Corruptocracy: One govt’s courage to tame the vice

When one young policeman was getting married – let’s call him Joe – his colleagues from the force presented him with a wedding gift of three days on his country’s capital city’s busiest highway. Joe’s salary was only 10 dollars a month, for which he had to pay thousands of dollars for employment in the traffic squad.

When one young policeman was getting married – let’s call him Joe – his colleagues from the force presented him with a wedding gift of three days on his country’s capital city’s busiest highway.

Joe’s salary was only 10 dollars a month, for which he had to pay thousands of dollars for employment in the traffic squad.

 

Like every cop in the squad, he was supposed to recoup this investment and supplement his meagre income through the daily bribes he extracted from motorists on city streets. A beat on the busy highway was the most lucrative.

 

Joe’s story was related in a recent BBC programme (see “Can a corrupt country be clean?”), in which the traffic department told a larger narrative of corruptocracy in a country where the vice had permeated every aspect of society, and how the vice was finally tamed.

 

Though there’s still some work to do, Rwanda has consistently topped the region as the least corrupt country year on year in Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perception Index. But no country in the world is untainted.  

The 2015 Corruption Perception Index observed how 68 per cent of countries worldwide had a serious corruption problem, and how not a single country, anywhere in the world, was corruption free.

Chantal Uwimana, TI Director for Sub-Saharan Africa, is quoted lamenting how “40 out of the region’s 46 countries show a serious corruption problem.”  

She cautioned that if corruption and impunity are to be a thing of the past, governments need to take bold steps to ensure rule of law is the reality for everyone.

Uwimana does not elaborate how “the bold steps” should be taken, which is where I revert to Joe. It might be that he hails from somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. But he does not.

Joe is from Georgia, a country at the intersection of Europe and Asia, near Russia. And the year he was getting married was 2002.

Back then, the BBC analysis explains, all the most lucrative jobs were working for the state. Despite the pay being so low, civil servants were expected to make up for the shortfall in their salaries by extracting bribes.

The public had come to expect that they would have to corruptly pay for everything.

Then, in 2004, a new reformist government came into power with a 96 per cent vote from a public fed up with the pervasive corruption.

With the solid public support and financial backing of the World Bank and the UN, the new leaders were ready to roll and act on the campaign promises.

The government knew it had to act fast, and had a tiny window of opportunity – eight or nine months to start making a visible difference.

“We decided to start with the reform of the traffic police,” a government official is quoted as saying.

“Why traffic police? Obviously traffic police is not the most important part of any police force, but it’s the most visible. And we thought that as long as ordinary people in their daily lives experience police corruption then they will never believe that the government is tackling the issue.”

But the question was posed: How do you change the corrupt officers’ ways if they spent their entire career doing little else but extracting bribes? The answer is you don’t.

Overnight the government sacked 16,000 people – the entire traffic force of Georgia, Joe included.

It was a ruthless and unrelenting sweep that cleaned all government departments amid concerns the purge did not follow the laid down legal procedure. But having to vet each government employee would have years to complete.

And that was the point: “Corrupt systems are like viruses. Given time they tend to adapt to new situations. And they spread. So the government had not only to act fast, they had to extend their methods to almost every ministry in the country.”

New civil servants were recruited, trained and properly remunerated. In addition, modern technology was employed removing points of contact between the public and state officials where payment was concerned. By these measures the country’s national budget increased 12-fold during the new government’s first term.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere for the most afflicted in our regional neighbourhood.

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