by Imran Khan
The old colonial Third World is ravaged by corruption. Every year billions of dollars are siphoned off from impoverished countries and end up in Western banks. Dr. Mehboob-ul-Haque estimated that almost $2 billion are transferred to foreign banks by Pakistan’s ruling elite annually. The same story, to varying degrees, is true of much of Latin America, Africa and Asia. While their masses are continuously crushed in grinding poverty their ruling elite gets richer. According to the UN not only is the wealth gap between rich and poor countries growing, so are the Third World’s poor getting poorer and the rich richer.
One important reason why corruption has become so widespread in the Third World is that its politics attracts criminals. Politics is protection for them, the greatest incentive to grab power. Not only does politics protect corruption; it opens up opportunities for even greater corruption. Old colonial structures lend themselves perfectly to those in power for they were erected not for independent countries but to keep slaves under command and control while the colonialists plundered. The coloniser may have left but their native clones have used his system to continue the plunder. There are no checks and balances (as the colonials made sure no one questioned their absolute power) and the perks and privileges of political office are greater than in any other profession.
The lifestyle of the Raj was far more luxurious than the way the British Prime Minister or his cabinet lived in their own country. Compare 10 Downing Street to the palatial palaces of the viceroys and governors. No British bureaucrat could ever have dreamed of living in the style of commissioners, generals, brigadiers and even deputy commissioners in India. The reason was simple: a show of power and strength for they wanted the natives to know who the ‘superior’ conquerors were. The more awe the natives held the conquerors in, the easier it was to rule them. The British went to great lengths to establish their superiority, particularly through their lifestyle, the type afforded only by the Moghul emperors. For a colonial power to survive for any length of time it was important that the colonists believed that they were superior and the natives to believe that they were inherently inferior, Kipling’s ‘White Man’s burden’.
Unfortunately after independence the native elite not only adopted the lifestyle but the colonial mindset too, that they were superior to their compatriots by virtue of their westernisation. Just as it was with the British, tax money of the poor has been squandered on the ruling elite’s extravagant lifestyle. This is one of the factors that attracts the wrong sort of people to politics; after all, in any other profession it would cost billions to live in palaces, drive expensive cars, get free petrol, utilities, healthcare and entertainment. Rulers jet and helicopter around wherever they want without question. Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto spent billions of taxpayers’ money on foreign tours to ostensibly get investment that never came. Taking the lead from the Prime Minister, the president, ministers and military and civil bureaucrats all live in a style totally incompatible with this impoverished and highly indebted country. It is downright criminal simply because it is suicidal. One the one hand we have unbelievable poverty (80 million earn less than $2 a day), on the other the vulgar lifestyle of our rulers. Would this not be considered unethical in the Western democracies? More importantly for this Islamic Republic, is it not against the spirit of Islam, the spirit demonstrated by the uniquely simple lifestyle of our Prophet (PBUH) as well as the four rightly guided Caliphs?
The second reason criminals get attracted to politics is because of the absence of a conflict of interest law. When Hazrat Abu Bakar became Caliph he closed his cloth shop immediately because sycophants would purchase only from him to the unfair disadvantage of his competitors. A cornerstone of all Western democracies is the conflict of interest law that prevents gross abuse of power. No one can use power for personal benefit easily. Tony Blair’s most powerful minister Peter Mandelson was forced to resign once because he took a private loan from a fellow minister at less than the market interest rate. Today Clinton is being investigated for granting pardons to people from whom he and his wife benefited. They are calling it ‘Pardons for Sale’.
