Friday February 19 2016

Corrupt and rich, or honest and poor?

By LUIS FRANCESCHI
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Recently, Owaahh wrote a masterpiece worth reading, a three-piece suit that brings to light the sack of Imperial Bank.

He begins: “The first time Abdulmalek Janmohammed ever robbed Imperial Bank, he had a gun to his head. Three short years later, he became the robber, carrying out a heist so elaborate its web is still being untangled, five months after his death.”

Abdulmalek Janmohammed was the CEO of Imperial Bank for 20 years until he died of a heart attack in September last year. He was a puzzle to the few who knew him, and the many who worked for him.

He had no children and no real friends, according to Owaahh, just very few confidants who could hardly guess his thinking. By the time he died, he had stolen close to 38 billion shillings from the bank he helped found. 

One morning, a few days ago, as I rode an Uber cab, a radio presenter on Kiss FM broached one of the most absurd discussions I have ever heard in today’s radio. He called it the Moral Dilemma: “What do you prefer, to be rich and corrupt or honest and poor?” he asked.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy teaches us that moral dilemmas, at the very least, involve conflicts between moral requirements. For example, in Plato’s Republic, Cephalus defines justice as speaking the truth and paying one’s debts. Socrates refutes this by saying that certain debts should not be paid, for example, returning a gun borrowed from a man of unsound mind.

Does the obligation to return something borrowed outweigh the obligation to ensure the safety of all? Certainly, this is a simple dilemma. The matter usually goes deeper and gets more complicated.

"TIRING, AND BLOODY RISKY"

The key feature of a moral dilemma is that a person is required to perform each of two or more moral actions that seem conflicting. So, on the face of it, one is doomed to moral failure, no matter which action one chooses to perform since both options are conflicting obligations.

There is a moral obligation to be honest, but there is no obligation to be rich and definitely no obligation to be corrupt.

The radio program’s script writer or whoever phrased such a “moral dilemma” had a poor grasp of dilemmas, of morality and of the responsibility of the media as a powerful moulder of minds.

The program sounded like a sad discussion of wannabes who cannot escape their dreams of riches because they are not doing what it takes to wake up to reality. 

Such a “moral dilemma” cheats the poor. It involves a useless discussion of a poorly thought-out script with no sense of social responsibility. It destroys the work of the classroom.

The presenter went on with his ‘dilemma’ discussion. People answered thoughtlessly, recklessly and superficially. Most of them were strugglers, wannabes who thought being corrupt but rich would be better. I realised these wannabes might be corrupt, but would never be rich.

First and foremost, to be rich, whether honest or corrupt, you need to work hard. Even successful thieves spend many a night on the run. It is tiring, and bloody risky.

Second, not all rich people are corrupt and not all poor people are honest. And third, material wealth is not the key to happiness.

As the program went on I could not help but think of Abdulmalek Janmohammed. He was filthy rich, but the investigation and photographic evidence produced by Owaahh point to grand corruption.

Abdulmalek’s actions brought down not only a bank but also thousands of innocent depositors, who saw their life savings washed away.  Wherever he is now, he must be regretting his actions and his reckless desire for riches at any cost.

Unexpected death had to come to bring his pillaging to a sudden stop.

"WE'RE STILL DANCING"

I also thought of Ed Zander, once Motorola CEO. In 2006 he received an annual compensation of $17.3 million but brought the company down. He reorganised Motorola's departments into "warring tribes", then failed to steer the company through the smartphone transition, destroying one of the most hallowed technology franchises known.

Chuck Prince of Citigroup received $95 million in 2007. Soon after, Prince told the Financial Times: "...as long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance. We're still dancing." 

Shortly after he got fired, Citi imploded and is now owned by American taxpayers. He declared: "I'm sorry about the millions of people, average Americans, who lost their homes. And I'm sorry that our management team, starting with me, like so many others could not see the unprecedented market collapse that lay before us."

Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers got a bonus of $220 million in 2007. He bet the firm and lost, presiding over the biggest bankruptcy in history. He led the world into a financial crisis triggered by greed and grand corruption. He is a depressed man.

Ken Lay, Enron CEO, was found guilty on 10 counts of securities fraud and related charges.  He died of a heart attack while on vacation before serving his time in jail.

Finally, Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom paid himself $34.5 million in 2002. A former school teacher, Ebbers built Worldcom and became the ring leader in one of the largest accounting scandals in the United States. His company disintegrated, and Ebbers is currently serving a 25-year prison term.

The idealisation of being  rich and corrupt as better than being poor and honest is useless, deceiving and misleading. Such radio discussions are a sad waste of time.

Hard work is the key to riches and And honesty make it sustainable. It is not worthwhile being a thief. Money goes as it comes. As my ride went on, I kept thinking that these callers would neither be rich nor honest.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law [email protected], Twitter:[email protected]

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