Are the Big Fish Really Big?

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Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro

It may be reassuring to read and hear about the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) slowly but surely netting some presumed big fish, as evidenced by the recent apprehension and confrontation of an accounting officer in the National Assembly, a governor of the Karas Region as well as some wildcat sweeps on regional councillors countrywide.

One appreciates the fact that somehow the ACC is eventually swooping on what I would only consider the fringe elements of big-time grafters. However, lest one is fooled into believing that we are closer to striking a big blow at the core of the scourge, the recent muscle flexing by the ACC resembles little in rooting out corruption.

In fact, I am not sure that some of the cases that have recently been touted in the media and by the media as big-time breakthroughs are really as such, or close to that. On the contrary, they are outright theft and what the authors of Corrupt Cities, A practical Guide to Cure and Prevention, Robert Klitgaard, Ronal Maclean-Abaroa and H. Lindsay Parris, refer to as an individual “freelance activity” as opposed to systematic corruption.

Likewise, I cannot understand why some of these cases, particularly that of the Karas governor and the National Assembly accounting officer, should be seen as groundbreaking cases of corruption at all, other than (still alleged) dishonourable acts of dishonesty by people with a public trust, to be mild.

More than anything else, these acts and many similar ones testify to bureaucratic inertia, ineptitude and incompetence as well as rusty, if non-existent, financial control systems. They are far from typical pointers to the corruptibility of these officials.

Referring to the case of the governor, I am sure it is in black and white in terms of civil service regulations that any civil servant cannot benefit from a housing subsidy and housing allowance at the same time. Yet, the Karas governor is reported to have been having his bread buttered on both sides in this regard. Thus, my issue in this instance is not so much the corruptibility of the governor but the system being unable to trace the anomaly and to correct it in due time. The same also applies to the reported payment of bonus cheques to the two top incumbents of the ACC. One expects those who unduly receive any public money to show some integrity and honesty and return such to the State. Equally, one expects the system itself to be vigilant enough to detect any anomaly when it occurs and to rectify it.

It is not so obvious in the two cases just cited above what may have transpired. Contradictory versions of how the two irregularities, or mistakes if you like, were eventually detected abound, but somehow it is obvious that the financial control systems failed – by design or willfulness, it is hard to say in view of the contradictions. As a result, what seems on the face of it as only gross administrative lapses have now been thrown into the corruption basket of the ACC, vying together with other more pressing matters of systematic corruption for the scarce resources of the ACC.

This is unless of course we are talking about a chain of beneficiaries who through the chain of commands and responsibilities chose to be silent as there may have been something in it for them. This is when one can talk about corruption. In this instance then, the target should not only be the freelance activity of an individual, as much as taking bold steps against him/her is necessary in view of his leadership position.

But the camaraderie culture within most of our institutions is what gives rise to such silence. This kind of attitude is very common within our institutions, private or public, where a strong bond exists among the bigwigs as a buffer against their own securities. This trickles down in the whole organisation and infects it with acquiescence and crippling silence.

Certainly, this is something that we cannot expect to rectify via the ACC but through tighter administrative controls, openness and a limit to administrative (managerial) discretion. In this regard, we shall allow the ACC to do better things and not labour it with ‘pity matters’ that are mostly a result of administrative shortcomings. But most important, we cannot hope to fight corruption with a certain degree of success by only prosecuting these “freelance” individuals, leaving the systems in which they work and in which corruption is embedded and thrives unreformed.

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