The trip to East Africa with an attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro was a check off my bucket list. But the professional lessons I learned from that trip were also an important addition to my list of insights. Everyone we encountered was fatalistic about the depth of corruption that is suffocating the ability of their countries to truly grow and flourish. The subjects of their frustration ranged from the ability of individual citizen to go to school, to work and to obtain government services without facing the demand for “lunch money,” to the highest officials despairing of whether political parties will ever able to resist the temptation of rigging their country’s democracy with vote buying.
However, the lesson continued on my return to Canada last week, when I encountered headline news relating to arrest of the mayor of Montreal and other former municipal officials for alleged involvement in corrupting the procurement process. This had followed corruption charges against the mayor of Laval and allegations of mob involvement in construction and infrastructure projects in Canada’s second largest urban area. Also alive on our return was the scandal surrounding the $90,000 cheque given by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s erstwhile Harper chief of staff Nigel Wright to Senator Michael Duffy to squelch a growing scandal involving alleged improper expenses paid to the senator.
While the corruption scandals we have recently witnessed in Canada cannot be said to have enmeshed the entire machinery of the state as witnessed in Africa (the major Canadian scandals are limited to municipal affairs and political scandals involving expenses), Canadians should beware the possibility of the scale and magnitude of corruption increasing. In particular, attention should be paid to how political parties dispense patronage in jobs or commercial contracts to their base supporters. As we have seen in Montreal, the ability to link commercial success to ties to the ruling municipal elites could also be an incentive for corrupt activities in governments across Canada. The recent allegations of election fraud through the use of automated “robocalls” also warns that there are other forms of corrupt and illegal behaviour that, while not financial, could be even more destructive of Canadian democracy.
The lesson I learned from both East Africa and from the corruption news out of Quebec is that the cancer of corruption is a worldwide epidemic and can threaten any country, whether developed or not. Once the cancer is entrenched in the culture of the body politic, it may well require a complete restructuring of the democratic infrastructure. In some cases this may be either impossible or only done over many generations.
In East Africa, what I heard most often from genuine democrats and anti-corruption activists was that there is an urgent need to stop party (and related tribal) politics being regarded as the main mechanism for access to the levers of power – and then distributing the assets of the state to favoured party and tribal members. This looting of the the assets of the state then trickles down to the lowest officials trying to supplement meagre salaries with various forms of bribery and corruption.
Reform of the democratic infrastructure entails great efforts to delink political office from the awarding of procurement and privatization of state assets together with rigorous independent oversight mechanisms to root out corruption. But a greater challenge is to have new or reformed political parties that have the interests of all citizens and the country as their goal in power. What would be helpful in this regard would be to have people seeking high office who have other careers to fall back on, rather than lifelong professional politicians who depend on clinging to office at all costs in order to remain financially viable. Hopefully, that is not an unattainable goal either in Canada or elsewhere.
Errol Mendes is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa and is a member of the legal committee of Transparency International Canada