Whenever Bahamians hear the word corruption, the typical imagery is one of politicians and public officials stealing funds, striking under-the-table deals, accepting bribes or engaging in conflicts of interest.
The imagery is accurate.
Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain and political corruption as “a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth”.
But in the context of the Bahamian experience, we limit our ability to strike at the heart of corruption when we narrowly view it as the sum total of misappropriations and shady deals.
Corruption is not just about money, but it is about the changing of something from its original state to a state that is false or debased.
When we examine some of the prevailing practices in our society, we can begin to see how, from the earliest years and experiences, Bahamians are fed a warped reality about the nature of hard work, ethics and integrity—changing the perspective of these virtues from something to be esteemed to something to be mocked.
As such, Bahamians are primed for dishonesty and abuses of power in their adult life because they are often conditioned to the view that it does not matter what you do, how you do it or who you do it to, so long as you get what you want at the end of the day.
It’s who you know
Meritocracy in The Bahamas is, in too many instances, a fantasy, and feudalism is more of a reality than some might care to acknowledge.
Whether in the public or private sectors, Bahamians quickly learn that in order to get a particular job or to advance on that job or to be granted access to other forms of educational or social advancement, connections are more important than hard work, aptitude and ability.
Arguably informal, there exists a caste system in our society where the political class and their kingmakers are viewed as all-powerful nobilities who hold the lives and the fate of the citizenry in the palm of their hands.
Today’s politicians do little to disabuse Bahamians of this thinking or to devolve their power via legislation because it upsets a system that most benefits them at the top of social order.
Since many Bahamians do not have the political or social connections that can grant them access to doors others walk through, some out of desperation resort to debasing themselves and to otherwise cutting down family, friends and their fellow man in order to gain that access.
For many, they see it as the only way to survive in a culture where people care less about what is in your head and heart and more about what you are willing to do to get what you need or want.
The falsehood that is promulgated is that hard work is a waste of time and integrity in one’s personal pursuits is an unnecessary hindrance to progress.
It is why so many of our young people are growing increasingly angry and disillusioned: they are seeing that for all the hard work they are encouraged to commit to, they can be easily rejected for someone who is far less deserving of an opportunity but is “connected”.
The “it’s not what you know, but who you know” practice corrupts the original esteem owed to excellence, merit and diligence; changing it to a prevailing social acceptance of mediocrity and unethical behavior.
When you reward slackness, laziness and ineptitude on the basis of social or political connections, you sow seeds that blossom into invasive trees of corruption which are far easier to grow than they are to get rid of.
And when you do not earn your spot in a just and fair way, you invariably abuse whatever authority is placed in your hands, all to maintain and grow your initial gain.
One of the more potent ways that politicians corrupt foundational virtues is by manipulating the emotions and lack of knowledge of the electorate for personal and political gain.
A citizenry that does not know or understand how its system of governance works cannot hold its elected officials accountable and will often not know whether something being said or done by their politicians is right, wrong, legal or constitutional.
If victory is the battle, information is the sword and too many of our politicians either wield or withhold that sword to score victories and cut down opponents at the expense of enhancing and growing our democracy.
When our politicians make public statements of consequence that withhold critical pieces of information which would enable Bahamians to make informed decisions about their lives and about the subject matter at hand, they are corrupting the core values of transparency and accountability.
When our politicians set out opportunistic policies that have the potential to deepen divisions and trigger sentiments of hate and prejudice, they are corrupting the core values of peaceful coexistence in a society.
When our politicians refuse to build and improve the country’s foundational institutions because they do not want any monument to stand taller than them, they are corrupting the core values of nation-building.
And when our politicians are elected to serve the public interest, but remain silent in the face of wrongdoing in their administration so as to preserve and protect their space in it, they are corrupting the core values of leadership and good governance.
When these values lose their value in the citizenry, then the actions traditionally recognized as corruption become a natural consequence that many will not rail against unless they are not getting their share of the pie.
Corruption is not just about money, but it is about power—the kind of power you gain and consolidate when, through your actions and methods of governance, you transmit from the highest offices in the land the message that what truly matters in our country and in life does not matter much at all.