Thursday, August 05, 2010

Selebi’s 15-year jail sentence and its lessons for us

Selebi’s 15-year jail sentence and its lessons for us
By The Post
Thu 05 Aug. 2010, 04:00 CAT

Those in our country who think that the men and women in charge of our security and law enforcement agencies cannot be jailed for corruption and other abuses should learn something from the jailing of South Africa’s police chief Jackie Selebi.

There are important lessons for society in general and also for the officers in charge of our security. No one should think that just because they are law enforcement officers, then somehow they are above the law.

But the lessons are not only for those who are in the law enforcement agencies. It is important for all those who exercise authority on behalf of all of us to take care that they do not abuse the trust that is bestowed on them and do wrong things.

The jailing of Selebi comes at an interesting time for our country. There has been a debate going on about Rupiah Banda’s desire to remove the law against abuse of office from our statute books. The implication of this desire seems to be that Rupiah and his minions would like to be legally empowered to abuse their office without being held to account.

The very fact that a government can embark on such a scheme should tell all of us that all is not well in Rupiah’s government. And moreover, it’s common knowledge today in this country that all major contracts and deals start from State House with the deep involvement of Rupiah and his family.

They seem to have an interest or have benefitted directly from each major deal or contract this government has engaged in. This is all known. But it is also clear that all these deals revolve around abuse of office. Without abuse of office, it might not be possible for Rupiah and his children to be doing what they are doing, hence their desire to remove the offence of “abuse of office” from our statute books.

There are big lessons to be learnt from the Selebi case and the 15 years imprisonment he has received. Selebi was not an ordinary chief of police. He is a former freedom fighter with all the necessary credentials. Selebi is a product of the 1976 Soweto uprising. He was a citizen who had done a lot to bring about the democratic change in his homeland. But for some suits, shoes and small change, he betrayed the struggle for the success of his country’s democracy.

There are many Selebis in our midst today - people who have done a lot at one time or the other to advance the collective interest of our nation. But when such people begin to do wrong things, there is no reason to stop the law from taking its course. The very fact that someone has done great things for his country or made great contribution and occupied very high public offices, should not immunise them from accountability. In fact, the greater the contribution and consequently the prestige and respect that one enjoys, the greater the responsibility to be accountable is.

But this is not the way our politicians and many other public servants behave. There is a dangerous culture in our country where those who are in authority believe that they are entitled to benefit from their positions illicitly as a matter of right. It is not uncommon to hear people laughing at someone who held this or that office and left as a poor man.

The scorn that is poured on such patriots emanates from a commonly held belief that those who manage public resources on our behalf are entitled to help themselves by taking some, somehow. This is why those who do not, and consequently retire poor, are thought of as being less intelligent than those who amass all sorts of wealth by abusing their offices. We have a case here of George Mpombo who willingly resigned from his very influential job as a poor man. He is just one among us. What have those that remained in government from the time he resigned tried to do? There is nothing they have not tried to do to humiliate him for having tried to serve his country with dignity and honour.

Rupiah has gone into government with a Father Christmas mentality. For him, the job of a president is to dish out jobs and do ‘deals’ for Zambia. It does not matter to him that he is employing people for all the wrong reasons. There is nothing wrong with the president employing people that are going to help our country move forward.

That is part of his job. But it is worrying to see Rupiah dishing out jobs for what seems to be any and all reasons except the real reason why people must be employed – to deliver to our people. Today, all government and public jobs are given in a manner that is designed to make them deliver to Rupiah, and not to the people. Look at the connections and backgrounds of the people Rupiah is giving jobs whether at the tender board or other government agencies. It’s predominantly people who they can do business with.

Anyway, this is what is going to land Rupiah and his friends in trouble. These jobs and government agencies are not meant to serve Rupiah and his family and enable them to get a cut in every big government transaction. If Rupiah was interested in doing the right thing, he would ensure that these jobs are done by independent-minded professionals who would get the best deals for us people without his involvement or that of his sons.

When Selebi was getting his bribes and cuts, he never thought that one day he would be in the position that he has found himself today. Selebi was an all-powerful chief of police who had the ear of most, if not all, the people that mattered in the South African system. That power and sense of entitlement blinded him. We see the same happening with Rupiah and his minions.

Today, they control the government machinery completely. And power has a tendency to blind people. Rupiah and his minions believe that they will always be in control. If these people were realistic and humble in any way, they would have learnt something from Frederick Chiluba’s experience. But they have allowed themselves to be fooled by the vanity of power.

In their small minds, they think Chiluba was not clever enough, they will do things better and will never be caught or be prosecuted; they will change the laws to ensure that no one gets at them. But this is like what they say in Bemba that ubuchenjeshi bwa nkoko, pungwa tasakamana. Truly, they can try to play smart and think the people are fools, but the people will catch up with them.

It won’t be long before they realise that they are not all that clever, that being dishonest is not being clever – the only way to be clever is to be honest. Yes today they will say that we are doing deals or this or that business, this is not different from what Chiluba did. Let them ask their friend Chiluba and his tandem of thieves what they thought they were doing when they were abusing public resources. They also thought they were just doing business deals.

Faustin Kabwe, who Chiluba and his tandem of thieves relied upon heavily, was a very ‘professional’ money launderer who was able to move money and take it wherever Chiluba’s crime machine wanted it. Stella Chibanda was a useful pair of hands in the Ministry of Finance for Chiluba and his tandem of thieves.

She certainly seemed to know what she was doing. But where has that left Chiluba today, and indeed Faustin and Stella themselves? These otherwise very intelligent and capable citizens who could have gone on to become great in their own right ruined their reputations because they mistook dishonesty for being clever. These are the lessons that Rupiah and his minions need to take on board.

When we hear them arguing that the law that stops them from abusing their offices is not a good law, we know that they have done something wrong. An honest civil servant who is doing a legitimate job has no reason to fear that law. But those public servants who have made a habit of going around government contractors and collecting all sorts of favours and payments have every reason to be scared of that law because what they are doing is criminal.

It is criminal for the president, the vice-president, a minister, a deputy minister, spouses and children or other close associates to receive gifts and other favours from government contractors. But today we have spouses whose husbands have just recently gotten high in government acquiring two or so farms under some companies they think nobody knows.

It won’t be long before the long hand of the law they are trying to change catches up with them. There is a lot of privilege and opportunity, for those who look for such things, in government jobs without having to resort to corruption, abuse of office and other criminal vices. Enjoy what the law allows you but do not exceed it.

To suddenly become the biggest supplier of building materials to a Chinese contractor being paid by government on a government contract should raise some alarm bells in your mind if you have any integrity. But these are the things that are happening in Rupiah’s government. This is the wealth people are acquiring which they don’t want to account for.

How can they account for corruptly acquired wealth? We say corruptly-acquired wealth because if it was not, there would be no problem in accounting for it or explaining its source. In fact, many honest businessmen are happy to explain the source of their success. It is only those who have something to hide who behave like Selebi – telling lies about the source of their income and their suits.

Selebi thought he would get away, he has been caught and today he looks like a fish out of water. Rupiah and his minions may think that they will get away with acquiring wealth that they cannot explain. But let them learn from Selebi. They too may get caught.

And lastly, the conviction of Selebi has correctly been heralded as another example of the independence of the South African judiciary. It has also been suggested that it places South African democracy in good light – the willingness to prosecute the highest ranking police officer who had been an influential cadre of the ruling ANC is illustrative of a governmental commitment to the principle of accountability to legality.

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