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Last Week, Around the World…

30 Oct 2012

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The Wig & Skirt By Funke Aboyade. Email, olufunke.aboyade@thisdaylive.com

Last week, two entirely different news reports about two events on two continents which were otherwise largely unrelated caught my attention. There was however for the discerning, a common thread. And a teachable moment. Actually, several teachable moments.

One was the conviction and sentencing to a one year jail term by an Italian court of former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, for tax fraud. He was also banned from holding public office for three years. The fraud was not recent it was committed well over a decade ago. Berlusconi, three-time Italian Prime Minister and no stranger to controversy has been a dominant factor in Italian politics for the past two decades. One of Italy’s richest men (he’s a billionaire) Berlusconi also a media baron is Italy’s longest serving post-war Prime Minister.

The other was the sentencing to a two year jail term and a $5m fine by a New York court of Rajat Gupta for Insider Trading. This in spite of letters written by over 400 personalities including Bill Gates, Kofi Annan and Deepak Chopra to the judge, describing Gupta in superlative terms and pleading for leniency. Gupta of course is a poster boy of the American Dream. Indian born, orphaned along the way in his teens, Harvard educated, becoming an American citizen, meteoric rise in the corporate world, representing the crème de la crème of corporate America (McKinsey, Procter & Gamble, Goldman Sachs, the list is endless), matchless philanthropic work, courted by those who matter, the first Indian-born head of a US multinational.

I was particularly interested to learn, and it is instructive, that those who wrote to Judge Rakoff in Gupta’s defence begged that he be allowed alternative sentencing, some sort of community service in Rwanda. In Kigali, it was reasoned, his extensive boardroom and corporate experience coupled with his unrivalled philanthropic work and reach, would be put to good use in fighting the malaria, AIDS and poverty which ail that country.

But the Judge was having none of it, he promptly dismissed the very notion as ‘a kind of Peace Corps for insider traders’.

‘Others similarly situated to the defendant must…be made to understand that when you get caught, you will go to jail.

‘Defendant’s proposals to have Mr Gupta undertake various innovative forms of community service would, in the Court’s view, totally fail to send this message.

‘Moreover, if the reports of Mr Gupta’s charitable endeavours are at all accurate, he can be counted on to devote himself to community service when he finishes any prison term, regardless of any order of the Court’, he very firmly held.

Back to my initial comment that there was, in my view, a common thread in both sentencings. Simply put, it was the promotion and demonstration of healthy respect for the rule of law. Both men had been convicted of the charges against them. Their sentencing entertained no sentiments about their stations in life or their previous good works or public office achieved. Even with pleas from otherwise esteemed personalities, the law was applied evenly. The sentencings reflected the gravity of the offences and sent a clear message to the high and low alike: no matter how long ago the crime was committed, no matter what heights you have achieved, the law will take its course.

I wondered whether in our part of the world, a former President or a boardroom guru or a billionaire philanthropist could ever be sent to jail for criminal infractions of the law. Whether that clear message could also be routinely sent here. The examples are few and far between (Bode George); in some instances jail time has been served on a hospital bed in a posh part of town.

I was not alone in my agonising.

‘For India the sentencing is a bitter reminder of how distant our dream of justice for all and equality before the law remain despite constitutional provisions and repeated assertions by the judiciary’, one Indian columnist, wondering whether Gupta would have been similarly sentenced in India, wrote in The Hindustan Times last week.

‘Gupta’s past record as global head of blue-chip consulting firm McKinsey, as Goldman Sachs director, even as a proven and acknowledged philanthropist cut no ice with the judicial system. “He is a good man,” judge Rakoff said of Gupta. “But the history of this country and the history of the world is full of examples of good men who did bad things”.

‘How often do we hear of a dynasty’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle or of the sterling past record of a public figure as defence against current offences?

‘We saw just a month ago how the entire government machinery including ministers and governors jumped to the defence of a “private citizen” because he happened to be related to a powerful political family. It is repeated cuts and nicks such as these that have corroded the foundations of our democracy. If we resemble a “banana republic” today, it isn’t by accident but through a conspiracy of gargantuan proportions in which our political class has exploited our passivity’.

I couldn’t have articulated it better; those comments mirrored my thoughts completely.

Elsewhere, last week the rich, famous and powerful on other continents were also having or about to have their day in court.

Disgraced Chinese politician, the charismatic Bo Xilai (often with his now jailed wife Gu Kailai, likened to President John and Jacqueline Kennedy), will now face a criminal investigation on abuse of power and corruption related charges, it was reported last week.

And for those who have been following this scintillating case as I have, Ghanaian-born rogue trader, whizz kid Kweku Adoboli, took the witness stand in London last week in the criminal case of fraud against him in the $2.3bn loss to UBS, the Swiss bank where he’d been an employee. Adoboli grew up in the world’s capital cities as his father was a senior UN official, public school educated, former head boy in fact of his school. In other words, good pedigree. His losses wiped 4bn Pounds off the bank’s shares. If convicted the young man faces a long spell in jail. His assets will be confiscated, spelling an end not only to his lavish lifestyle, but more importantly his reputation. Fame, fortune and pedigree will not prevent the law from taking its course.

There’s healthy scepticism here whether the unravelling of the oil subsidy scam, pensions fraud scam, banking sector fraud, House oil probe and other scandals, monumental public and private sector corruption, et cetera will ever see the light of day.

Here also, the likelihood, if those trials had taken place in this country would have been the likely chaos that would have arisen from strident shouts of ethnic, geo-political or religious bias or political witch-hunting. This is not to say that it didn’t play out in those countries it did; there were some, admittedly muted, allusions to the ethnic card from some Gupta supporters and of course the voluble Berlusconi played the political witch hunting card as to be expected. But. None of that distracted from the real issues, and the law still took its unrelenting course. It’s not unlikely that we would have been mired down in the accusations and counter accusations from those cards which we know so well how to play.

Well here’s our teachable moment right here. In countries where the rule of law truly reigns supreme, even for - especially for - the rich, the powerful and the privileged the law can and will be applied evenly, without fear or favour. It’s no coincidence that those are countries whose development (economic, political and social) and growth we aspire to. To get there, we must however first aspire to their level of the rule of law…

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