Tracking corruption and arresting the corrupt
T he Gleaner’s ‘Tracking Corruption’ investigations, in partnership with the National Integrity Action (NIA), provide new evidence to support the view of the majority of our people that corruption remains a serious problem in successive governments.
The series also confirms the increasing consensus among leaders of civil society, the Church, business, public-sector officials, academics, international development partners and politicians of integrity that, in the words of Bishop Conrad Pitkin at the 2020 National Leadership Prayer Breakfast, “corruption and crime are twin brothers destroying our nation”.
Two years earlier, on January 17, 2018, at a Rotary Club Luncheon, the then president of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA), Metry Seaga, pointed out that “corruption sucks, annually, US$738 million of our hard-earned money”.
Successive prime ministers have spoken good words – “we must get rid of corruption”. The International Monetary Fund, in April 2019, told us what we are already experiencing, that “weak governance and corruption can severely hamper economic growth and impact … the rule of law”.
The Global Competitiveness Report tells us each year that corruption is among the main problems facing business in Jamaica and contributes to 70-odd countries being more competitive than our own.
The United Nations Convention Against Corruption, five years ago, was more blunt – there is no sustainable development except “to substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms”. With this assertion, every major Jamaican policy document is fully aligned – political party manifestos, the new national security policy, and, most of all, the National Development Plan Vision 2030.
TRANSFORMING WORDS INTO DEEDS
What is being done to transform words into deeds? Building the awareness of our people of what corruption is and why it should be combated is growing. National surveys of young people in schools, particularly a 2017 survey of ‘Corruption and Youth’ done by the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies, Mona, reveal that the vast majority of “school” youth, between 10 and 19, regard electricity stealing, scamming, and various forms of cheating as unacceptable.
Our people’s willingness to justify acts of corruption has declined substantially, from 56 per cent in 2006 to 27 per cent in 2017. Their actual reported engagement in bribery is about 21 per cent, the average for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Most recently, the February 2020 Don Anderson RJRGLEANER Poll indicates that 52 per cent of Jamaicans believe that corruption issues at the energy ministry in 2018 have not been adequately addressed. So there is progress in our people’s awareness.
HOLDING THE CORRUPT TO ACCOUNT
However, we are a far way from holding the corrupt to account. The Jamaican public themselves, in a September 2019 survey, tell us “the most significant sign that the country is on the right track in fighting corruption and increasing citizen security”. 37.6 per cent, the biggest plurality, say they want to “see big fish successfully prosecuted”.
For a combination of reasons, we are not getting this outcome. For the large number of “small fish” being prosecuted for corruption, the conviction rate is 43.7 per cent. For the few big fish successfully prosecuted for “illicit enrichment”, the conviction rate is 17.1 per cent.
All Jamaicans who want prosperity and progress have an urgent interest in ensuring that the law is equally applied to the big and the small, to the rich and to the poor.
Ten years ago in 2010, a survey of citizens in seven Caribbean states, including Jamaica, found that the majority believed that the “powerful” and “well-connected criminals” go free. The achievement of a safe, secure and just society, one target of Vision 2030, can only be achieved if the reality behind this perception is reversed.
How can this be done? First of all, we have to encourage greater assertiveness on the part of the 70-odd per cent of Jamaicans who believe that “ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption”.
We can better do this by taking every opportunity to remind our citizens that it was ordinary people speaking out:
- Who accomplished the reversal of the Deposit Withdrawal Tax proposed by Government in 2014.
- Who ensured the resignation of Minister Richard Azan in 2014.
- The dismissal of Minister Andrew Wheatley in 2018.
- The prompt appointment of Acting Chief Justice Bryan Sykes in 2018.
- The withdrawal of the proposal, after two days in October 2019, to keep Cabinet documents secret for up to 70 years.
More consistent speaking out and standing up will contribute to more effective and consistent combat of corruption.
PROTECT AND SUPPORT
Second, we must better protect and support those who see wrongs at close quarters to report the wrongs which they witness. In this regard, the Protective Disclosures Act (2011) needs to be strengthened to give whistle-blowers who see misdeeds in high places, in public and private sectors, greater protection and more encouragement.
Third, the numbers, the competence and compensation, the integrity and professionalism of our anti-corruption investigators and prosecutors must be substantially improved.
NIA and partners, over a number of years, have sponsored and supported thousands of training and sensitisation hours for investigators and prosecutors in our Parish Courts, at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, in The Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Investigation (CTOC) and at Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA). These efforts and similar contributions are beginning to bear fruit and need to be sustained.
This is one most important way to ensure that government ministers and the well-connected do not simply resign and walk away free, that private contractors benefiting from procurement breaches are not allowed to enjoy impunity with tens of millions of dollars illicitly gained at public expense, and that big money, criminal or commercial, is not able to “pay the piper [during elections] and call the tune [after elections]”.
As Metry Seaga put it, “ we have to hold everyone accountable. Both businessmen and members of parliament that engage in corrupt behaviour must be brought to account.”