The tyranny of corruption and our collective moral amnesia
Dr. Henry Adobor
“History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline.” General Douglas MacArthur
Corruption is very much in the news these days. Many leading individuals, including one of our former presidents, a retired Chief Justice, and a former head of the CJHRA, all commented on the ills of corruption recently. By way of solutions, the former head of the CJHRA noted that a blueprint for dealing with corruption exists. In my opinion, such a blueprint may turn out to be nothing more than a “plan of mice and men” [I mean no offence here]. Not because it is probably not a good plan, chances are it is a great one. However, our history shows that when it comes to these sorts of issues, we lack the moral will to act. This is a strong and sad indictment but I stand by it.
At some level, our nation seems to have come unhinged from its moral moorings. If that were not sad enough, we express no moral outrage at the lack of integrity and morality in vast aspects of our national life. Those who dare to speak about corruption in particular look more like the Biblical John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness rather than Christ preaching his Sermon on the Mount. This is at a time when faith and religion in all its manifestations: from the believable, through the somewhat questionable, to the outrageous and downright dangerous have become a defining aspect of life in Ghana today. This irony is certainly not lost on me. This situation is shameful and untenable and the country needs to wake up from its collective moral amnesia, and sense that the massive amount of corruption is either something we just have to live with, matters little as we do so only at our collective peril as the MacArthur quote above shows.
The Nature of Corruption
Corruption occurs when individuals who have power, authority or influence, abuse their positions for personal gain. No country, political party, or group, may be immune to corruption, what varies may be how pervasive it is from one place or regime to the other. In developing countries in particular, corruption has serious implications for our collective welfare given the power of the state. Corruption is a form of purposeful selfish behavior. Often, this kind of behavior violates the role expectations of individuals occupying positions of authority. Corruption therefore, is the most serious form of abuse of administrative trust. What I call administrative trust is nothing more than the expectation we have that those we entrust with specific tasks will discharge those roles in a selfless manner to the best of their abilities. The expectation of selfless behavior in the discharge of our duties extends from the job of the person cleaning the public toilets at Accra Central, to the politician who recognizes a need for such facilities to be built, to the bureaucrat who conducts the feasibility study and finally to the contractor who builds the facility. Our expectation is that the contractor will do a good job so that the facility does not start falling apart in a few years, because instead of using say five bags of cement for so many blocks, they skimp on it and use half the number of bags of cement required to do a quality job. That the attendant who collects the fees at the facility would not print duplicate receipts and pocket part of the fees from the facility. Our hope certainly is that the politician would not use his position to give the contract to someone because he/she can fund his/her next election campaign or because the contractor is prepared to give him/her a kickback and pass over another contractor who may be more qualified. It certainly means that when the contractor finishes the job, they be paid on time and not six months later because some bureaucrat is expecting him/her to stop by with a brown envelope stuffed with cash or the government is unable to pay them on time and so on.
Some Effects of Corruption
Corruption has serious implications for the country. I briefly discuss four for lack of space. First, it seriously undermines efficiency. Corruption sometimes allows us to substitute familiarity for merit and in so doing rewards mediocrity, not excellence. For example, if the only reason why our contractor gets the job to build the public toilet is that they know someone, not because they are the most qualified, there is a good chance that what they build will not be the quality we deserve and the nation will not get its value for the money spent.
Second, corruption increases the cost of doing business. This is particularly important in view of our desire to make Ghana the so-called gateway to West Africa. Economists call the cost associated with doing business in any form transaction costs. Most rational people, and that of course includes business people, seek to minimize transaction costs. If I have to pay bribes in addition to the legal fees to clear my goods at the port, pay bribes along the route from Accra to Tamale where I have a warehouse, I need to factor all these expenses into my cost and price my items accordingly to make a profit. In the end, I may be able to pass the cost to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Third, corruption leads to an erosion and eventual decay of trust in others, and more important, in our institutions. Trust is the social and economic glue that holds society together. For example, if I cannot be sure that those charged with inspecting drugs imported into the country do a good job and I take some contaminated medicine, I might fall ill. I may then be reluctant to take medicine that is supposed to make me feel better. Well, it’s someone’s job to make sure that the laws that are meant to protect consumers are enforced. Under a corrupt system, this vital responsibility may be compromised to our collective detriment.
Last, but certainly not the least, corruption especially in a developing country such as ours, robs the most vulnerable groups among us, the rural and urban poor, of the little that we can offer them. In a situation where governments are very powerful and are the largest repositories (holders) of our collective wealth, corruption at any level leads to even greater inequality in the distribution of that collective wealth, making any notion of shared prosperity a mirage.
All one needs to do is to look across Africa and see the grinding poverty even in countries producing huge amounts of oil to realize that just accumulating money in the national coffers hardly guarantees that everyone benefits from that largesse. In Ghana for example, the bulk of the nation’s income comes from cocoa, and other natural resources. The cocoa farmers and those lands from which we extract the minerals often get little in return. For the most part, what we have given them in return are polluted streams, deforestation and painfully now before our very eyes, the wanton destruction of their most fertile farmlands. What little money that should have gone to the districts where the mines are located to drill a borehole for village communities may end up in someone else’s bank account under a corrupt regime. What corruption does is blot what trickles down to the most vulnerable in our society.
