Sat | May 25, 2019

Imani Duncan-Price | State capture and corruption: Where is Jamaica going?

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Duncan-Price

You ever feel like you're living in a movie? I just returned from Cape Town where I completed a course sponsored by the World Economic Forum (WEF) focused on development, inequality and sustainability. The challenges faced by the South African people after decades of apartheid parallel some of the chronic challenges we still face in Jamaica today.

The most glaring is inequality, which is underscored by the fact that three South Africans have the same wealth as the poorest 28 million in that country. The new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is waging a courageous battle against rampant corruption that runs counter to the ideals of integrity, humanity, respect and love for which Nelson Mandela stood.

The recently published report by Jamaica's auditor general on Petrojam indicates that the challenge posed by corruption is at a new level. Reviewing that report led me to examine the record of the justice system in Jamaica in convicting and sentencing corrupt politicians.

 

First case

 

The first case of conviction for corruption in Jamaica is that of JLP Minister of Education Joe Z. Malcolm, who was arrested in 1951 for collecting money from his constituents in return for special tickets, which would enable them to obtain employment as farm workers in the United States of America. Malcolm was subsequently convicted in January 1952 and sentenced to 12 months at hard labour.

The second case involved L.L. Simmonds, who succeeded Malcolm as minister of education. He was convicted in July 1954 for breaches of the Official Secrets Act and sent to prison for 15 months.

Then came the first major corruption scandal in independent Jamaica when the World Bank signed a loan with the Jamaican Government in September 1966 for US$9.5 million, or J$12.3 billion in today's money value. This was to construct 50 new junior secondary schools and expand teacher-training colleges, the College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST), and the Jamaica School of Agriculture. This investment was nearly twice the capital outlay in secondary schools between 1952 and 1966, a 14-year span.The JLP minister of state in the Ministry of Education, Arthur Burt, was put in charge of the World Bank programme. Minister Burt changed the traditional method of awarding contracts through the established Contracts Committee to one where members of parliament selected the contractors to facilitate the execution of the projects. The result was a 100 per cent overrun on the School Building programme.

As the report of that commission of enquiry stated, "Suggestions of a grave character were made involving Dr Burt personally." However, Dr Burt ignored the commission's invitation to attend and left the island rather than appear before the commission of enquiry and so escaped possible arrest and conviction.

This time, the corruption-enabling mechanism denied Jamaica the opportunity of transforming its educational and training system. As National Integrity Action (NIA) stated in its 2013 documentary, the "cost of corruption contributed to the beginnings of Jamaica's debt, and had we not had those overruns, we could have built 50 more schools". Jamaica is still paying the price.

J.A.G. Smith, former JLP minister of labour and the public service in the 1980s, was charged on February 13, 1990 with receiving US$70,000 (US$164,000, or J$21.3 million in today's value), deemed by the director of public prosecutions to have been unlawfully obtained from farm workers' savings. He was also charged with conspiracy to defraud the State. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison for diverting money for personal gain.

An audit by the Jamaican Government during the investigation turned up evidence that money had been diverted and transferred to a Belgian bank and reportedly, was spent on a Mercedes-Benz, a Volkswagen, architectural drawings, a repair business owned by Smith, travel on the Concorde, agricultural equipment, and private-contract work.

BUT DON'T THEY ALL DO IT?

The fact that only JLP ministers of government have been convicted does not mean that corruption is limited to one political party in Jamaica. Yes, as a Jamaican, I have, at times, been disappointed and angry at the failure of my party to take decisive action, which has only contributed to the cynicism that so many Jamaicans share about politics. Corruption is wrong, no matter who does it, at whatever level.

Whatever was done in the past, we have two political leaders who have the opportunity now to set a different path for their parties, and by the extension, Jamaica, in the present and the future.

Unfortunately, in the case of Prime Minister Holness, the instances of corruption that have surfaced under his watch have not been dealt with decisively. No one has been held accountable for the $600-million bush-clearing scandal, or the $252-million police used-car scandal, or the verbal contracts of approximately J$60 million at NESoL, among others.

Given the prime minister's strong anti-corruption pronouncements at his inauguration, one would hardly have expected that in just two years of his administration, there have been far more acts of corruption and cause for investigation than at any previous time since 1944 when we started electing our own political representatives. The Petrojam Report 2018, which lists callous and wanton acts of corruption, gives him, as a leader, another opportunity to chart a new course.

Peter Phillips, the leader of the Opposition and president of the PNP, recognises the need to restore integrity to public life. "I'm very sensitive to the fact that there is a need to rebuild public trust in the political process and in the PNP in particular, which is my immediate concern, and that public trust means that people have to believe in the integrity of your purposes because we are a low-trust society.

"A lot of cynicism abounds, and there is, quite frankly, no obstacle greater to the nation-building project, in my view, than the degree of cynicism and the apathy which it breeds, and that is affecting our population as a whole, and particularly the young people." Since making this statement in 2017, his response to the allegations of corruption at the Manchester Parish Council is a welcome sign that he is prepared to walk the talk. I know the country will remain alert to this commitment.

In the meantime, the Jamaican people have the responsibility to hold all political leaders to account. The business associations, the churches, and other civil-society stakeholders have started on that journey. Let's all take the action required to rekindle hope and belief in the governance system of Jamaica.

- Imani Duncan-Price is chief of staff for the leader of the Opposition, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, Eisenhower fellow, and former senator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and fullticipation@gmail.com.