A Thief Must Be Called So!

A thief is a thief, it should not be covered. That is why, the English proverb – call a spade a spade – comes to mind each time l think about stealing and corruption. We seem to be punishing one group of people, who are just small time thieves, perhaps, engaged in taking what does not belong to them to feed themselves, or simply small time deviants. On the other hand, the big time thieves who we refer to as corrupt, steal big and yet are not made to pay the price for their criminal activities.


This is because we have resorted to the use of semantics to refer to the words, stealing and corruption and have thereby created some ambiguity over the years. Consequently, corruption which is simply stealing in another form has been given some glamour so that those who engage in it, do not see themselves as thieves who have stolen what belongs to others. In fact, if you call any one corrupt, the reaction is not as you will expect from someone who is referred to as a thief. The Moroccans have proverb that says, “if a rich man steals it is a mistake; if a poor man makes a mistake he has stolen.”


It is no wonder that whilst the country’s courts are quick to convict and jail petty thieves, the rich who takes millions, do not pay the price for their action. Over the years, we have had several Auditor General’s Reports that have indicted so many big and powerful people in the country but, these cases simply drag on in the courts for a long time.


The Greek also say, “if you steal something small you are a petty thief, but if you steal millions you are a gentleman of society. This has some relevance in Ghana where we have stories of people in high offices who have been known to misappropriate huge sums of public funds but find themselves at the high tables at Church harvests and at political rallies. Instead of these people being shunned, they are those that we celebrate the most. These are the people who cry for the small thieves to be put away for good. No wonder the Czech say, “the big thieves hang the little ones.”


Simply put, corruption cannot be different from stealing. The dictionary defines stealing as taking “another person’s property without permission or legal right and without intending to return it”. This is not in any way different from the dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.


Corruption, has as its synonym words like, dishonesty, dishonest dealings, unscrupulousness, deceit, deception, duplicity, double-dealing, fraud, fraudulence, misconduct, lawbreaking, crime, criminality, delinquency, wrongdoing, villainy; bribery, bribing, subornation, venality, graft, extortion jobbery, profiteering and even payola. All these words point to stealing or plain thievery. But, what we have always looked for are the small time thieves and armed robbers who end up taking not as much as the big time corrupted public officials.


Speaking on the subject in 2015, Nigeria’s former President, Goodluck Jonathan said, “our people hate thieves, we use corruption to cover up thieves.” He was very emphatic that, “a thief should be called a thief and treated as such”. “In my village, when an adult steals, they strip him naked, humiliate him and his family, but if you say this man is corrupt, they won’t know what you are talking about. We are using corruption to cover it all up,” Jonathan added.


The ambiguity has come about because corruption has been given an academic twist. Xizi Liu, of the Beijing Normal University, is among a number of academics who have spent time to study corruption and given one definition as:  “taken to be the abuse of public office for private benefit”, which has pointed out the nuclear connotation of corruption. Thus, the plain word of stealing is glamourised and so, the public officials who should be described as thieves are given a different tag and are therefore not shamed for their action.


Liu states for example that, there is “academic corruption” and refers this to the corruption in universities and research institutions. These forms of corruption include not only public officials’ personal gain behaviour but also interest exchange process, such as nepotism, nonfeasance and disposal of public resources


Work by Corruptie.org to define corruption also said, “corruption is the misuse of public power (by elected politician or appointed civil servant) for private gain. They also said, “corruption is the misuse of entrusted power (by heritage, education, marriage, election, appointment or whatever else) for private gain. In all this, what is missing is the plain use of the word “thieves” which as a tag gives a meaning that many people will not like. This seems to be the reason why corrupted officials do not seem to have any remorse for their action.


A scholar on corruption, Arvind Jain defines corruption as acts in which the power of public office is used for personal gains in a manner that contravenes the game. Jain goes on to say that certain illegal acts such as fraud, money laundering, drug trade and black market operations, do NOT constitute corruption in and of themselves because they do not involve the use of public power. Those who undertake corrupt activities must often involve public officials and politicians if these operations are to survive.


It does look that the time has come for the country to agree to use the word thieves for those who engage in corruption because of the effect their activities have on the nation. If officials who engage in this act, are named as thieves, many people will rethink their activities because the word has a connotation with shame and this will deter people. As former President Jonathan said, if people who are associated with corruption are identified as thieves, more people will understand what they did than calling them corrupt people.


Short of that, all we have been doing is to glamourise stealing and those who are corrupt do not feel any shame. For this reason, we must be calling the spade by its name and not a digging tool as we seem to have been doing with corruption.  We also must be involved in some kind of education to make public servants see clearly what their actions do to the entire nation.

One writer, Mahmoud Moustafa of Al Tamini has been plain on corruption which he said, “frustrates people and leaves them disproving of their institutions”, adding that, “both things mean that a society with corruption cannot possibly enjoy leaps and bounds of sustainable economic growth and development.”


Moustafa says corruption is now recognized to be one of the world’s greatest challenges. It is a major hindrance to sustainable development, with a disproportionate impact on poor communities and is corrosive on the very fabric of society.

The impact on the private sector is also considerable because, it impedes economic growth, distorts competition and requests serious legal and reputational risks. Corruption is also very costly for business, with the extra financial burden estimated to add 10 per cent or more to the costs of doing business in many parts of the world.


Thus, when more people get to understand that every pesewa that they misappropriate, which is stealing in all its forms, impacts greatly on the economy, there may be a reduction in corruption. As at now, some people simply think they are being “smart.”


…with Francis Kokutse

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