In the belly of the beast
REPEATEDLY, surveys done in the United States of America — a country we like to ape — have revealed that politicians, used-car salespersons and journalists are regarded as the most corrupt individuals in the public space, and thus enjoy very little trust from the people.
I recall when I decided to run on a People’s National Party (PNP) ticket in 2011, an elderly man approached me in a supermarket with a most tearful voice bemoaning the fact that I was about to lose my “virginity” as a balanced, honest and highly respected journalist. For my sins, I have chosen two professions that John Public loves to hate — that of being a scribe and a political representative.
Well known academician Professor Trevor Munroe, who has been championing the fight against corruption in Jamaica, especially in the political arena, lists corruption as among the main things “killing” the Jamaican economy — the other two being crime and bureaucracy. In a bold bid to fight this monster, the goodly professor and former politician has set up the National Integrity Action (NIA), a nongovernmental organisation which he hopes will sufficiently sensitise civil society about the ills and deleterious consequences of corruption. But one of the NIA’s most serious challenges is not so much corruption, in and of itself, but the average Jamaican’s perception of that national malady.
In a land where Anancy is king, and where Jamaicans have been described as having been dosed with an abundance of larceny, defining corruption will remain the greatest obstacle towards minimising it. Some time ago, I attended a parliamentary confab in Antigua and I was quite taken aback when one of the presenters, a practising politician and speaker of the House of Representatives, declared that calling up or writing a principal asking him or her to accept a student who was not admitted through the normal channels was an act of corruption.
At this time of the year, I have been bombarded by parents or other relatives of children with requests, and in some cases demands, that I call up the headmaster or headmistress to insist that they should admit their charges. They point out that it is my party in power so it should not be a problem. Of course, this is but the tip of the iceberg. Members of Parliament are vested with all types of power and authority by constituents who expect them to turn water into wine and produce a successful solution to every problem, regardless of the consequences. And therein lie the seeds of corruption.
In my view, even with the best of intentions, the NIA so far has not succeeded in clearly defining in the minds of Jamaicans what corruption is. This is by no means to discredit the work of that organisation, which has been a lone voice in the wilderness.
Professor Munroe himself suffers from a trust deficit, as his detractors have maintained that he was once in the belly of the beast and did nothing then to change the status quo. But who better to take on such a gargantuan task? It behoves the NIA to launch an even more intensive campaign which involves defining the true role of a member of Parliament vis-avis public spending as against being a legislator and constituency advocate.
I myself have been faced with a similar dilemma, as even when one tries to tip-toe through the raindrops, my detractors maintain that by virtue of my being a member of one of the warring tribes, I am automatically corrupt. Interestingly, both supporters of the PNP and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) point fingers at each other as if to say neither is a hotbed of corruption. In the meantime, while the finger-pointing continues — and there are those who maintain a seemingly sanctimonious stance — civil society is rife with cynicism (a pox on both their houses), leaving the diehards to perpetuate minority governments in a democracy where the adage “the greatest good for the greatest number” should be held sacrosanct.
Even as I squirm in the belly of the beast, fearing that at any moment I may be digested and assimilated into the body politic that is corrupt from top to bottom, I have become increasingly aware that there is not much that one individual can do to change this scenario. What is needed is a collective will that transcends narrow partisan considerations. But corruption has become so endemic in the Jamaican psyche that it will take a generational shift to bring about meaningful transformation. In this vein, a national consensus must become paramount. But is this possible in an environment where even the colour that one wears defines one’s existence?
And in this regard, I would humbly suggest that character education should be taught from the basic school right up to the tertiary level, bearing in mind the all-pervasive “ah nuh nutten” mentality among Jamaicans who feel that it is all right to “tief” from government, just don’t get caught! Especially in a socioeconomic setting where the cost of living — as well as dying — is very high, and with Jamaicans infected with a very serious case of consumerism, larceny and embezzlement, pilfering and scamming have become most commonplace. Just check the newspapers.
British parliamentarian Diane Abbott has noted in her Sunday Observer column that “corruption in public life is not a problem for Jamaica alone. Where you have politicians and money, you inevitably have corruption”. So are we looking at a catch-22 situation; damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Is there any practical way that politicians as legislators can be separated from the public purse? Then again, it is not just the elected representative who is likely to plunder the national till. It is well known that theft, bribery, graft, and corruption of all stripes are to be found in the Jamaica public service; but somehow the MPs and councillors are the ones who are most fingered by civil society and the media.
According to Buju Banton in one of his popular songs, “...tief never like fi see tief with long bag”. Many who accuse politicians or other public servants of corruption are themselves corrupt, but oftentimes they become embittered because their snouts are far removed from the trough. In all of this, the Church prefers to spend more time tackling peripheral issues rather than, like Jesus, going after and chastising the money changers.
Corruption, I guess, is not as “sexy” as going after homosexuals? Surely, the fight against corruption should be an area of national life that the Church tackles with much more courage, energy and stick-to-itiveness. Then again, the Church itself has been known to be infested with the corruption virus in various forms and shapes.
If corruption is Jamaica’s greatest stumbling block to prosperity, then it would seem to me that this nation will remain overly impoverished for a long time to come, unless the culture of dependency is removed and the majority of politicians and civil society leaders are prepared to say, “Enough is enough”. A good place to start is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People’s National Party or the Government of Jamaica.