Mon | Nov 23, 2020

Daniel Thwaites | Show me the money!

Published:Sunday | July 28, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Jamaica should be moving towards full disclosure of the integrity filings of all elected representatives and high-level public servants. It is the easiest way to discourage corruption and graft, which is one solid reason to be in favour of it. But let’s not forget that there are others. It will also afford us the opportunity to voyeuristically peer into the affairs of our rulers, which is to say, to “faass in dem business”, and that has distinct pleasures all on its own.

Anyway, as the National Integrity Action group helpfully reminded us, the law currently provides for the Integrity filings of the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition to be made public, although that hasn’t happened. There seems to be some hold-up with Mr Holness’ reports and filings, and that is, of course, a mystery that begs to be resolved.

So, instead of being routine, the release of the records is in the process of being weaponised, and that’s a problem.

Mr Holness’ massive mansion in Beverly Hills became an issue in the last election. It was controversial whether it should have been raised at all, not least because there were some PNP members who had mansions to explain also.

Unfortunately, it has become the accepted wisdom that the concern was motivated by ‘bad mind’ and, therefore, illegitimate. But that’s a conclusion we should resist, because we’re going down a sipple path if we get to the point where unexplained wealth is taken as just another part of the process.

I don’t accept that. House aside, it is surely legitimate for the country to know if the leaders avail themselves of tax shelters to shield their personal assets from the same taxes they say everyone else must pay. If, as a country, we get to where “only the little people pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley famously said), then voters are entitled to know that.

VAST WEALTH GAP

The vast gap between the wealth of those who rule and those who are ruled is worthy of public consideration and public debate.

It can be done in a poisonous way that emphasises resentment against success and wealth and achievement, or it can be done in a healthier and more socially uplifting manner that emphasises opportunity and accomplishment.

So why is it that there are no straightforward answers about the status of the PM’s filings? Even if they require some massaging, manipulation, refashioning, rebranding, and reformulation, we’re talking about the prime minister and his wife here. I imagine a fleet of lawyers, bankers, and accountants stand ready to scrub and polish the first couple’s filings so that they gleam and glitter like freshly cut diamonds.

Peter Phillips has taken the step of releasing his integrity filings and they show substantial wealth, at least as compared to the median wealth of the everyday Jamaican. His competitor in the race to lead the PNP is reportedly no slouch when it comes to making moolah either. Gone, I suppose, are the days when the socialists would compete to be poor.

Who, as a nation, would we liken ourselves to? I think that even with all our problems, we’re not in the ranks of the worst when it comes to graft from leaders. This observation may frustrate or infuriate the more strident readers, but so be it. We have enough problems, so we don’t have to exaggerate the size of the ones we acknowledge.

For instance, despite our troubles, we’ve never got to the level of the Africans. They were well known for vast differentials in the wealth of the rulers and the people. Bear in mind that Uhuru Kenyatta, who The Gleaner reports is to pay us a visit soon, is valued at something like US$562 million. He inherited a bunch of that money from his father, Jomo Kenyatta. The assets include over half million acres of prime farmland. Before him, Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, accumulated some US$3 billion.

There are so many other examples from the mother continent. Robert Mugabe, former-freedom-fighter-turned-tyrant of Zimbabwe gathered up a reported US$1.4 billion, which with the phenomenally devalued currency he left in Zimbabwe would be trillions of bazillions in that useless currency. Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, in power since 2009, has put together a tidy little packet, about US$2 billion. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago, ruling Equatorial Guinea since 1979, is slumming it on the poor side with a mere US$752 million.

The billionaire’s club

Our leaders aren’t in that league, though, no doubt, some of them would dearly like to be. It’s when you hit the billionaire’s club that you’ve found you’re stride on the African continent. Ibrahim Babangida, who held Nigeria from 1985 to 1993, gathered up a reported US$21.7 billion. Sani Abacha took over from him and stayed until 1998. He scraped up a mere US$5 billion. But Nigeria has oil money.

So honorary mention has to be made of Mobutu Sese Seko, who as president of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, acquired US$7.9 billion for his efforts. And money isn’t everything, as Mswati III, King of Swaziland, reminds us, with his 15 wives on top of his cool US$100 million.

With all that said about Africa, you have to turn to South-East Asia to see the big bucks. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines put together about $53 billion in his time. Suharto of Indonesia managed to top that with over $54 billion, although in that stratosphere, does another billion really matter all that much? Mahathir Mohamad, who after his long reign as prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 again returned to power last year, is sitting on a cool US$45 billion.

It’s all about the circumstances, though. The fattest rulers are in the Middle East where one finds rich resources, tribes posing as nations, and generally no pretense that democratic institutions are appropriate. Ali Abdullah Saleh who held Yemen in check till he was ousted by the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2012 had accumulated $68 billion. Hosni Mubarak who had a long run in Egypt had a reported $78.7 billion. But King of the Hill was Muammar Gaddafi whose $224 billion didn’t block him from his horrific end.

This sort of fun can go on for a quite a while. Another standout that the Jamaican public should probably be aware of: Fidel Castro died with over one billion. Forbes had estimated his worth at north of $900 million back in 2006. But who knows? Maybe it was all yankee propaganda. Same thing for Vladimir Putin, who it’s estimated has over US$200 billion net worth.

Why gallop through these many extreme examples of off-the-rail rulers? For one thing it helps to remember we don’t want to become like them. For another, it reminds us that it’s not unheard of for things to get mightily out of control when the institutions meant to guard against these occurrences don’t work.

Do I need to add that Mr Holness should do the right thing and see to it that it’s done right away? Hardly.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.