No I haven’t ever taken bribe” retorted President John Dramani Mahama to BBC’s Peter Okwoche in an interview that coincided with the President’s participation at the Common Wealth Anticorruption summit in London last week.
Juxtapose those words with the leaked comments of Prime Minister David Cameron in his private schmooze with the Queen which blatantly accused Nigeria of being “fantastically corrupt”.
Piece the separate scenarios together and what you have are confessions from two world leaders. One being philosophical about its pervasive nature and the other, more intrigued about the degree and depth of corruption in other countries. Many have questioned the veracity of the president’s ‘not guilty’ plea and several others have challenged the moral high ground on which the Prime minister stands to pass such categorizing judgements.
Beyond the polemic, one cannot help but notice the seeming bi-polar rift in perception about corruption. Mahama’s pessimistic take on the unavoidable confrontation with corruption and Cameron’s optimistic swipe at the fantastically corrupt-as if to suggest the existence of a marvelously transparent state, sum up albeit unwittingly, the attitudes of the global north and south to the phenomenon of corruption.
But are the viewpoints really that different? They both seem to arrive at the same conclusion, to corrupt is human. President Mahama’s “…it depends on…” answer to whether he had ever been offered bribe followed by whether he ever accepted it, aimed to make the point; All have been corrupt and fallen short of pleading innocent.
On his part, Prime Minister Camron’s provocative comments placed states on a spectrum of corrupt, highly corrupt and ‘fantastically corrupt’.
Where both leaders and their societies depart from each other is in their attitudes of resistance! They may not be impermeable to the scourge of corruption but building public resistance against the epidemic is what distinguishes the comic relieved from the philosophically daunted.
Societies that have made progress on the less corrupt spectrum have ridden on the back of that stigma and wooed their critics to join in the fight to purge their nations of the canker. This was craftily demonstrated by President Buhari when he used the global anti-corruption platform to instead demand the return of stolen state assets from western governments whose banks provide sanctuary for the fantastically corrupt in his country.
Buhari exposed the folly of western anti-corruption discourse, identifying others as being fantastically corrupt is admitting lesser culpability of the self.
Upon deeper reflection, the equivocal denial of our president, has exposed the ‘true-lies’ of corruption discourse in Ghana.
Perhaps no other topic is as pacified in Ghana as corruption. Like the president, we all take the not guilty plea, excusing our wrongs as acceptable and like the prime minister, rage at the unpardonable ills of others (political elite).
However, the kernel of the problem is in our crime-centric and painfully slow traditional approach to fighting corruption. Whatever the level and degree of exposure, the burden of culpability is iften watered down to the last filter of being proven guilty.
The power of reputation damage or fear of same, has seized to have an implicating effect on suspects and alleged corrupt officials. Making ourselves passive offenders and leaving responsibility squarely at the feet of authority and state institutions emboldens complicity and creates incentives for the accused minority to conspire against the forces of collective good. Sadly, naming and shaming corruption from the peripheries does not restrain the act.
As citizens, we would not earn the respect and deterrence of our ‘Big men’ if we only collectively throw tantrums at them and in isolation scheme for private favours from them. We blackmail politicians with the threat of not renewing their electoral mandate if our personal needs or private interests are not met.
They in turn inflate our needs and trickle down the support over the duration of their tenure. The mockery of our plight as they gloat in their pride.
This path dependency of treating corruption with a human face must stop. We must break from the orthodox practice of making governments and public institutions the referent objects responsible for fighting corruption and place ourselves on the frontline.
First by exercising discretion and resisting corruption in all its incarnations.
Second citizens, development partners and CSOs, must begin to frame corruption in reputational terms where the spectrum of integrity runs from the suspicion of being corrupt all through to the proof of not being guilty.
For too long the ‘proof of being guilty’- clause has given sanctuary to public authorities whose continued stay in authority goes on to erode the reputational aspects of fighting corruption.
Without setting in place a moral infrastructure in which there is reputational jeopardy to corruption, the law as its final arbiter is at the mercy and political discretion of the very authorities who stand accused.
The dossiers of evidence implicating public officials in offenses involving procurement breaches, contract inflation, and diversion of funds, overspending and the streak of bribery allegations that have passed without executive sanction scream of impunity.
On the other hand, framing and pursuing the act of corruption to include a public affliction on one’s reputation sets a control mechanism and disincentive to give in to the temptations of corruption.
We must operationalize the suspect’s dilemma. That is, where a prospective corrupt official, calculates both the reputational and criminal risks of their likely actions and elect to act in compliance with the laid down rules. It is therefore imperative to build into our discourse channels of corruption such critical moral agencies.
As the revered American Political scientist, Samuel Huntington has written elsewhere, “the most important political distinction among countries, concerns not their form of government but their degree of government”.
We may criticize Prime Minister Cameron’s diplomatic guff, but the substance of those remarks although smeared with cynicism, spoke to the heart of a menace whose undeniable impact is being felt across the latitudes and longitudes of the globe.
Corruption is like a phoenix, constantly rising from the ashes and reincarnating as a more lethal threat. Notwithstanding, as for all societies, to corrupt is human. However to resist corruption is the humane test that all countries that have made their glorious leap to economic prosperity and built an egalitarian society, had to overcome.