Leadership: Busting Thieving Generals


April 5, 2012: Many more countries are getting serious about reducing corruption, especially the theft of government funds by senior officials. While prosecuting officials while they are in office is difficult, these same people are easier to nail once they retire. That is one reason why so many officials prefer to serve for life.

As a result, a first step in curbing corruption is getting officials to retire, or observe term limits (and not be able to run for office endlessly) and that has put a lot more thieving civil servants in jail. A recent example concerns three retired Zambian generals (the former heads of the military, the army, and the air force). In one of apparently many scams the three stole $285,000, a theft that could be documented. The three were arrested and made bail (of about $5,500 each) and will now have to flee the country (with some risk of getting caught before they cross the border and being put in jail) or try and bribe their way out of a conviction (difficult when the local media is watching such proceedings, and corrupt judges are also a favorite target these days).

Going into exile is not as attractive as it used to be. Western nations will usually honor international arrest warrants and the few places that won't (like Cuba and North Korea) are very expensive and not terribly pleasant places for retirement. Moreover, if you had people killed and tortured, or did it yourself there are more active prosecutions of people for war crimes these days.

Most corrupt officials that are prosecuted usually find their best response is to stay and fight the charges. That means using bribes and intimidation to get the prosecutors to back off or deliver a verdict of innocent (or guilty and liable for a light punishment). In most countries suffering from corruption you can buy your way out of prosecutions. Unless, of course, you have angered too many people in the current government or been declared a big-time bad guy by the media. In that case getting off the hook can be very expensive. This is why most corrupt officials pretend not to be and spend some effort developing a good-guy public image.