Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States of America, once famously said that a man who has never gone to school might steal a freight train but if he has a university education, he might steal the entire railroad.
There is a culture of corruption in Barbados that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. Some weeks ago former chief justice Sir David Simmons drew attention to it on a radio call-in programme. He spoke with passion on the subject but even as he articulated his concerns there was a sense of resignation that this debilitating disease would continue unabatedly.
Sir David had this to say on the virulent cancer: “I have been walking around telling the country that for years, but we have been denying it. I think there is a lot of evidence but it seems to be more than a perception of corruption at all kinds of level in society.”
Sir David’s oral treatise suggested that corruption was mainly to be found in high places, among people and institutions of influence and power. “The bribers are usually the people in the private sector. All the big international companies that get exposed from time to time, they would have bribed the politician who is then held up to ridicule and exposed and often a lot of them get away. They are the ones in the wrong. You have to look at the briber and the ‘bribee’,” he said.
Corruption has thrived in Barbados because it is safer to turn a blind eye than to make waves. Corruption has thrived in Barbados because it is easy to take a nibble on the cheese if there is the belief that other rodents are also biting. Corruption has thrived in Barbados because it is more gratifying to have, and to pursue more, than not to have.
Some years ago the late sociologist Dr Ikael Tafari, in the wake of figures suggesting a downturn in violent crime in Barbados compared to sister territories Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, asserted that there was no real difference among these three nations. Indeed, his belief was that Barbados was an equally violent or even more violent society than our northern and southern kin. His notion was that ‘violence’ in Barbados might not be carried out with guns and knives as overtly as in those other two nations, but when our ‘violence’ was perpetrated behind closed doors, over the telephone, with the stroke of a pen, the passing of a duffel bag, via a departmental transfer, or a contrived dismissal, then it was potentially equally life-threatening.
Dr Tafari noted then that many Barbadians were unwitting victims of ‘violent’ crimes they didn’t see or understand, and often walked the streets as breathing corpses and had no clue of their prevailing status. At the epicenter of these acts, he opined, were men of influence, often with letters behind or in front their given names, or simply men of wealth. Men of straw, he advanced, were mainly pawns.
We have had documented cases of public servants caught out in fraudulent activity who have been returned to high office because of technicalities in the system, political patronage, or legal manoeuvring. Their reinstatement hardly raised an eyebrow among a populace benumbed and indifferent to occurrences of malfeasance because of their frequency and the misguided notion that it is no big deal because the malfeasor “aint kill nobody”. But such corruption does kill and it is a death that lingers at fundamental social levels.
In the early 2000s there was a publicized case of a now retired gazetted police officer who granted a firearm licence to an individual with multiple convictions for violent crimes perpetrated against women and the police themselves. This basically insane gifting of the licence occurred despite those directly responsible for recommending the issuance of licences, red-flagging the applicant as high risk and unworthy of such generosity. Other than an early retirement, no action was taken against the senior officer. We will not speculate on what would have led the official to breach every internal protocol and simple commonsense, but a year’s supply of free cod liver oil capsules could hardly have been his motivation.
We have a process whereby chicken wings are imported into Barbados via the facilitation of the BADMC. Yet such imports are being carried out under the noses of our officials outside those established procedures. We have had situations where major Government contracts have been awarded without any tendering process. We have had highly publicized situations of contracts being awarded to contractors whose botched, incomplete efforts did not stop them receiving full monetary payment.
Corruption in Barbados is not a political problem; it is a social ill. And while many waste energy pointing accusatorial fingers from both sides of the political divide, the cancer spreads violently.
Those gun-toting criminals and drug dealers who conduct their nefarious activities in plain sight have eyes and ears. Sir David has articulated what most of them have already gleaned. And they remain intent on stealing the freight train. But can we truly expect them to stop, abandon their weaponry and conform to civil behaviour, when others in suits, uniforms and high office are getting away with the entire railroad?