ESSAY FRIDAY | Why do we expect the corrupt to feel guilty?

By Chris Chenga

Why do you expect corrupt people to be remorseful?

It seems a natural expectation, in most of us. But, have you ever thought deeply about why you have it? Try to be as concise as possible. Why do you expect corrupt people to feel guilty? Let me know your thought process too.

Is this a subject that you would convey in a moral or professional context, or one that you would address ideologically? You can introduce a completely alternate context which may be more befitting.

Who can forget this conversation:

Diana Henriques: It was a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, Bernie. People lost their life savings, their lives were destroyed. You didn’t think of that as stealing?

Bernie Madoff: These people, they had a little bit of greed in them too. These people didn’t want to look too hard. They looked just far enough. So, they are accomplices in some way too.

Diana Henriques: Accomplices because they trusted you? Because you were so trustworthy, Bernie?

Bernie Madoff: Well, there’s a lack of honesty on their behalf. An unwillingness to take responsibility for their behavior too… You know, now that I think of it, my greatest fault is that I’ve always wanted to please people.

Our expectation for remorse often occurs after perpetrators have been incarcerated or at the earliest during trial, as evidence starts piling up and we are getting a clearer picture of the extent of harm they have caused their victims. This is also when surprise and shock usually take ahold of us: “how could they do such a thing? … how can a man be so heinous? … how does one sleep at night?”

In most cases, we have no clarity on corruption as it is actually taking place; perhaps only suspicions. So the projectile of our expectation for remorse, on a timeline, probably has a sharp incline at trial stage. It spikes the same way that outrage does.

But maybe this shock and surprise tell more about us, the aggrieved society, than they do about corrupt perpetrators. Shock and surprise reveal just how deeply entrenched we are in the belief that culprits should conform to rules, guidelines, or legal frameworks. Isn’t this a problem?

I hope to be careful not to suggest that we must have a cynical outlook which supposes fellow humans to be innately criminal, let alone for us to have empathy to malevolence. However, is it really wise to place such confidence on rules, guidelines, and legal frameworks? History and culture intellectuals have long argued that systems of governance and commerce were imposed on and adopted by Africans, and they continue to be.

We could disparagingly suggest that Africans are just more corrupt than people from other continents, or we could ask more nuanced questions

If that narrative holds firm weight, would it be unreasonable to question the robustness of these legislative frameworks in African environments? This has to be a factor as to why there is such a deficit of the rule of law on the continent. We can disparagingly suppose that Africans are just innately more corrupt than people from other continents, or we could apply more thought to why Africans are more inclined to destroy inherited legislative systems more than everybody else.

Not only is the nuance less condemning, but it opens up avenues to explore why this inclination exists and it creates a pathway towards substantive resolution for Africans themselves. Hopefully, this logic of inquisition arrives to a point which suggests that rule of law probably has to be intrinsic than prescriptive for it to thrive, in any environment.

Societies are more inclined to deviate from prescribed rules, guidelines, or legal frameworks, than they are to deviate from ones that they find intrinsic. If more of us considered this to be a real practical notion, we wouldn’t be caught by surprise and shock at trial stage.

Neither would we be so outraged. Instead, we would be continually conscious that under prescribed legislative frameworks, corruption is preordained. This is a more accountable cognitive state. The expectation for remorse then would not be conventional, for as long as it is not accompanied by strong intrinsic claim to conformity.  

Playing by whose rules?

Rules, guidelines, and legal frameworks are made by people, for people. And just as culture and civilization vary, so do intrinsic responses. Whether it is Constitutionalism, institutional regulation, or professional standards, different societies should in ideal circumstances construct legislation that is intrinsic to them. Some societies do.

For instance, Muslim banking is distinct in its perspective on interest rates and profits on savings accounts. This is inherited from a religious virtue that is seen as internally enriching; thus this form of commerce is functional.

Of course, globalization implies a consideration for the need of convergence, at least for the convenience of universal commercial interaction and civic comparability. But even this interaction and comparability struggle to find traction when respective jurisdictions are not accountable to their own legislative frameworks.

For instance, western investors will remain encumbered by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and conflict mineral provisions passed by their lawmakers for as long as legislators in Equatorial Guinea, Angola, or the DRC find no intrinsic cause to craft their own industrial legislation.

So as United States lawmakers encourage co-operation with a new Energy Resources Governance Initiative, western investors have already given up on competing with China which has a deal “with you as you are” approach in Africa’s extractives sector.

Regardless of benign intentions held by western legislators, investors from that side of the globe are further ahead in accepting that commercial and civic convergence cannot be imposed where African legislators’ have no incentive to. China, less interested in arduous handling, has chosen to focus on simply securing its investments when transacting on the continent.

