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The Nexus between Culture and Corruption: Liberia’s Burden

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As Liberians elect new leaders, our nation is faced with new windows of opportunities and challenges. One of these challenges is the age-old problem of corruption. There have been countless articles, analysis and interventions aimed at addressing this vice. However, it continues to plague the nation unabated. In this article, I seek to shed light on some elements of our practiced culture and their causal link to the challenging fight against corruption.

Corruption has its roots in the Latin words “corruptus”, which means “spoiled” and “corrumpere”-to ruin or break into pieces. Hence, it is logical to conclude that nothing derived from corruption can ever be right; neither for the perpetrators nor the victims. Therefore, corruption is a complicated issue, and any attempt to address it simplistically only undermines such effort.

A critical analysis of some key features of any society reveals the propensity for corruption to flourish. Primarily, corruption thrives more readily in specific institutional, political, and cultural settings, where good governance is weak; where government’s role in the economy is massive; where civil servants are under-paid and poorly trained; where the private sector is small and exploitative, and where the rules of engagement are ambiguous. The Liberian society is reflective of some of the features as mentioned earlier, which emboldens corruption as a powerful nemesis.

There are often two forms of cultures in many societies; “As Is” which refers to cultural practices and “Should Be” denotes cultural values. With the expansion of the global village and the creation of a seamless world, cultural practices seem to dominate cultural values in many cases. Liberia is no exception to this new phenomenon. To understand the historicity of corruption in a society, one must examine the origin of specific illegal practices. As a consequence, one cannot understand the entrenchment of corruption in Liberia, without analyzing the historical progressions of various types of transactions that are currently considered corrupt, but their precursors are engrained in our culture. Although these practices may be formally outlawed, they are still considered morally acceptable by large numbers of people in some circumstances.

Before the emergence of western forms of governance, the acquisition of political power and social prestige were predominantly attained through ‘patronage.’ The implied social contract was an expectation that a few people control the resources and power and in return redistribute wealth to their family and kin. Therefore, political and traditional leaders ran our society without accountability to the people, while the people revered them. That explains why we justify the actions of thieves who steal and invest their stolen resources in Liberia, while we abhor the ones who abscond with their ill-gotten wealth to other countries. In our minds, one group of thieves, whom we benefit from, is justified because invariably the resources will trigger down to us in one form or another, while we condemn the other group as people on a mission to “get-grab-go.”

One of the most influential ‘push/ pull’ factors of corruption is ‘impunity.’ Impunity breeds fertile grounds for the encroachment of corruption. Corruption takes place in most cases for economic benefits. Therefore, the amount of corruption depends on financial calculations by the parties involved in the corrupt activity, and the chances for impunity. If people thought that they would be punished and not benefit from their crime, the incentive for being corrupt is substantially minimized. Therefore, the simple calculation for the enticement of corruption is; the benefit minus the honesty cost minus the probability of being caught times the predicted punishment is greater than zero.

Sadly, our society is beleaguered with “impunity.” I surmise from my layman point of view that the prevalence of impunity can partly be blamed on the restorative form of justice which is inherent in culture values. In time past, and even now in some of our current realities, cases were deliberated by the ‘elders’, who in most instances saw more value in ‘harmonizing’ things between the perpetrator and the victim than punishment for the perpetrator. Although we now practice legal-rational authority, our cultural nuisances still influence our justice system.

To further strengthen the ferocity of impunity in our society, we circumvent accountability with clichés and excuses. For example, if a person is booked for corruption or other vices, the community, religious leaders, traditional leaders and our elders interfere with the legal process, by promulgating impunity through various interventions: “we are all one’; “leave it to God,” “don’t take bread from a person’s mouth”, etc. Based on the level of approval of impunity amongst us, the fight against corruption remains a daunting task.

