When corruption is more than just an academic topic for conversation
It is always a pleasure to tell foreigners corruption is not ingrained in Namibian culture. It is easy to make this statement when comparing us to Angola, or Zambia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where corruption is so common, nothing moves without a bribe.
Unfortunately, the corruptless culture no longer seems true.
An incident that happened last week alerted me to the fact that corruption is everywhere and that my bragging, although impressing the visitors, is not a reflection of reality. Perhaps it is the pervasive culture of entitlement or perhaps it is just a lousy, lazy civil servant trying to exploit a customer by abusing the authority that comes with his position, but what happened was real, not some third-party gossip.
A group of official from Customs & Excise had to be present when a container with electronic goods was unpacked to check the contents with the bill of lading. It was not required of them to do any physical work. They were only on site as inspectors. But as such they yield a lot of authority. If for any petty reason they are not satisfied with the outcome of their inspection, the importer can face a mountain of bureacratic red tape to prove the content is ligit, properly declared, and not destined for any other client.
Since it took several hours to unpack the entire container, the customs officials started complaining that they were hungry. Now these are salaried civil servants, they do not attend to customs duties out of love or charity. When the owner offered to buy a light meal, the officials were not impressed with what he suggested, asking instead for different, far more substantive items from the menu.
This infringement was ignored by the owner but it was only after the inspection was completed, that another volley was fired. The customs officials each wanted a gift from the store owned by the importer. Grudgingly the owner said yes, giving instructions that each official could pick an item within a certain price range.
This did not sit well with the customs official. Instead they insisted that they pick the items they fancy. One officer, with elevated taste took home a gift of which the cost price is almost N$2000.
There are many ways that one can interpret this incident. The importer willingly provided the meals and the gifts. He was not forced or coerced. It was not a typical Japanese inspection. But fundamentally the demands from the customs officials are still a form of corruption. They demand food despite the fact that they are paid to do that job. And they requested to be compensated because they were so diligent in passing the container content.
Perhaps the only consolation is that the gifts were only demanded after the inspection was completed.
But the audacity to insist on food and gifts that fulfil their expectations, is beyond all comprehension.
It can be argued that the owner should not have given in to their requests but when a business regularly imports large quantities of goods, that business operates on the trust and the goodwill of Customs and Excise. So there is a tremendous amount of leverage, and the mere fact that the officials demanded items much higher in value than what the owner offered, shows me they know the value of their authority.
This is the type of incident that must never happen in Namibia. The customs officials are paid to be unpartial, consistent and reliable. The fact that they suddenly saw a whole mountain of valuables in front of them, should not entice them to take some of it even with the consent of the owner.
When relating this incident to me, it was stressed that the customs officials did not blackmail the owner. I accept that but there is no way getting around the fact that they asked for some form of compensation, call it a goodwill investment if you like.
Whether they received pricey or cheaper goodies is irrellevant, the transgression lies in the asking. When this turned into insistence that the gifts must be of a higher value, it became common corruption in the sense that they abused the relationship between them and the importer.
We can offer all the plans we want to fight poverty, to invest in education, to improve productivity but if people who earn government salaries use their positions for their own gain, they are corrupt, and we are wasting our time with all our fancy intentions. Then we simply have to accept the fact that the pervasive culture of entitlement is slowly steering us on a course where we will end up just another corrupt African country.
Then any grand idea about the Namibian House is just hot air, because the people who are supposed to live in this house, are slowly destroying it themselves. As long as a culture of demanding something for nothing persists, we will build and build and build, but the bricks will be carried away as quickly as we make them.