Corruption Vs Perception
Let me share this with you for starters: a young traffic policeman stopped us one day on my to work by the Cotton Tree in Freetown, demanding the driver’s license. My girl friend was on the wheels, but not in possession of her license; she forgot it in one of her handbags at home.
The young traffic cop insisted that he would drive behind us (with his colleague) on his motorbike to the Central Police Station. I said: “No! I am late for work; let her drop me first at my office and then both of you will drive to the station.”
The traffic cop was strict: “No! We go straight to the station.”
I became furious and I was tempted to make a few calls for help, but I restricted myself. Anyway, he finally decided to board our vehicle and they dropped me at my office. I called my fiancée aside and warned her not to give him any money and that there was nothing to fear.
“Just go with him to the station; they will give you something like 24 hours to produce your license,” I encouraged her.
Guess what? On their way, the young traffic cop suddenly became Boy Alinco – “You are such a nice and beautiful lady but your husband ‘get wam heart’ (too emotional). May be, eh…eh…wetin na u numba?”
She gave it to him and up till today they have not reached the Central Police Station!
And the next day Boy Alinco cop was on the line: “How are you? Ar just say mek ar chek on you….”
That was in 2008 or thereabout, and I mean no disrespect to our Police department for the above prologue. They are doing their best under difficult circumstances but very little, if any, has actually changed for the better.
To be fair though, if the traffic police want to apply all the traffic laws/regulations in the statute books, there will be very few vehicles plying the streets of Freetown.
But you and I know that the police (traffic police particularly), in spite of all the propaganda of a ‘force for good,’ still take bribes from commercial vehicles/ drivers.
In fact, they have mastered the art so well that in this era of okadas,; the cops have taken full advantage of the lucrative but very risky business.
It is an open secret that a good number of the okadas on the streets are owned by top Police officers.
You and I know that there’s not one public office in Sierra Leone where you will not ‘grease palms’ before you get the service you seek.
You go to the Road Safety Authority, for example, to acquire a driver’s license (even though you’ve settled all the stipulated fee) you have to grease palms to finally receive your license.
You go to the Immigration Department for your passport, you’ve to grease palms; even so now that it has become biometric.
You need an NPA worker to fix your neighbourhood supply line, you have to grease palms.
You need a Guma Valley worker to fix your burst pipe, you have to grease palms.
You go to the National ID card, you have to grease palms.
You go to the Ministry of Lands…(lets save the rest).
The officials who demand these greasing of palms do so professionally due to experience acquired over a long period. They make it sound so casual but you know exactly what they mean and you feel compelled.
They know, quite well, that it is wrong; that it is not part of the laid down procedures, but nothing stops them or rather scares them from demanding.
Not even the thought of losing their jobs as a consequence; and not even the thought of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
But so also are you – you the one seeking the service. You also know you’re not supposed to pay anymore than you’ve already done, but you end up greasing the palms. Well, that is just the way it is. What can I do?
You and I know that most, if not all appointments to public offices are not done on the basis of merit but on tribal, political and other narrow considerations.
You and I know that when some of us as journalists need help (for example, payment of University fees, or buying of air tickets to attend conference, or getting married) we go to these same public officials we constantly accuse of corruption.
You and I know that media houses don’t publish critical stories on private companies they receive regular adverts from.
You and I know that some of us journalists are paid to write negative stories about people we know nothing/ little about.
You and I know that our teachers and lecturers now exchange passing grades for sex and/or cash. (Have you heard about the new shadow teachers/lecturers they call Class Reps?)
You and I know that our student union governments (do we still have such?), which are supposed to serve as training grounds for our future public servants, are equally as corrupt and unaccountable as our Republican governments.
You and I know that when you are appointed to top public office our people expect you to build mansions, but fleet of cars, own plenty of assets, send your children to study abroad and have a crowded family house to support, even though your monthly/annual salary may be ridiculously inadequate. If you fail to acquire these luxuries, our society considers you a big failure.
You and I know that the wheels of justice of our courts turn faster for the high, mighty and influential and very, very slowly for the ordinary people.
You and I must have heard the constant allegation that our House of Parliament demands cash from political appointees before they vent them clear. When last did our Parliament rationally reject a presidential appointee?
You and I know that our market people mix red Kool-Aid and palm oil to sell as red palm oil, and they pad measurement cups to cheat buyers.
You and I know that our places of worship have been transformed into big businesses….
You and I know that most of our presidents and Cabinet ministers come to office poor and leave wealthy.
You and I know too well about the word ‘kickback’ in the award of public contracts….
Amazingly, our system is so designed that we don’t actually see all these as acts of corruption. We only refer to them as corruption when institutions like the ACC say so, or when we are not benefiting directly or indirectly from the spoils.
Fighting corruption in Sierra Leone (in fact anywhere it is as entrenched) is herculean. What we have been pretending to fight against in the last two decades or so did not just happened by chance. It was built bit by bit, piece by piece, carefully and artistically over the last 50 years or more. And today we have a very strong concrete pillar we regret so badly. And to break that pillar is to collapse the whole building and start the foundation for a new building! Where’s the Samson? Certainly not the ACC.
Yet, since it was established some 15 years ago, the ACC had dome tremendously to curb corruption in public offices. From Valentine E. Collier (the DfID’s on-loan gentleman Brendan Gibbs-Gray ran away; can’t stand the heat), Henry Joko Smart, Abdul Tejan-Cole to Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara. It has been a huge challenge; but we’ve seen the prosecution of high profiled public officials – Momoh Pujeh and his wife, Dr. Harry Will, Haja Afsatu Kabba and Sheku T. Koroma, to name but just a few. We have also seen strides in public education, institutional reforms and collaborative engagements.
However, today it is insignificant to the general public that in the space of five years Sierra Leone has climbed up about 39 places in the Corruption Perception Index. Ironically, that has to do largely with the issue of ‘public perception’ itself, which in so many ways has become even more problematic than the corruption we are trying to curb.
The average Sierra Leonean is suspicious of every well-to-do public official, no matter how trustworthy and well-meaning such officials may be. This lack of trust is extended to public institutions themselves – from the Judiciary, Legislature (House of Parliament). The perception about the ACC, for example, is that its net only catches the small fishes. The perception about public officials is that they are corrupt. Our courts, the police, parliament, etc. the perception is the same.
So we have come to the unfortunate situation where the impunity of corruption has given birth to a chronic and even more devastating offspring called ‘perception’. And to win the fight against corruption we need to first deal with this troublesome child, and that is not just the job of the ACC alone.
Let’s take a thorough, critical and honest look at ourselves; from where we started to where we are now. On what foundations are our lives built? On what foundations are our so-called businesses and wealth built?
There is little our ACC can do to curb corruption in Sierra Leone public life. We know our system better. What we actually need is not a confrontation with corruption. We can never win! Corruption, in our case, is stronger.
Perhaps what we need is a ‘shadow fight’ against the ‘shadow state’ analyzed by Williams Reno (‘Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone’ – Cambridge University Press 1995). Sufficient incentives (particularly high wages) plus adequate and effective financial controls systems of accountability, equals a heavy and devastating shadow blow of corruption.
Beyond this is the serious issue of values. In recent times, people often quote the famous Obama speech suggesting that what Africa needs is strong institutions. Indeed, strong institutions are crucial but only in the sense that it’s the quality and values of the human resource that make strong institutions.
In short, you may want to ask; what quality and values will a newly elected President bring to the office of the Presidency?
Culled from News Watch Vol. 1 No.1 December 2015 – February 2016 Edition
By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
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