Swimming on Land
The term “corruption” indicates a departure from accepted standards and practices; consequently, everyone knows that committing acts of corruption is wrong. However, when nefarious transactions become normal over a protracted period, and people do not conceal them, such behavior permeates the society and socializes its acceptance. Thus, it is understandable why we are tolerant of corruption even why it threatens our existence as a nation. Many good Liberians want to do the right thing and don’t want to be part of the corrupt syndicate. However, the practice of corruption and its acceptance have become cancerous in our society.

The “everybody is doing it” mentality is a perfect conduit for the rapid spread of corruption and other social vices. We are social beings, and therefore are adaptive to our environment. The more the integrity group watches others around them engage in corruption without consequences, they also join the fray and fall prey to depravity. As a result, corruption becomes more embedded and acceptable and transmutes our value system. There is a sort of ‘mob psychology’ associated with the practice of corruption in our nation. It’s crucial for us to continue to educate our people that “wrong is wrong even if everybody is doing it; right is right even if nobody is doing it.”

Abused Woman Syndrome
Sadly, the victims of our national loot are the ones who hail financial swindlers and economic scoundrels; while they malign people of integrity and categorize them as imbeciles. We celebrate ill-gotten wealth and refer to economic criminals as “smart people.” We glorify the pillage of our resources and stretch out our hands to receive the crumbs that fall from the tables of those who rape us economically, socially and morally. Society no longer cares to know the source of wealth, and even if we do, we turn a blind eye and open our arms to the beckoning of the kleptocrats.

When a former government official or civil servant leaves office without building a fabulous home or purchasing an exorbitantly priced car, we refer to them as ‘foolish.’ We don’t care to know how much that person earned during his/her time of employment. We expect that they should have acquired a certain amount of wealth to maintain a lifestyle, even at our personal and the nation’s determent. This anticipation puts pressure on the average employee to take his share of what is termed, the ‘elephant meat’ and yet feel justified.

Integrity Crusaders
There are people in our society who dare the status quo and stand for integrity, despite the insurmountable challenges they face. We castigate and malign them because they refuse to fall prey to the mindset of the “entrapment culture.” They are labeled as ‘hard to get along with’ ‘business too hard,’ ‘perfect omo’ ‘Jesus sister/brother’ etc. In such instances, these people remain outcast on the fringes of society and refuse to compromise by joining “business as usual.” They are socially excluded and are often maltreated, threatened and isolated by others in an attempt to arm-twist them in joining ‘kokojumuko.’ I salute people in this sphere who bite the bullet and do the right thing in hope for a better Liberia. The more these kinds of people emerge on our national scene, the more integrity role models the nation will have, which will eventually challenge the space for corruption in our country.

My Thoughts
In my opinion, corruption continues to do more damage to the state than the 14-year civil conflict. It hovers over our nation, snatching hopes and abolishing dreams. It subdues politicians in the corridors of power. It blights the loyalty of some activists and advocates and tests the resolve of people of integrity. It paralyzes the productive years of millions of young men and women and dashes the aspirations of geniuses who lack the opportunity to receive quality education. I could go on endlessly describing the lethal effects of corruption on the populace. However, for this audience, I’ll restrict my reflection to these few infractions.

Despite these naysays, I wake up every day believing that Liberia is gaining ground in the fight against corruption, howbeit incrementally. I envision Liberia to repeat the Rwanda’s story because we have more people of integrity amongst us than crooks. As I conduct anti-corruption awareness, I see the eyes of young men and women light up, when we talk about the day corruption will have an obscured presence in our society. Young people, like the groups “Student against Corruption” and “PPAYO” who formed themselves into an army of anti-corruption crusaders, are evidence that the corruption virus which ravishes our society today will one day be relegated to the pages of history.

Finally, as we join other nations around the world in the anti-corruption fight, I am hopeful that the incoming government will commit to ensuring that the fight against corruption remains steady and sturdy, despite numerous challenges. We as a people must never give up on wrestling with the adversary, corruption, until we regain our economic and social prowess.

By Aba Hamilton-Dolo

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