A Moral Crisis
In my opinion, corruption has become a national yoke we bear; its weight grinds us down as we wallow in blissful ignorance of its consequences. In some ways, corruption has becomes a sort of soft tyranny that we live under. What is worse is our tendency to avoid openly and vigorously talking about it and our collective failure to express moral outrage even when we hear and see flagrant abuse of position and office. Perhaps our silence is our way of paying involuntary homage to those who violate the trust we repose in them. Maybe all we can do is look on with envy at their ill-gotten wealth or their capacity to use their positions for gain. Either way, we become more than victims. By our inaction, we may become unwilling accomplices in this perverted dance. I suggest that corruption is a moral problem and that we have a moral crisis on our hands. Corruption is a moral problem because it touches on the basic ideas of what is right and wrong. Behavior that robs the country, as a community, would be considered morally wrong in all Ghanaian traditions. When someone steals from the community basket, he/she violates the group as a whole and violations of societal moral codes are often severely punished in most traditional societies. I have a number of suggestions for dealing with what I see as a moral crisis.
One way to curtail corruption is to talk about it. I suggest we hardly do that now. One can almost count how often our leaders use words like “integrity” and “corruption”. Those in leadership positions should not be shy to remind us that integrity does matter and that people can do well for themselves without abusing their positions. Sometimes the tendency is to avoid raising issues of morality such as corruption because it often makes those around us feel uncomfortable. All of a sudden, some people may feel that people either are accusing them or are insinuating that they are corrupt. However, because someone feels unease does not mean that we should not talk about corruption or morality in general. How often leaders talk about an issue sends a message about how important that topic/issue is to them. In his last State of the Nation speech, the president allotted a paragraph or so to corruption. To the contrary, Xi Jinping the new Chinese leader devoted his entire first speech after being named the Communist Party’s new leader of China to warning the Politburo that corruption could lead to the collapse of the party and the state if left unchecked. Our president in his last state of the nation address also devoted several pages to the topic of economic development [and rightly so] and a paragraph or so to corruption. Of course, one speech cannot cover everything and I have no reason at all to suggest the president does not care about our collective welfare. I am sure he does. What we must not forget is that corruption will and can stifle our efforts to develop the country. Well, talk alone is not enough but words have caused revolutions, and in this case, could start a moral revolution.
The Role of Leadership
We cannot underestimate the role leaders can play in dealing with moral crisis. Our political, religious and traditional rulers have a role to play here. Our leaders must always set the example by speaking up against corruption and demonstrating integrity in what they do. I am not sure how many political leaders have so far publicly declared their assets. Even this token gesture, token because we cannot verify their true worth under our system, has proven to be too difficult for our leaders. We set up committees to investigate wrongdoing; the Auditor General comes out annually with revelations of gross abuse of position and nothing concrete and transparent is done about it. For our leaders especially, there may be a lesson in the words from the Cadet Prayer of the United States Military Academy. It says, among others, that they become people who strive to “choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.” Those of us privileged to lead and serve the country in any capacity must lead by example.
We Need Moral Heroes
A hero is someone who often suffers personal pain or some loss in order to do something good for another person. The former Attorney General may be a fine example of a moral hero. A moral hero is someone prepared to suffer personal loss in the pursuit of a better and more just society. Such heroes may lose their jobs for speaking up. They may be ridiculed for not engaging in corruption themselves although they occupy positions that give them access. The fight against corruption requires moral heroes. Moral heroes are prepared to make personal sacrifices to expose corruption and abuse of office and position. People must be willing to speak out against corruption despite the personal cost to them. Young journalists engaged in this fight must be encouraged. Enforcement Still Has a Role There are institutions and laws on the books to discourage and/or punish corruption. The problem is that sometimes our confidence in those institutions are nowhere near what they should be. I am sure many of our compatriots in law enforcement and the judiciary do a great job in ensuring that we follow the rules. However, there is so much more room for improvement. I have heard some experts say that the judiciary in our recent past could probably have done better in prosecuting some serious cases of fraud and corruption. I am merely echoing sentiments I have heard. I am not a lawyer and certainly no expert on that, but I believe we can always do better. Be as it may, what we need to do is to strengthen our enforcement institutions and policies so that justice would always be served in a timely manner at all times. This requires political and judicial will. The former especially may be crucial for strengthening the latter.
This country was won for us through sacrifice and each generation must do its fair share to move it forward. My generation and those in tow cannot do so if we throw integrity out the door. We cannot forget our recent past; our storied search for probity and accountability. The only way to atone for those excesses that generation committed in the heat of its frenzied chase for accountability is to hold ourselves up always, not sometimes only, to the highest levels of integrity and accountability. That is the least we can do.
Of course, not everyone is guilty of abuse of office, or his or her position. It would also be wrong to blame our leaders and those in high positions alone for corruption even as we rightly blame some of them for their complicity and others for their inaction and silence in the face of this our slow death by a thousand cuts. We may all be guilty of something: from the lowly clerk/messenger to the most powerful. The truth is that there are those who labor daily, doing an honest job for honest pay, under trying conditions; others doing their legitimate businesses and making profit along the way, certainly leaders, including political, religious and our traditional leaders who hold their charges in sacred trust and do an honest job too. These are the true heroes. Those who use their positions for advantage or exploit our incompetence to their advantage must not be role models for our children. I plead guilty to a certain degree of naivety here, given our long history of the very amnesia I am writing about here. However, my purpose here is not to indulge in moral skepticism. I was a witness to an incident at Ashiaman July this year when drivers and ordinary citizens, fed up with what they said was the incompetence and the failure of contractors and/or the government to complete the construction of a major road that cuts across town, rioted. These were otherwise law-abiding, hard working citizens. In my conversation with some of the drivers, a common refrain was that “we know someone was already paid to do the job, others got their envelopes and we are left to suffer.” Whatever the truth is, the fact is our people deserve better, we must do better and can do better. The nation cries for leadership on this issue. It is our moral duty to step up, or else risk national decline.