Need for Radical Overhaul of Institutions

Drug Commission

The Lam Shang Leen Drug Commission Report was made public last week shortly after it had been presented at Cabinet level. It may be recalled that the sittings lasted nearly three years, the end result being this voluminous report of 260 pages. It is a comprehensive document which has covered all aspects of the drugs problem, and at the same time uncovered several irregular and unacceptable practices such as unsolicited visits by certain lawyers to prisoners, the links to the outside world and the operating networks of the traffickers that go beyond our shores, as well as an alleged politician-lawyer-trafficker nexus. The Report also makes proposals for a way forward.

Amongst others, it has made a welcome opening in the direction of adopting a softer approach to the users of cannabis than the conventional repressive one which has been shown to be a failure all over the world. The new approach recommended has already been field-tested, with positive outcomes in several respects, in a number of jurisdictions. It goes without saying that implementing it locally will mean meeting all the regulatory and logistic requirements that this will entail. But there has to be a beginning.

However, it must also be said that all the dysfunctions that have been mentioned in the Report were already known to many people at large, and of course to the prison authorities. The log book of visitors is in their custody, and one can legitimately ask why, for example, there was not a stronger mechanism to prevent the traffickers from having access to mobile phones or other electronic means which they use to conduct their business from inside the prison? Why didn’t the authorities seek higher level support to restrict the inordinate number of lawyer visits to prisoners? What were the lawyers there for anyway, since these prisoners had already been sentenced by the courts? Only for the purpose of providing services for remission of sentences? Even then, does that justify the number of prisoners visited in a single day, not to say a couple of hours?

What this Report has therefore exposed in the open are corruption and corrupt practices that do not spare the high and the mighty, vile crimes, money laundering, inappropriate pressures exerted on officers, illegal enrichment of a few to the detriment of the many behind facades of respectability, use of one’s position to exert influence so as to gain advantage for oneself and one’s accomplices, not to speak of lives irreparably damaged or lost and destroyed families. But equally harmful has been the impact on the country’s image and reputation, which has then to be countered by deploying the country’s resources, deflecting them away from their respective domains where they are surely more needed.

Next Monday another Commission of Enquiry, termed in certain quarters as a ‘Commission on a Commission’, will begin its work on the Commission set up by former President of the Republic Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim following the explosion of what is known as the Sobrinho financial scandal, in which she was allegedly involved and which eventually forced her exit.

Without pre-judging the conclusions of this new Commission, the citizen may well ask what else will it reveal but the same types of institutional and systemic irregularities uncovered by the Lam Shang Leen Commission mentioned above, except the issues specifically related to the drugs problem?

The larger picture that emerges from all this is the extent of systemic and systematic erosion of the independence of our institutions. All the dysfunctions referred to add up to weakening what ought to be the key pillars of our country, any country, that must withstand all attempts at undue interference from outside. And be in a position to insist that there are sacrosanct norms and parameters that will absolutely prevail under any circumstances. But institutions are man-made, and by design must provide for a certain flexibility – but not latitude — of functioning which is at the discretion of the institution and not of any outsider influence. It is possible to firmly resist attempts at influence peddling on a matter of principle. That way, both the institutions(s) and the country get strengthened, which is good for the country and the citizenry, and spares them from scandals.

Since the example must come from the top, and it doesn’t, we shouldn’t be surprised that the rot has percolated through several levels of society. As it is, there are many who live lifestyles which are disproportionately at odds with what is expected from their occupations – until they are caught. Even those who earn a lot are seen to want more and more. This leads others, especially those who are struggling, to feel equally tempted to top up their monthly by trying a shot when they think they may get away. Mostly they don’t, and are booked while the elite perpetrators brazenly splash for all to see.

A lot has been said about the black sheep who are a “disgrace” to the institutions and forces they work for, and rightly so. But there is another side to this story: there are also dedicated, competent and honest officers operating in the field who contribute their lot and risk their lives and whose sacrifice comes at a personal cost to themselves and their families when fulfilling their duties especially in the area of law and order. There is a need to review the whole functioning and conditions of work of such foot soldiers, as it were, who are in the frontline and face the music frontally.

Whether it is also about meeting potential investors who have connections or contacts in high places, or being out there in the field to confront defaulters directly (e.g. ADSU squads, police teams), such people face risks which are specific to their tasks. They must therefore be supported and incentivized or compensated in accord with the degree of risk that they face, something which at the same time will give them a sense of dignity and prevent temptations. The country’s leaders must show the compassionate concern that is expected of them and try to understand the plight of such cadres, and better support them to shoulder their responsibilities.

Prompt implementation of the actionable measures in the Drug Commission Report is a godsend opportunity for the government to demonstrate both its willingness to fulfill its pledge and overhaul the institutions fundamentally. This is the route to a brighter future for all citizens, and the authorities must put their best foot forward and clear the path so as to be truly deserving of the kudos that they are always seeking.

* Published in print edition on 3 August 2018

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