Peter Espeut | Wake up: Jamaica is at a turning point
It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis” is a composite of two characters, one meaning “danger” and the other meaning “opportunity”. Purists disagree, asserting that the second character has multiple meanings, and in isolation means something more like “change point”. Same difference! A crisis – whether in one’s personal life or in the history of a nation – is fraught with real danger, but also provides an opportunity for real change. This change can be for the better, or for the worse.
The English word “crisis” is ultimately borrowed from the Greek noun “krisis” meaning “decision”, and the verb “krino” which means “I choose” or “I judge”. A person or nation in a crisis has to make a choice – a judgement – which will cause a move forward, or backward.
Jamaica is now at such a point.
Even before I began to write this column over 30 years ago, political corruption had been the main obstacle to Jamaica’s national progress. State resources were poured into housing projects which created political garrisons, peopled with activists and thugs who guaranteed electoral success. Armed gangs with political connections control turf, and make millions from extortion, drug-dealing and gun-running. The security forces seem unable to arrest – never mind convict – even middle-level political operatives involved in this national evil.
This little island has one of the highest – if not the highest – murder rate per capita in the world, and the Jamaican security agencies seem unable to effect permanent change. Is it incompetence, or collusion?
Crime and corruption are a major drag on our national economy. Economic growth over the last half a century has been anaemic. Surely, we should be seeing greater dividends by now from the billions our governments have borrowed since Independence, making us one of the most highly indebted countries on the globe?
By some estimates Jamaica’s gross domestic product (GDP) annually would be more than five percentage points higher if only we could curb crime and political corruption. Compounded over decades, that level of GDP growth would have made Jamaica a prosperous nation. From whom must we seek reparations for our decades of wasted – no, stolen and mismanaged – independence?
Over the decades, progress with reducing political corruption has been slow, but significant. The days of stolen ballot boxes, ballot boxes stuffed with marked ballots from the night before, and victorious candidates obtaining 106 per cent of the votes in their constituencies, are now over, thanks to the establishment of a largely independent Electoral Commission. Not one electoral official (i.e., party loyalist) who presided over verified electoral fraud, has ever been charged or convicted. I wonder why?
Electoral fraud still takes place; politicians of both the green and the orange variety buy the allegiance of voters, either through largesse in and out of political garrisons, or directly through cash payments. Jamaica’s private sector cooperates by providing the parties with the funds.
Little real progress had been made with campaign finance reform; political donations are still made in secret, to a secret committee. In the “ quid pro quo” the public still does not know who gives the “ quid” to who. We used to have an idea of the “ quo” because all government contracts above a certain amount were disclosed annually by the Office of the Contractor General. In a master move, that office no longer exists, merged into the secret “Integrity Commission”.
I said it at the time, and I will say it now: the creation of the Integrity Commission was a backward step, which reduced transparency and accountability. Bribery, graft and corruption are now harder to detect. The commission is gagged from disclosing who is being investigated, which prevents persons with information from coming forward.
ALL WE HAVE
But the Integrity Commission – inadequate as it is – is all we have.
The crisis in which Jamaica presently finds itself is that the same people the Integrity Commission investigates for corruption are the same people that have the power to silence it – and in fact have silenced it. This, of course, is a profound conflict of interest, which should not be allowed to continue.
A joint select committee is reviewing the integrity legislation; submissions before it have recommended wide-ranging changes, including: the removal of the auditor general as an integrity commissioner; removing the prosecutorial powers of the commission; and removing the powers of the commission to request information on statutory declarations pre-dating the promulgation of the law in 2017. Further, it is being recommended that the parliamentary privilege afforded the Integrity Commission – a commission of parliament – be removed.
Should these recommendations be accepted, the Integrity Committee will be successfully neutered, and will be unable to detect and prosecute corruption, and unable to certify the integrity of parliamentarians. This mist not be allowed to happen.
Last week in an unprecedented move, the Speaker of the House declined to table the Annual Report of the Integrity Commission in Parliament, which would make the findings public. Under pressure, she reversed herself and did so this week. The report called no names, but revealed that six of the country’s parliamentarians are being investigated for illicit enrichment, and seven parliamentarians are being probed for providing false information to the commission in relation to their statutory declarations. These are all criminal offences.
The question is whether any of the dozen or so politicians under investigation are members of the joint select committee reviewing the Integrity Legislation, and whether any of the neutering recommendations have been made by those under investigation.
We don’t know if this is so, because the politicians in writing the Integrity Legislation have gagged the Integrity Commission from revealing their names.
This is a serious matter, and amounts to a national crisis.
If parliamentarians are allowed to reverse the small anti-corruption gains made over the last few years by neutering the Integrity Commission, it is likely that corrupt politician will escape prosecution, and corruption will become even more widespread.
Danger! Danger! This is a moment of crisis, a moment of decision, an opportunity for change for the better – or for worse.
I call on the private sector, civil society, the Church, all well-thinking Jamaicans to demand that the names of the parliamentarians under investigation be called, so that any profound conflicts of interests can be revealed. Should any of those under investigation be members of the joint select committee reviewing the integrity legislation, they should be removed forthwith, and any and all of their interventions before the committee be expunged.
The review of the integrity legislation must be placed in the hands of civil society and the Church; only then is it likely that the integrity legislation will be strengthened.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to email@example.com