An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is recipe for big man politics…’

Tom Burgis, former Africa Correspondent for The Economist magazine, hints at this legislative limitation in his book The Looting Machine. He writes: “The extractive industry is hard-wired for corruption. Kleptocracy, or government by theft, thrives. Once in power there is little incentive to depart. An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is recipe for big man politics.”

I will add a thought, or two, to Burgis’ apt observation later.

Smart investors don’t take prescription

Zimbabwe presently postures a reform agenda meant to enhance the ease of doing business. The thrust of the agenda is disproportionately directed at integrating foreign capital as years of policy malfeasance has repeatedly wiped out domestic capital. The country’s authorities have been hoping to catapult the Southern African economy into the global fore.

Endowed with mineral resources, the extractives sector has especially been the front foot of President Mnangagwa’s global pitch. Commercial prospects leveraged on local human capital and intellectual property have been a peripheral proposition. Notwithstanding, the reform agenda is supposedly buttressed by executive support in what was coined by President Mnangagwa in a tweet as a “war on corruption”.

President Mnangagwa’s administration has increasingly exuded an irritable impatience, as if global stakeholders have been ungrateful for the reforms it has carried out. Investment has not swarmed in as it hoped for.

Unbeknownst to the administration, global stakeholders such as the ones who rely on IMF Article 4s and sector specific World Bank reports, are incredibly perceptive of the difference between driving a reform agenda that is intrinsic and struggling through the paces of what are prescribed reforms. Zimbabwe’s authorities have been trudging along the latter.

Witty one-liners are sort of a professional trait within global financiers, and a popular saying goes; no man is more trustworthy than one pursing his own self-interest. Global financiers do not buy into prescriptions.

Private investors, however, are not obliged to express their discernment of what is and what isn’t bona fide. They also have the luxury to peruse through other markets for more deliberate reforms.

So perhaps when more kin stakeholders, such as former trade adviser to the Mnangagwa administration, Petina Gappah, are generous to express their frustrations in the non-committal nature of reforms, her remarks should probably command real reflection, and appreciation.

Even though the bar is rather low in the region, other countries are, at least, being seen to be trying

Besides, investment themes in global investing are seasonal. Crackdowns on corruption are just the latest Sub-Sahara African fad. Kenya, Malawi, Angola, and Tanzania, are a few nations drumming to the tune of clean up. Even though the bar is rather low in the region, these markets are, at least, presenting acceptable aesthetics to compliment the theme.

Accordingly, they are trotting ahead of Zimbabwe, and the reason is likely explained by the extent of how internalised corruption has become in the country.

Conflict, confusion, and incompetence

Here is a cautionary scenario to discern reforms that are made intrinsically from those made prescriptively: If an administration does not have the will to effectively reform state enterprises owned by citizens and operated under its purview, what persuasion is there that the same administration can sell off state enterprises and then proceed to functionally regulate competitive markets of private players? Incidentally, this very scenario is currently playing itself out in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Graft kills state enterprises. Without reforming state enterprises back to what should be privileged vitality, there is little reason to believe that the same ineptitude that cedes to graft can then be trusted to functionally regulate private players. This applies for power utilities, transportation, banking, or any sector with the legacy of a predominant state enterprise in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Consider, the World Bank’s mining sector findings in Zimbabwe earlier this year. Below is an excerpt:  “the sector is a complex landscape for an investor to navigate. The lack of clear lines of responsibilities and separation of duties is potentially in conflict with the State’s ‘Open for Business” narrative. ZMDC is characterized by: (i) inheritance of distressed assets; (ii) partial privatization seen as a solution to recapitalization (it is seen as a pure financial problem to solve for); (iii) no clear business case for potential partners; (iv) a very weak balance sheet and inheritance of social legacy (which will deter investors unless there is high level of clarity); (v) partnership model for ownership, operatorship and governance unclear; (vi) employees on unpaid indefinite leave leading to difficult employment legacy issues”.

Corruption breeds poverty: Zimbabwe’s is perceived to be among the world’s most corrupt countries

All this simply shows an intrinsic conflict in privatizing the state enterprise. This is deep confusion that strongly resembles legislative incompetence. The State lacks intrinsic rationale except for an expedient need for fiscal relief, and privatization is a prescribed convention in the region. Thus, there is no deliberate design for privatization to function.

There is no interest for private investors to risk being entangled in this confusion. Actually, one can imagine that a committed investor will seek discretionary concessions to function normally. But that’s an inadvertent path to corruption isn’t it? So distance is a privilege, as proximity becomes a problem for citizens who cannot separate themselves from this legislative incompetence.

