Mandate to lock up

By Raffique Shah
April 29, 2024

Raffique ShahSo that readers may get an idea of the sheer size of the monster that is corruption, of how easily the high and mighty as well as the poor and powerless are caught in its web, I cite one of the oldest jokes in parliamentary lore.

Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in the British parliament, was once jokingly propositioned by a drunk Winston Churchill when he asked her: will you go to bed with me for 50 pounds? She did not respond curtly; instead she hesitated, but before she could sidestep the trap Churchill was about to spring on her, he asked: will you go to bed with me for eight pounds? To which she angrily responded: what do you think I am? He replied: we already know the answer to that, we are just trying to fix a price.

Readers may wonder what this has to do with corruption. In his witty response, Churchill lumped Astor and implied that many women will sell their services once the price is right. While billion-dollar corruption scandals may make it into the media, sometimes the courts, and very rarely the jails, thousands of corrupt practices take place every day. They transcend race, colour, class, gender, age—just about every demographic. There can be no corruption involving only the very wealthy. There must be many ordinary people who facilitate such practices for them to be successful. The State land scandals which surely have taken place for as long as Trinidad and Tobago has existed as a country is the clearest indicator of how citizens and non-citizens, rich and poor, low and high, feed at the trough freely trading State lands as if they were cigarettes and alcohol.

The current Caroni lands dispute, in which hundreds of people are claiming lands they have no legal right to, is one case in point. Yes, there are some very big, wealthy people who have acquired properties of the now-inactive company, where they reside as if they own them. Many more are simply squatters—they neither rent nor own such properties, but they occupy them and even operate million-dollar businesses on them. The even bigger scandal in this regard is the mess with State land. Thousands of people occupy lands that are common properties of the people of Trinidad and Tobago, not the simple squatters who collectively occupy maybe thousands of acres, nor indeed do they belong to the big shots who build permanent structures and occupy large estates. This country is near lawless when it comes to land occupation and ownership.

Another huge scandal involving property ownership, this time motor vehicles, stinks. The rich, the poor, and the middle classes are all involved in scandalously “owning” vehicles that have no place on the public roads. I recently heard the senior person from the Licensing authority point to this multi-million-dollar fraud that is fuelled by theft of motor vehicles. This latter contributed significantly to violent crimes, to wit: full-scale attacks with guns on businesses that trade in new and used cars. Outside of real estate expenditure, trading in motor vehicles, especially foreign-used, is one of the most lucrative businesses.

I seem to recall one official from the Ministry of Finance saying this country spends more than TT$4 billion mostly in foreign exchange on vehicles and parts. While I am not accusing any or every owner of vehicles of engaging in criminal activities, many of us may unwittingly buy a good ride, only to discover later that it was stolen from an owner somewhere in the world. We cannot each fight the crime monster on our own. The risk to our lives and families may be too high, but at least we should try to ensure our transactions are legitimate.

I have chosen to focus on two “big ticket” items—State lands and cars—to expose how easily law-abiding citizens could be tainted by the brush of corruption and crime. However small a dent we can make in fighting them, our efforts will not be in vain.

I make a special appeal today to politicians, elected members of the House, and senators who have the power to change the laws that allow corruption to fester. They, and they alone, can amend laws or create new laws that will ensure the whole system—from gathering of evidence, to arrest, to charges, to trial—culminates in harsh penalties. I challenge all parties to state unambiguously in their next election manifesto precisely what laws and penalties they will introduce if they get a special majority mandate. I challenge the electorate to vote whichever party seems more likely to implement such laws. Let’s give them the mandate. Where they need votes for a majority, give it to them, on condition that they introduce legislation within the first year of taking office.

If they fail? I’ll continue next week.