Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Bon appétit, we are in power!

In a review of Michela Wong’s book “It’s Our Turn to Eat”, which chronicles corruption networks in Kenya under President Mwai Kibaki, the former British diplomat Sir Edward Clay observes that too often, Africa’s political class regards government not as a trust or contract with the governed, but as their private possession. Therefore, since the same keyholder on which hangs the office key also carries the one that opens the public safe, the vote is a ticket to riches, and to be entrusted with power is to be conferred unfettered access to public funds – and the lottery. And so the logic goes: to be anywhere in the government machinery – whether as an elected official or in the administrative bureaucracy – is a golden opportunity for self-aggrandisement on a grand scale.

And so politics attracts chancers and busybodies; journeymen who so nicely fit the metaphor of the fat and exasperating hustler in “Heart of Darkness” who, despite being hopelessly unfit and unprepared for the journey on foot in the inhospitable terrain of the Congo, trudges on nonetheless on the belief that there’s great fortune to be made in the hinterland. And like Joseph Conrad’s character, if ever these fellas were asked what the heck they are doing in public office, they would blurt the same memorable lines that their figurative alter ego in the classical novel also gives to explain his presence in a place he’s so out of place in: “To make money, of course. What do you think?” And make money, they do.Such is the insatiable appetite for money by office bearers that Zimbabwean freedom fighter Edgar Tekere once questioned his colleagues how, in just a few years after gaining power, many of them had grown incredibly wealthy.

“We all came from (exile in) Mozambique with nothing; not even a teaspoon,” he observed. “But today, in less than two years, you hear that so-and-so owns so many farms, a chain of hotels and his father owns a fleet of buses. Where did all that money come from in such a short period? Isn’t it from the very public funds they are entrusted to administer?”

Any casual observer of Africa’s political economy would attest that within Tekere’s cheeky speculative conjecture about the source of the leaders’ instant wealth lies the answer. Government and its agencies being the biggest procurer of goods and services, the money-making scheme revolves around who gets to procure what for which government agency. The modus operandi is the same. Lucrative tenders are awarded to relatives, family, friends, and associates of those with access to power. Sometimes you get the more brazen – or stupidly naïve – office bearers who don’t even hide behind an associate, but dish out the contracts to their own companies.  Whichever way the game pans out, the ensuing spectacle is of primitive accumulation so depraved it is shorn of all shame and pretence of ethical conduct.This is the malaise that was observed by the then Deputy President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, in a 1998 speech when he spoke of “how those who had access to power, or access to those who had access to power” robbed, pillaged and broke all laws and all ethical norms “with great abandon to acquire wealth”.

He warned of this predatory class whose sole mission is “to seek access to power or access to those who have access to power so that they can corrupt the political order for personal gain at all costs”.The common refrain by those in power when they try to explain away their conduct – when entities that they have an interest in are found doing business with government agencies – is that like any other citizen, they are entitled to benefit from opportunities when they so arise. What that argument overlooks, argue civil society activists, is that those entrusted with running public affairs cease to be “ordinary citizens” the moment they assume office and so should forgo certain opportunities they would ordinarily partake in without anybody raising an eyebrow.Pusetso Morapedi, the Executive Director of Botswana Centre for Public Integrity (BCPI), argues for strict rules to guard against the temptation by Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) to abuse their entrusted powers. She gives the example of Britain’s PEPs regime that ensures that those in power do not unduly benefit from their positions.One of Botswana’s most outspoken champions of clean governance is the former Director of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC), Tymon Katholo.

He points out that people in decision-making positions often find themselves in circumstances where they have a conflict of interest, that is where personal interest and official obligations collide in a situation where one has to make a decision. As the law currently stands, he explains, it becomes a criminal offence when the concerned person fails to disclose their interest.But is declaration of interest in itself adequate?This is where the path leads to the terrain of ethics. What is lawful may not necessarily be ethical. And, granted, the inverse is equally true – what is unethical is not necessarily unlawful. Most of the “eating” happens under the cloud cover of having fulfilled the legal requirement to declare one’s interest, or recusal from adjudication in the decision of who to procure goods or services from.

What then obtains, for instance, is that a head of a defence force would declare their interest or recuse themselves from adjudicating a certain tender because their brothers’ company has submitted a tender to supply arms or fighter jets to the military. Anti-corruption campaigners argue that though such action would have fulfilled legal requirements, it remains unethical for family members or relatives of an organisation’s leader to do business with that entity. The most obvious difficulty is the improbable expectation that one’s subordinates – or colleagues – would give an objective assessment in a situation where their leader or his family members have an interest.This is why, in Morapedi’s view, it is never a good idea to have public officials do business with government because their positions gives access and advantage that ordinary citizens do not have.

Frustrated at the avaricious “eating” that goes on at the top table despite the ostensible safeguards, increasingly civil society campaigners now call for prohibition of political leaders from doing business with government entities.  As Morapedi asks, “why do we have a policy that allows public officials to do business with government and tender in their respective departments?”While he agrees with the view that it is unethical for public officers to do business with an entity they work for, Katholo cautions that to outlaw the practice is a difficult call to make.“Conflict of interest will always exist, especially in a country like Botswana with a small population where most people know each other,” says Katholo. “The most important thing is to have the mechanism to manage the conflict.”

What is not difficult to notice, though, as Edward Clay said in a clarion call speech in 2004, is the arrogance and greed that lead the practitioners of the “eating” to eat like shameless gluttons – without a care in the world that the sound of their grinding teeth from the rich suburbs do reach the poorer neighbourhoods where stomachs make growling sounds of hunger. 

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