By NICOLE BURROWS
MOST people think corruption refers to something big, unusual ... the behaviour of a select group. It can be, but it’s also – and maybe more often – the little, deceitful, ordinary things you do every day that eventually add up to a larger act of dishonesty that carries with it greater penalties and repercussions.
To remove corruption and corruptibility, some think you have to change the people first. But the nature of people allows for corruptibility to always be an option, and so you have to change the process before you change the people. It is faster to change a thing than to change a person. Human beings don’t change overnight, especially those intent on being corrupt, or so entrenched in corruption that they don’t know that it’s actually a very negative thing once it takes its toll across an entire society. Corruption is too endemic to wait for people to change. Corruption in The Bahamas is too endemic to wait for Bahamians to change.
They’ve had over 30 years to behave differently and still the change for the better hasn’t happened. Because from then to now nothing’s really changed in the way we manage corruption. The only thing that does happen is that the people who come behind follow the footsteps of the corrupt. The same missteps that were made back then get repeated.
Obviously, there is something about our systems and processes which allows for this to endure. The only way to break the pattern, is to change the systems or processes.
If you change the processes, and make it painfully illegal to do other than the processes require, then people begin to change their actions more readily, because they, literally, can no longer get away with what they used to, not without maximum penalty.
Some say, well, if you change a system or process, you still have to rely on the people to observe the new system or process, and when they don’t, which we are fairly confident they won’t, then you’re back to square one. And as much as that could be true, that is precisely when you benefit from bringing in new people ... not new people to add to the problem, but new people who are detached from the problem, who have no vested interest in the problem other than helping to achieve justice, to assist with harnessing the problem and restoring law and order.
The reason why outside help works is because you are changing the approach to the problem instead of trying to change the people who are or are in the problem. Of course, this effectively means you have to bring in a new set of people to regularise the behaviours of the other people. Many take issue with this, but what has the alternative produced to date?
And, after all this time, and knowing the alternatives, why is it so difficult for Bahamians to change from corrupt practices? Because they are not only steeped in it, but they actually believe that somehow it is normal to be that way. Somehow, it’s their right to take a pack of pens home from the office, or run up a bill with the food vendor and never pay it, or to purchase at a third of the cost some stolen merchandise they know was stolen, or to take kickbacks on projects requiring government approvals. Those are all corrupt activities and behaviours. They are all abuses of privilege and power.
Transparency International, “the global coalition against corruption”, offers this definition of corruption: “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”.
Seated in Berlin, Germany, this organisation believes transparency is the answer to the pervasive problem of corruption because it allows “shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions”. The group identifies three different types of corruption: grand, petty, and political.
Grand corruption “consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good”.
Petty corruption is “everyday abuse of entrusted power by low – and mid-level public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services, in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies”.
Political corruption is the “manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth”. This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We know it’s happening, but you try to prove it’s happening and you eventually bump into someone who is a part of the corruption, supporting it or fearing it.
Transparency International goes on to say that transparency “is knowing why, how, what, and how much”. It ensures that people with responsibility “act visibly and understandably, and report on their activities. And it means that the general public can hold them to account. It is the surest way of guarding against corruption, and helps increase trust in the people and institutions on which our futures depend.”
And this is all important because “the end result of corruption is a public that is distrustful and apathetic”. Again, sound familiar?
Transparency International suggests the problem of corruption can be resolved with a solution of negotiation. I don’t agree: there’s no negotiating with people who don’t think there’s anything to negotiate, or with people who don’t think they’ve done wrong.
I wonder if they have any idea how negotiation does not work in predominantly black Caribbean and African societies, where the inherent attitudes of black leaders tend to lean towards an abusive entitlement ... where a part of the culture is that being in charge is reason in itself to be corrupt.
I was only seven or eight. I remember feeling like I was in a refrigerator, looking down at my skinny little bare legs dangling over the edge of the hard metal chair, too short to touch the ground if I sat all the way back.
I remember feeling bored out of my mind and looking around me at all these people who seemed so serious and thoughtful, looking at the person on display and then at each other. The mood of the gathering was sombre, people staring with their arms folded and hands under their chins.
It was my mum’s day off. At least, I think it was. I thought it was. Until she told me later in life that she took time off just to be in this icebox of a room. And I got to go with her.
I was too young to understand it then, but the Drug Commission of Inquiry was underway in the Boulevard Building, the space since occupied by the passport office, and now the Chapter One Bookstore.
I had no idea that what was going on around me was so predictive, so telling, so explanatory of my country, my people, the things that went on when no one thought anyone else was paying attention.
I wish I knew and could appreciate what I was witnessing. There were nervous men in the interrogation chair, including, at one point, a tense Lynden Pindling. I remember my mum saying how this man just could not sit still in the hot seat, that he kept shifting from left to right. And then came the infamous phrase, “I do not recall”. I believe that phrase was utilised by the lot of them, under oath, when it became obvious that the people asking the questions meant business.
I only went with Mum a few times. I think, after a certain point, it got too crowded and intense and maybe they enforced a “no children allowed” policy. But I can never forget the cold seriousness of those few days.
Back then, life on New Providence island was far more pleasant than it is now, in great part because those who could be bought had been bought and those who couldn’t were none the wiser. The repercussions of scandal and core corruption were not yet obvious. The fallout from the activities our leaders may have been involved in but swore they were unable to recall was not yet experienced. But it was on its way.
The Minority Report on “The Prime Minister’s Finances” by then Bishop Drexel Gomez (one of the members of the Commission) was, on its own, very curious, and filled with things that weren’t proven but that were and remain suspect. Only roughly six pages long, it lists details of a Scotiabank account held by Lynden Pindling, and even hints at a possible payoff from the Grand Bahama Port Authority.
I always thought this report was something lengthy, but, when I finally took the time to read it, I discovered it was rather succinct, and in its brevity it made a deliberate point of considering the existence of widespread corruption starting at the very top in our independent country’s early life.
The report on the Drug Commission is something that reads as if it could be written (about) today. In essence, little has changed. Many are suspected of corruption and few are willing to provide the evidence of it.
With, probably, the exception of a more vocal press, we still live with a 1980s mentality where you dare not speak about someone’s suspected corrupt activities for fear of some type of reprisal. And that in itself is corruption.
How do Bahamians get out from under this dark cloud that has hovered over us for decades, and only intensifies as the months and years go by?
We all know something untoward is going on, but no one is willing to reveal it because they’re either a part of it, or they are afraid of being hurt by it. If that continues, I don’t see any way that we can change our country to one that has transparent government and adequate mechanisms in place to deal appropriately and seriously with corrupt people and practices in The Bahamas.
The seriousness in that room in 1983/1984, the build up of tension on the people’s faces ... could we have that again, and be brave enough to find the truth and then, this time, actually do something remarkably decent and long-lasting with it?
I asked my mum if Pindling and his cohorts knew the commission had the potential to reveal certain things about politicians and the politically connected, why did they call it into being? The only thing she could say was that they must have had no idea what would come out and the potential it had to taint them for the rest of their lives.
Or, perhaps they did know. And perhaps they were comfortable knowing also that a few fall guys would take the rap for all involved and in the end no one would really be held accountable.
You see, not much has changed from then to now.
• Send email to email@example.com.