Ghosn may embody the Lebanese dream but he must be held accountable
Lebanese people have been protesting against corruption for months and despite his popularity, it is imperative that Ghosn answer for his four counts of financial misconduct
In the days since Carlos Ghosn, the former head of Nissan and Renault, arrived in Beirut, he has been greeted by many of his compatriots as if he were a national hero. He has, in his words, evaded Japanese “injustice”, only to come back to the homeland of his forefathers and be met with applause. His arrival in Lebanon on December 30, was the latest turn in this dramatic story.
At his press conference last week, he declared in Arabic to a room-full of Lebanese and foreign journalists, who cheered him on: “I am proud to be Lebanese”. Meanwhile, Japanese media were left to wait outside in the rain. During the two-hour event, Mr Ghosn provided what he called "evidence" to salvage his sullied image. Before this debacle, he was hailed as the saviour of the Japanese car industry, a moniker that once earned him the respect of the global business community. But unanimous admiration for Mr Ghosn’s life and work came to a grinding halt in 2018 when news of his arrest took the world by storm.
Mr Ghosn had been charged on four counts of financial misconduct, including under-reporting his earnings, using Nissan’s funds for personal ends and paying family members for fictitious jobs.
In the turn of events that led to his fall from grace, the chief executive-turned-fugitive has lost much of his credibility everywhere in the world – except in Lebanon.
His escape to Beirut comes at a troubled time for the country. Lebanon has witnessed an uprising against a corrupt political elite, which has led the nation into an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. Yet the corruption allegations brought forth against Mr Ghosn do not seem to hinder his popularity among his compatriots, many of whom have taken to the streets to protest against endemic corruption in the country.
Mr Ghosn's escape to Beirut comes at a troubled time for the country. Lebanon has witnessed an uprising against a corrupt political elite, which has led the nation into an economic crisis
Lebanese public opinion is in favour of Mr Ghosn, with many supporting his claim of a “plot” against him fomented by high-ranking employees at Nissan. Such narratives are not uncommon in a country where conspiracy theories abound. It is unlikely that the public will ever find out the truth as Mr Ghosn escaped from Japan before his trial. Some have even speculated that he could be handed a ministerial position in the next government, which protesters have demanded be headed by unaffiliated, transparent experts.
For many Lebanese, Mr Ghosn is more than just a businessman. His success story as a Brazilian-Lebanese who went on to become the chief executive of not one but three major car companies embodies the aspirations of a whole country where the diaspora plays an essential role.
More than twice as many Lebanese live outside than inside the country, many of whom, much like Mr Ghosn’s grandfather, migrated to the Americas early in the 19th century. Today, many see migration as their only hope to live a decent life and provide for their loved ones. Remittances in 2018 contributed to more than 12 per cent of Lebanon’s gross domestic product, the second highest ratio in the Arab world after Palestine.
“Making it” abroad has become a dream that is all the more significant, as the economic situation deteriorates and job opportunities in Lebanon become scarcer. Mr Ghosn embodies that dream, which seems harder to reach with every passing generation.
He is popular with people from different religious, political and social backgrounds, despite the fact that he went to Israel in 2008, where he shook hands with Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister. Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel, which it does not recognise as a state, and Lebanese citizens are forbidden from visiting the country – a serious offence regarded as treason. This has not stopped ministers from meeting with Mr Ghosn, and defending him publicly. When news broke about his arrest last year, Lebanon’s then interior minister Nouhad Machnouk compared him to “a Lebanese phoenix” that cannot be “scorched by a Japanese sun.”
This wide-ranging support is symptomatic of one of Lebanon’s deepest woes. Because divisive, sectarian leaders have largely failed their country, the only powerful figures that can unite people and make them proud are usually successful Lebanese from the diaspora, who are made to carry the hopes and dreams of a whole nation. When protests broke out in October last year, many saw a chance for a new era of transparency and good governance to emerge. A big part of making this project a reality will rely on whether Lebanon is able to hold its leaders, business people and even its idols, to account.
Updated: January 12, 2020 02:12 PM