to selected cronies. Contracts have repeatedly been awarded to certain specific beneficiaries for public works, sometimes by splitting them in order not to fall under the scrutiny of the central procurement agency. In other cases, favours have been granted to specific persons or groups, to the detriment of all, through acts of coercion and collusion, influencing public bodies to do so, enhancing benefits or reducing costs in favour of the targeted few.

It is the power politicians and bureaucrats give themselves that facilitates acts of corruption. The more loosely rules and regulations and laws (they themselves make) are liable to be interpreted, the more the abuse by means of corruption, especially in the world’s most morally decrepit countries. It is not out of the blue thus that the World Bank, which has seen corruption manifested in its multi-fold diversity in its different member countries, has defined corruption as “the abuse of political power for private gains”.

We should not take comfort from the fact that political leaders of several other well-known countries are today also accused of having indulged in large scale corruption. It is not something that gets excused by comparison or the scale in which it is practised by others. The moment government members and bureaucrats at different levels indulge in acts of corruption, it serves as a signal to others who are not morally, ethically and honestly so inclined that it would not be that wrong on their part to indulge in it as well. The bad thing simply escalates.

Our society has been getting devalued by this display of outrageous conduct by the very people who are entrusted with working for the good of all without fear, favour or ill-will towards any. It would appear that the greed and personal insecurity of many of those in power have kept increasing with time to such a point that they appear to no longer care how they’ve been destroying the very fabric of society by abusing the powers conferred upon them.

Strong public institutions headed by persons of high integrity standing in the way of corrupt administrative and technical cadres as well as politicians have the power to stop the abuse. The first generation of our public servants is regarded highly to this day for the no-nonsense approach they displayed in the performance of their jobs and their resistance to overbearing politicians, thus ensuring that fairness, propriety and the public interest prevail at all times in the decision-making process.

Whenever politicians in power attempted to cross the permitted threshold, they had the guts to show them the limits laid down by law, instead of corruptly informing them how they might “lawfully” transgress. It would be a real tragedy to acknowledge that the powers politicians conferred upon themselves by amending the Constitution in 1983 to throw out public servants at will, has ended up making public servants so weak-kneed that they have kept bowing to the whims and caprices of corrupting politicians in power. The resulting culture of kow-towing to corrupt political influence will destroy this safety net that served us so well in the immediate post-colonial years.

Somehow, we’ve got to get back in our public institutions (including parastatal bodies) strong-willed individuals endowed with a better vision of where Mauritius should be. This setup could arrest the corruption certain of our political leaders keep introducing otherwise in the entire system, in all its nooks and crannies, given their short-term perspective.

Often, citizens have seen our politicians ride high (especially during electoral campaigns) to proclaim their so-called attachment to a corruption-free state. As recent events show, politicians are rather mostly capable of fostering intrigues and doing exactly the contrary of what they promised – i.e., to clean up the Augean stables. It’s time they walk the talk. Of what use is an opaque system of Declaration of Assets by politicians to the ICAC and, possibly now, only to the Speaker? Isn’t it warranted, given the theoretical willingness of politicians to make their assets and its progression public, that they should have taken necessary steps by now?

Why don’t politicians walk the talk when it comes to enacting and effectively enforcing a well-balanced Freedom of information Act and Declaration of Assets Act with appropriate checks and balances? Why don’t they walk the talk when it comes to dealing with abusive ‘provisional charges’? If the present government did so and allowed a retrospective scrutiny of accretion of wealth by its members, nominees and other high office holders, within reasonable parameters of disclosure, not only would the country’s reputation be shielded. It might free the government to attend to its real work.

* Published in print edition on 22 April 2016

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