Coming to Grips with Corruption
Corruption is a major international scourge. But it is not a feature of only the third world countries that comprise the underdeveloped and developing nations. For a very long time the richer countries have been pointing an accusing finger at the third world in matters of corruption. It cannot be denied that corruption is rife in many parts of Africa and Asia. The economic status of the people of these continents bears testimony to that. Time and again one of the direct dire consequences of corruption has been a denial of basic amenities to the people. In a statement relayed by the media this week the Director General of the World Bank has said that nearly 40 billion US dollars are lost or siphoned off through corruption and that this money could have been used to uplift the lot of many poor people.
It must be added that corruption is not a feature endemic at national levels. There is also another feature that we may label transnational corruption that consists in kickbacks being paid either to governments or individuals by major companies from the rich countries to secure contracts. No such firm will confirm such a practice but given the fierce competition that exists in the business world any means is good to achieve the end.
Mauritius has not known the economic throes of many other countries on account of corruption. But corruption is a problem. Unfortunately so far in Mauritius under the two ICACs only the petty cases have been brought to light. Under the former ECO led by Mrs Manrakhan matters were dealt with more aggressively. It should be recalled that under the former ECO two former ministers of the Labour government of 1995 were arrested on allegations of corruption. One of them has been convicted and his case is on appeal. The fangs of the former ECO became too uncomfortable for the 2000 MMM-MSM government and that government scrapped it and replaced it with a new institution, ICAC headed by Navin Bheekarry.
That institution never really took off. It proceeded to sensational arrests like those of Mr Mukeshwar Choonee, a minister in the MSM-MMM government then and two top officials of the Mauritius Commercial Bank, Mr Pierre Guy Noel and Mr Philippe Forget. ICAC was severely blamed by that same government for these actions. Nothing much was achieved by the ICAC of Mr Bheekary in spite of millions of rupees poured into it. That was a most dismal failure of the MMM-MSM government in the fight against corruption.
A new government came to power in 2005 and revised the old ICAC and appointed a new director to head it in the person of former Magistrate Ajodha. The new ICAC has been in existence for nearly four years. It has dealt with a number of cases most of them petty in nature. Of course there has been the Gerard Philippe, Siddick Chady, Ajay Gunness cases but nothing much has come out of them as yet. Why is it that the institution is not producing the results expected of it when the perception of corruption in Mauritius is very present and when the evaluation of the country by Transparency is at 5, which according to Mr de Speville, a former head of the Hong Kong ICAC, is not a commendable evaluation?
Some will put this down to complicated sociological and psychological reasons; others will call it just simple greed and lack of moral fibre. The person who wants to get something and who faces a wall will buy his way out. The recipient of the gift is motivated by greed. It is only in rare cases that people will denounce a case of corruption. But even in the absence of denunciation ICAC can on its own initiate an investigation.
But ICAC does not have the power to search premises or arrest individuals. It should rely on the police. In an urgent case or in a case where discretion and secrecy should be the rule the whole operation is likely to fail due to these legal trappings. If ICAC is to have a free hand in dealing effectively with corruption on its own volition and with lightning speed, especially in cases where documents need to be seized, it should be given independent powers of search and arrest. The Constitution and the Police Act should be amended in regard to the powers of the Commissioner of Police so that ICAC is vested with these powers under judicial supervision.
Corruption itself is not always easy to prove in view of the intricacies of its definition in the law. Serious thought should be given to the burdens of proof here. Without laying the burden of proving his innocence on an accused, the burden must be such that it requires the prosecution to prove some basic matters and then shifts to the accused. There are a number of instances in our law such as the stealing of electicity where the Supreme Court has held that it is permissible for the prosecution to prove certain elements only and that it is constitutionally correct for the burden to shift to the accused. If need be the constitutional provisions regarding the right to silence and burden need to be modified to some extent.
ICAC today works with a skeleton legal staff. Whenever there is a major legal issue ICAC needs to contact the State Law Office. That Office is itself submerged with work and cannot cope with its own affairs in a timely manner. When Parliament is sitting, the State Law Office has to devote most of its resources to preparing Bills. A pool of qualified and competent lawyers should be part of ICAC to help in the investigations, to advise, to prepare the informations for judicial proceedings and to conduct prosecutions. It would always open to these lawyers to have consultations with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions but they will have to engage in such consultations after doing the groundwork and homework. There is no scope or time for slovenly and amateurish work in the fight against corruption,.
Mr de Speville also mentioned in his interview that creating offences only is not sufficient to combat corruption. Education is as important in that field. The ICAC has embarked on a wide education programme. That goes to its credit. But more is needed. Frequent radio and television talks; debates with the youth and other stakeholders; explanation on the offences and the consequences of breaching the law and many other matters should be held. The government needs to give facilities to ICAC to improve its education programmes. These facilities should not be financial only but require more qualified human resources to help ICAC in that important aspect of its work.