Conflict rubs off on citizens

Imagine operating your business in an environment where legislators suffer intrinsic conflict. After long enough, as an economic agent subject to contradictory rules, guidelines, and legal frameworks, you are bound to inherit some intrinsic conflict of your own!

Earlier in this essay, I referenced Tom Burgis in The Looting Machine. He mentioned a central pot of resource revenue. Have you ever wondered why African economies have struggled to grow beyond a dependence on a central pot of resource revenue?

For instance, Angola’s and Nigeria’s oil revenues account for over 80% of their national budgets. More glaringly, accordingly to the World Intellectual Property Organization, since 2006 Africa has received less than 0.5% of patent applications made worldwide.

Where is the innovation? What are economic agents pre-occupied with on the continent that they cannot contribute more than a single percent of claims to innovative discovery?

Maybe they suffer a milder case of intrinsic conflict too. This is an inevitable condition when the greater part of staying and thriving in business across the region is figuring out compliance, or contingency, to legislative inconsistencies and defunct regulation.

Consider operating under Zimbabwe’s monetary and fiscal policies. For instance, ever since the introduction of a surrogate currency in 2016, business models have been subservient to a parallel foreign currency market dominated by the central government. Cash has become a commodity.

Honest, hardworking professionals commit themselves to diligence, yet on pay day, the banks simply have no cash

Legitimate business models can neither keep up with the inflation imposed by the central bank nor operate standard credit based accounting. The monetary environment is untenable for both conventional business practices and fiscal compliance. All of these are strains that implicitly perpetuate corruption, but more so are strains that do not encourage competitive imagination, toil, and ingenuity.

The labor force is not spared either. Honest, hardworking professionals commit themselves to diligence. On pay days, as banks simply have no cash, they are forced to buy cash at a premium from black market money traders. To report to work, millions who rely on the cash based public transport system typically have to source the commodity on the black market.

Subtle contradictions

The darkest irony reverts to government itself. For instance, schools in the peri-urban regions of the country have started pegging tuition in United States dollars; a direct contradiction to imposed policy. Yet, this is no longer strange. Subtle contradictions are a feature in Zimbabwe’s socio-economic landscape.

In cities nationwide, vending without council permits is a means of sustenance for millions. The dire reality of a tough economy creates an emotive acceptance to this scraping for a livelihood; the humane conscience of society almost conveniently forgets that it is actually illegal.

And sometimes this intrinsic conflict shows in governance. Former Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, once conceded that vendors should not be persecuted until the economy creates alternative gainful opportunities for them to pursue. This was about a week before he then announced a raft of fiscal policy measures leveraged on traffic fines; conceding that fiscal space had contracted to the point where the nation could only bet on motorists deviating from legal statutes to finance public service provisions.

That is just a hint at the extent of legislative decadence in the country. Law may not actually mean much anymore. Constitutionality is a far thought altogether, as a raft of laws have not been amended to comply with a new Constitution that passed in 2013.

A society wired for corruption

This essay is not meant to affirm the popular narrative that fighting corruption should be an impassioned onslaught on the partisan patronage system of ZANU PF. Maybe at some point it should have been. But that seems a futile approach now.

Zimbabwe has become a victim of intrinsic conflict, and that intrinsic conflict is entrenched even in well-intentioned citizens too. It is short sighted, and frankly self-deceptive, to perceive corruption in just a form of deviance. It is more effective to re-consider the intrinsic conflicts in our rules, guidelines, and legislative frameworks as a society.

This is not to divert attention from the political malice of which many wounded Zimbabwean stakeholders expect remorse. I just do not think we will ever get that remorse.

Remorse? What for: A lawyer for Former Tourism Minister Prisca Mupfumisa, facing fraud charges, says she’s not mentally fit enough to stand trial

I opened this essay with an excerpt from an exchange between Bernie Madoff and New York Times journalist Diana Henriques. Bernie had been incarcerated after conducting the largest Ponzi scheme in history. He had ruined lives as he did it; much like corrupt officials have done here in Zimbabwe.

But Bernie never showed remorse, and here is why: in forensic accounting, one is guided to pay attention to key variables of corruption; motive, opportunity, and rationalisation. I am proposing that prescriptive legislative frameworks are the most vulnerable to defunct rationalisation.

When societies are under intrinsic conflict for long enough, the most corrupt rationalise their behavior as simply thriving more than everybody else. And indeed, a lot of officials in Zimbabwe, just like Bernie, can no longer trace logic outside of the notion that they were only able to deviate better than a society that altogether functions in deviance.

The reason why we incarcerate criminals is to offer them the chance at rehabilitation. The best rehab process is for the whole society to nurture intrinsic rules, guidelines, and legislative frameworks.