In Pakistan, like in the majority of the Third World, politicians spend enormous amounts of money to get into power only to abuse it and personally benefit from it. Thus and only thus it was that Nawaz Sharif’s industrial empire could grow by over 4000% in twelve years after he joined government. In any western democracy if a Prime Minister or minister borrows from a public sector bank, he would immediately attract the conflict of interest law for abuse of power. There would be uproar in Parliament and the media. All heads of our nationalised banks were appointed by the Prime Minister and could hardly say ‘no’ to him. Nawaz Sharif’s Ittefaq foundry incurred losses of Rs 340 million between 1980 and 1992. Yet at the same time he was able to procure enough loans from nationalised banks to set up almost 30 new factories, becoming the country’s biggest industrial family in the process. He owed multi-millions to the CBR in 1990, yet the moment he became Prime Minister the CBR quickly withdrew its claims. Similarly Asif Zardari became an industrialist the moment Benazir came to power. Almost the entire sugar and flour-milling industries are owned by politicians or people connected with them. During Sharif’s first term anyone wishing to establish a sugar industry could only get a loan from a nationalised bank on condition that Ittefaq manufactured the machinery. Political clout rescheduled loans and laws were passed for personal benefit, like the rebate on the export of sugar to India in 1998 or the use of SROs for making massive profits. The Economic Reforms Act of 1992 enabled rulers to legally evade taxes, launder and whiten black money. Just imagine what could happen if the US president were allowed to do business while in office. The whole of Europe’s budget is equal to that of the US, while the entire Islamic world’s GDP is less than that of France.
Not surprisingly, spending huge amounts of money during elections is considered the best investment in the Third World because no other investment gives the sort of return politics does. Since politics protects corruption it was ‘natural’ that when Benazir Bhutto came to power the second time in 1993 all corruption cases against her and her husband were dropped. Similarly, both times Sharif became PM he had all corruption, loan default and tax evasion cases dropped. Our courts have never been able to convict anyone in power. No wonder the Benazir Bhutto led ARD is keen for immediate elections, knowing fully well that once in power she and other ARD members will be cleared of all corruption charges. To escape accountability the politicians can use their spin-doctors to pull the wool over people’s eyes by claiming political victimisation.
I feel that if Pakistan and other impoverished countries are to survive five laws have to be enacted and strictly enforced.
1. Conflict of interest law preventing rulers from abusing office for personal gain.
2. Everyone in government to adopt an official style compatible with the economic condition of the country. This will enhance tax collection, as people will feel that their hard-earned money is not being squandered on pomp. Today’s salaries may be low but the perks cost many times more, so salaries should include the cost of perks. The concept of providing housing, cars and utilities of officials is out-dated and inefficient.
3. An independent and ongoing accountability institution headed by a person of credibility who is endorsed by both the ruling party and the opposition. His tenure must be protected by the Constitution and should not coincide with that of the government. He must have a free hand in selecting his team so that he is no way dependent on government. This will act as a great deterrent to the potentially corrupt.
4. An independent Election Commission in which the Chief Election Commissioner’s tenure is also protected by the Constitution. The Election Commission should investigate election expenditure by candidates even after they are over.
5. Corruption should be placed on par with terrorism and drug trafficking in law. It would be the greatest deterrent. This would have to be an international law. The moment a politician has corruption proceedings initiated against him or her they should be extradited once a court of the host country is satisfied and their global money and assets frozen just as in cases of terrorism and drug trafficking. Criminals will find it extremely unattractive to rob their country and live out their lives in the luxury of the French Riviera, London or a ranch in America. It is estimated that Switzerland has bank deposits close to $350 billion of money plundered by Third World rulers. Benazir Bhutto has successfully taken out a court injunction to stop the British government passing the list of her bank accounts and assets in the United Kingdom to Pakistan. If, as Benazir Bhutto claims, the cases against her are “cooked up by kangaroo courts”, why is she afraid of her assets and bank accounts being made public? Why does she not face the court in Switzerland that awaits her? Or has the Swiss government also ‘cooked up’ cases against her, the Swiss judge been ‘bought’ and the Swiss court a ‘kangaroo court’? I challenge her to go to Switzerland to face the charges and clear her name.
These laws, if adopted, will save a hundred times more lives than those lost to drugs and terrorism put together. Imagine if we could cut down even 20% of the loot and plunder of our rulers we would be able to divert funds to save so many of the 700,000 children who die annually because we cannot provide them basic medicine and clean drinking water.