By Saddam Hussein
When one looks at world history, a common pattern that appears is the more the global economy expanded, especially during the 20th century, the levels of corruption “expanded” with it as well. It is hard to exactly estimate the global magnitude and the extent of corruption, especially when corruption can be categorized into many forms. It also becomes hard to gauge the extent of corruption when it comes to “White Collar Crime”, where the magnitude and trail of corruption is hard to track. The World Bank’s estimates of corruption amount to more than USD 1.5 trillion annually, or 2% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and ten times more than total global “aid funds”. Other estimates are higher at 2-5% of global GDP.
Corruption permeates all levels of our society; from low-level public servants accepting petty bribes to national leaders stealing and embezzling millions of dollars. Corruption cases involving national leaders are not unique. Transparency International (TI) estimates Indonesia’s former president Suharto siphoned off anywhere from USD 15 billion to USD 35 billion. The Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Sani Abacha of Nigeria may have embezzled around USD 5 billion each. Moreover, in 2015, President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala was also forced to step down after Congress stripped him of immunity because of his alleged role in a mega corruption. Also, in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma had to go home over corruption charges last year.
In the same way, under President Xi Jinping’s years-long ambitious anti-corruption drive, more than a thousand Chinese absconders, who earlier escaped the clutches of law, were brought back to the country last year and more than USD 519 million in ill-gotten wealth was recovered. The Communist party’s anti-corruption watchdog said among 1,335 convicted, 307 were either party members or government employees.
However, rooting out corruption all-together seems like a hard task as institutionalized corruption, in contemporary times, has become part of the system or economic ecology. Even with ever increasing checks and balances in the developing world, many governments are finding it hard to tackle corruption among national level leaders.
Many developing nations are also trying to catch with the Global North by devising new legislations and mechanisms to curb corruption.
Nevertheless, politics in subcontinent in this regard seems to be stuck in history. Hatching of any mega-corruption scandal fumes conspiracy theories; often blended as “political victimization”. Sometimes, the accused deliberately color it with external plots, as if they were living in British Raj and indigenous heroes were being arrested for their acts of rebellion. They then shield themselves in the political-support-camouflage; a minority make them heroes. Yet, some lessons can be learnt from the global attitude towards corruption by the people.
Alan García, Peru’s former president died recently, after shooting himself as police officers were sent to take him into custody over corruption allegations. Garcia was accused of taking bribes from Brazilian construction company Odebrecht; claims that he denied. However, Odebrecht admitted paying almost USD 30 million in bribes since 2004. Apparently, he shot himself out of sheer embarrassment and shame that his arrest would have brought to him and his family; societal pressure can act as an effective antidote to corruption.
Next to Peru – right in the heart of Brazil – another story of corruption is making the headlines, where the country’s biggest anti-corruption investigation is at the crossroads. Gigantic anti-graft investigations are underway. It ended political careers, resulted in arrests and assisted in electing, last year, Jair Bolsonaro, a low-ranking right-wing congressman. His rage against corruption and pledging to deal it with iron hands gave him an unprecedented victory.
Moreover, prosecutors in another Brazilian city of Curitiba convicted 155 people, and decreed prison sentences adding up to more than 2,000 years in the infamous Lavo Jato money laundering case. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president is also serving jail sentences of around 25 years in the same city. Anti-corruption drive in Curitiba and other cities has led to scores of convictions and billions of dollars in fines. The people of Brazil had a key role in curbing corruption; they held massive protests and voted corrupt politicians out of office, as one of the prosecutors – Deltan Dallagnol – opined, “[W]ithout society’s insistence, we wouldn’t have Lava Jato”. It is pertinent to note that, in somewhat a similar move, back in 2016, Brazilians’ anger paved way for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, merely for budget accounting violations.
Here, another case worth mentioning is that of Gordon Dennis Fox – an American attorney and politician from Providence, Rhode Island. He served formerly as the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. A member of the Democratic Party (United States), he was first elected to the legislature in 1992 and remained its member for 22 consecutive years. Fox was a very popular leader; though, sometimes greed can pull people down.
On March 21, 2014, Fox’s home and office were raided by the officials of different agencies over corruption chargers. Fox later pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery and filing a false tax return. He was sentenced for three years in Federal prison and was a free man in February 2018.
Lessons that can be learnt from the Fox’s story are; he did not get any assistance from his ruling party, he resigned from the speakership as soon as the case was opened against him; his party did not hold any protest for him neither gave any statement to defend him; no production order was issued for him by the next Speaker of his own party; the President did not consider pardoning him; after his release, he made no victory signs; nobody welcomed him and even his Doctorate’s honorary degree was also revoked by the Rhoades Colleges on the moral grounds. As a result, he had to quit politics. The incident speaks volumes about the American social ethics and values. This also signals how the rich social fabric of any society can maintain checks and balances within the society and strictly stand by the principles, no matter what.
Now turning towards South Korea; corruption is also a serious problem there. But the government has taken steps to fight it. Steps have been taken in this regard, such as the Act on the Protection of Public Interest Whistle-Blowers, which protects whistleblowers who report public and private corruption as well as foreign bribery. Public services have also been digitized in order to avoid opportunities for corruption and more such initiatives. In parallel, the state came hard on corrupt leaders. For instance, in 2015, Lee Wan-Koo, former Prime Minister of South Korea, resigned after being embroiled in a corruption scandal. Former South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak was also sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption and also fined USD 11.5 million, in a string of former leaders of the country who have faced similar charges after leaving office. Hence, due to these measures, the country’s corruption indices are improving significantly.
On a similar pattern, Pakistan, too, has had a problem of corruption since it came into being. There is a growing demand to reform, accountability and anti-corruption policies at higher levels within the state and government. Mega-corruption cases are under way. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) incumbent government presumably has a “zero-tolerance policy” for corruption. Two of its federal ministers and also a provincial minister had to go home on corruption allegations and few other leaders within the party are also facing investigations. Though, there seems to be resistance within the state machinery, established through power and patronage politics over decades. This very machinery is still serving or at least doing favors to their generous ex-bosses. The current anti-corruption drive would have tangible outcomes, but will take time; on a condition if PTI strictly stands by its principles regarding zero-tolerance for corruption.
Pakistan can learn a great deal from the aforementioned cases of how corruption was dealt with. Reluctant accountability would bear no fruits. In addition to that, leaders as well as the masses should start acting rationally. The mantra of “political victimization” as an excuse for shielding mega corruption should work no more.
No more victory signs from corrupt public officials and office holders, no more tossing of flower petals on to those sentenced by courts. The current accountability process should not be slowed down or derailed; it should prove to be critical juncture in the history of this country for a better and progressive Pakistan in years to come. History should not be repeated again. Else, the situation would be as Carl Sagan describes “[O]ne of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back”.
The author Saddam Hussein is a Research Fellow/Program Officer at Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), Islamabad. He graduated as a Development Economist from Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) and also holds Master of Philosophy degree in Public Policy from Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad. He tweets @saddampide