Abuse of process a major threat to institutional integrity
— TP Saran
Those who shout the loudest publicly about nation-building are the ones who are most likely to undermine it. Similarly, those who talk principles to the gallery are often the greatest defaulters when it comes to practising what they preach.
There are many types of people who do this, but perhaps the ones who tend more than any other group to abuse of process are politicians, ministers in particular. Barring a very few, most of them think that nothing is impossible – or that everything is permissible – by bending or breaking rules to suit their whim(s) of the moment. And they will go to any length to put pressure on their officers to bypass regulations to achieve their goal.
When the latter point out what the law allows and does not allow, they may decide to explode and abuse the officers for trying to be too smart instead of appreciating that the latter are doing their duty – and in fact are acting in the interest of the politician by giving the correct information and proposing the appropriate course of action. That way the politician/minister may not have to face opprobrium later. But because they cannot see beyond the tip of their nose, and usually react on the spur of the moment, they could not care less about long term consequences.
There is a well-known case that was reported in which an ex-minister had to face a verdict of the Supreme Court, which was not in his favour. He moved for the suspension of an officer of his ministry who was not at the front door in time to receive him – perhaps he was expecting a garland? – during his unannounced visit one morning. The officer was informed by the gate of the establishment being visited immediately as the minister’s car came in, and he was already rushing down from his office, reaching a couple of minutes after the minister had stepped in – and was confronted with a copious round of loud expletives from the latter.
As soon as the minister returned to his office in Port Louis, he issued instructions for the dismissal of the officer, but the latter did not take matters lying down, and took his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favour. Unfortunately the officer had already passed away, but at least he was vindicated.
Unfortunately too, this episode has not detracted subsequent similar behaviour on the part of other ministers, who think they are God’s gift to their countrymen if not to mankind. Ask any high official in the Civil Service, and one can hear any number of stories about foul-mouthed ministers who expect miracles to be performed, and become especially aggressive when they are reminded that things can only be done within the parameters of laws — which, as they know quite well, they are the very ones to enact in the National Assembly!
Of course, smart officers are conscious of the fact that there is the law and the spirit of the law, and without doubt the ministers appreciate that too. But what the latter utterly fail to understand, when they wear their ‘electoralist’ lenses and want by all means to satisfy their constituency even if that means breaking the rules, is the imperative need to preserve the integrity of institutions. Not to say the respect of institutions – perhaps too pure a dimension for a politician to bother with. There are a few who do, very rare exceptions – but they belong, alas, to another era.
To be fair to politicians, though, it is true that they are pressurized by all and sundry, and demands placed upon them come from many quarters, and usually from people who want to bypass the accepted procedures. They want to be above the law, and drag the politician in the process. But the latter, instead of explaining that there are limits to what he also can do, finds nothing better than to pass the pressure on to his officers. This invariably takes the form of a verbal instruction – for ministers are particularly loathe at putting down in black-and-white their instructions – and sometimes, a cryptic note in a file, ‘to reconsider,’ when a statutory body (such as a board) has already taken a decision.
This is where the integrity and respect of the institution are of paramount importance, and how strong and respected an institution is has a lot to do with the competence, professionalism and integrity of those who are its members. Most important of all is the individual who heads that institution, for if he should waver, and allow base political considerations to influence the decision-making process instead of abiding by the rules of the game, then we – the people, the country – are in real trouble. For if we cannot trust our institutions and the people who have been put there to protect them, and through the preservation of institutional integrity buttress the governance structure of the country and thereby standing as our guarantors, we are nothing short of being in a banana republic.
Does anyone want Mauritius to be a banana republic?
Having recently come back with laurels for Mauritius from Uganda, perhaps the Prime Minister should use this opportunity to firmly remind his ministers and others concerned of his concern to continue projecting this vaunted image of Mauritius, and that this can only be done if they are themselves very meticulous about the rules of good governance? And that he expects them not to try and go against what the law of the land allows?
As last week’s editorial in this paper observed, ‘it is axiomatic that the law should be equally applicable to all. No one should be allowed to think that he can take the law into his own hands whenever it suits his convenience.’ This was in relation to the hooded men who barged into the Ministry of Social Security, threatening officers and the minister alike, and there was a total absence of reaction on the part of the political as well as the law-and-order authorities.
Does this mean that when the Prime Minister is absent law and order receive short shrift? And this paper rightly expresses concern about this kind of ‘public demonstration of an anti-social force’ being allowed ‘to roam about defiantly and freely in public,’ and underlining, rightly, ‘how some political leaders have not hesitated to employ incendiary language to set one social group against another in order to secure private advantage.’
We concur with the conclusion of the editorial that such escalation of lawlessness, as also the ‘institutional failure’ which resulted in the prisoner break-out recently, may be sending the wrong ‘signals to all sorts of abusers.’ And we too wonder whether, having thought that ‘our institutions were in for a renaissance’ and that we were heralding ‘a new era of good governance,’ we too will have to, alas, review our perception and think matters over again. For once we hope that we will be in the wrong, and that the country is not about to be making a U-turn given, as pointed out, ‘certain energetic actions some of them recently taken.’
Will our leaders answer? And assume fully the responsibilities which they have been elected to shoulder?