It takes two to tango when it comes to corruption

Sunday Times
April 30, 2000

A landmark case against international corruption begins in the Maseru High Court this week, with a number of huge companies in the dock on charges of bribery.

These multinational companies have all been involved in building or tendering for aspects of the massive hydroelectric dam project in the mountains of Lesotho.

They are charged with improperly paying millions of rands in foreign currency to intermediaries who, after taking a cut, deposited the balance into a secret Swiss bank account held in the name of the top executive of the dam project.

The consortiums have not yet been asked to plead, and we carefully avoid prejudging the question of whether they are guilty of the crimes with which they are to be charged.

But the trial raises several important legal issues likely to be significant for any subsequent case of this kind.

One is the difficulty of proving bribery if it means showing exactly what favours were exchanged for what payments.

Suppose the prosecution has evidence of money paid secretly by big business into the pockets of someone in a position to influence decisions in their favour; suppose the executive concerned takes the money without declaring it to the authorities; that all this takes place at the very time that tenders and contracts are being considered and awarded; and that no one involved offers any satisfactory explanation. Would this be sufficient for a conviction?

Another problem is the question of jurisdiction.

Would the court of any country be entitled to charge and sentence companies whose head offices and chief executives are based on the other side of the world?

But the case also illustrates that there is another side to the popular view of the Third World as almost inherently corrupt and corruptible.

It takes two to tango. If influential government officials in a developing country are offered enormous bribes and succumb to the temptation, the fault must be shared equally by those who offer the funds to secure some considerable unfair advantage for themselves.

Often those with the cash to spend on tempting officials come from the wealthier parts of the world, and from those very countries whose governments and business communities complain about the corrupt practices of the Third World.

African delegates to the AfricaEurope summit in Cairo earlier this month made this point strongly: when donors and investors complain about corruption in Africa, they neglect to consider the inevitable partners in crime – those First World conglomerates which offer huge and illegal financial incentives to secure business for themselves.

They corrupt officials and whole societies with offers of unimaginable wealth, and then, when their contract is complete, they pull out and return to Europe or the US, leaving widespread moral and financial contamination in their wake.

It is a serious problem which must be urgently addressed to ensure that blame is properly apportioned, that corruption is stamped out and that development funds are properly spent so that the poorest nations of the world can finally experience some improvements in their lives.

Many governments have complained about international corruption and its impact on their societies; many say they have committed themselves to taking tough action against it.

But so far, only Lesotho has actually done anything to charge those it suspects of such cross-border crimes.

Last year, the Maseru government passed the Prevention of Corruption and Economic Offences Act, making it easier to deal with future corruption of this kind. Now it is fighting a determined battle to expose the truth behind allegations of large-scale bribery associated with its hydroelectric dam project.

It is a nice irony that this small, isolated country should be setting an example to the rest of the world.

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