Saturday, April 26, 2008

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkey see, monkey do
Stabroek News Editorial. April 24, 2008

Had President Bharrat Jagdeo not been a member of the cabinet for nearly fifteen years, his latest instruction for an investigation into illegalities at the Guyana Revenue Authority’s Customs and Trade Administration would have been an impressive initiative to excise the cancer of corruption. But the President’s resort to a non-judicial probe is not new, is not surprising and is not going to solve the problem of graft in the government.
First, as special economic adviser to the Minister of Finance in October 1992, then as junior Minister of Finance from October 1993 and as senior Minister of Finance from May 1995, Mr Jagdeo has been well placed to observe the corrupt way business has been conducted at the Customs and Trade Administra-tion. Back in 1999, soon after he had assumed office as President, he announced that “everyone in my government would have to conduct their business transparently or they would not have a part in the government.”
The next year, President Jagdeo declared that the Customs Department was “renowned for corruption,” adding, “We all know that there is corruption in that department. You have patrol officers and junior officers who come into the service and work for three, four months and they can buy a car and a house. Senior civil servants who worked their whole life can never be able to own the assets that those people own.” So, it seems evident that Mr Jagdeo knew this much in January 2000, over eight years ago. What has he done to deal with corruption there?Back in July 2003, when the contraband crime of the day was fuel-smuggling – estimated to cost the state up to $6 billion annually in lost revenue – the President had launched another little probe. Then, he reported that “there is a probe going on now and hopefully we can find those people involved and take action against them.” Yet, everyone knows that fuel smuggling continues. Then, as now, little probes have not solved the big problems of contraband and corruption.
If the President is serious about uprooting corruption, his own cabinet would be a good place to start. The US Department of State revoked the visas of two senior cabinet ministers who are still serving in his administration. Several suspicious fires have destroyed government buildings belonging to the ministries of Agriculture, Education, Housing, Local Government, and Public Works that contained irreplaceable evidence and financial records. Ministers are responsible for all of the departments in which graft has been detected. Yet, no minister has ever been held accountable for wrongdoing.
Over the past fifteen years, there have been a score of ‘scams’ that became landmarks of lawlessness. Although a few clerical grade public servants occasionally have been charged for these offences, the general pattern has been that the most senior persons involved have either remained at their posts or, without prejudice, have had their ‘services terminated’ or simply allowed to resign without facing formal trials in courts of law. Senior police officers against whom credible reports have been made for felonies such as unlawful killing and involvement in narcotics trafficking are still at their posts. Juniors see all these things.
Corrupt practices could not have continued for so long, or have involved such huge amounts of money, or occurred in so many government departments, without the compliance or connivance of senior administration officials. It is they who have been the real role models for malfeasance. Juniors have seen and imitated their seniors’ misconduct.
Pervasive graft is symptomatic of a dysfunctional state. Corruption distorts the economy and discourages investment. The Transparency International Corrup-tion Perception Index 2006 – the most widely used benchmark to gauge businessmen’s and experts’ beliefs about the extent of corruption in various countries – gave Guyana a score of 2.5 out of 10, ranking it at 121st of the 163 countries surveyed.
Well governed countries have avoided the worst consequences of governmental graft. This is not because their citizens and civil servants are more honest but because laws are enforced and mechanisms are supervised more rigorously to prevent graft from overwhelming legitimate administration. Neither the Guyana Police Force nor the Guyana Revenue Authority has a Serious Fraud Office that is up to this job. Everyone knows that the so-called Integrity Commission has been a waste of time from the day it was established.
Despite the prevalence of grand contraband, the police pretend to be paralysed until the President personally steps in to order one of his little ad hoc probes. What is needed is a permanent, properly staffed, impartial agency to investigate these crimes in a sustained and systematic manner, publish their reports, and bring criminals to justice.
This administration has been indifferent, almost irresponsible, to the issue of contraband and corruption. Now, as would have been expected, juniors like monkeys have clumsily copied what they saw seniors succeed in doing with impunity.

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