|Volume 5 Issue 12| December 2011|
Controlling Corruption –
On the occasion of Anti-Corruption Day, IFTEKHARUZZAMAN appeals to the national leadership to rid the country of corruption.
A veteran and revered political leader, who is sympathetic to the anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), but deeply frustrated and indeed angered by deepening and widening corruption, advised me recently that we cannot expect the movement to succeed unless it emerges as a political party. In his view, corruption cannot be controlled from outside the state power. Only those who are in positions of power in the state can deliver corruption control. I replied that political party is for the politicians, whereas we in the non-governmental sector or social movement have neither the jurisdiction nor the capacity to form any political platform with the objective of capturing state power. He was not happy.
I told him further that in a sense he was right, because even being outside politics, the kind of change that we demand or the type of institutional and policy reforms and practices we work for are at the end of the day political, and can only be achieved when our political leaders and their political parties as the key power-bearers of the state play their due role. More importantly, by raising voice and demand on behalf of the people upon whom the Constitution has bestowed the powers of the state, TIB is in reality playing a supportive role with the government, political leadership and political parties. If we can raise those demands effectively enough, they will be forced to deliver democratic governance and anti-corruption. He was not convinced.
He said grudgingly that he would continue to be supportive to the anti-corruption movement, but the difference of opinion will persist. I came out with a sense of satisfaction that there are sill political leaders in our beloved country who believe that differences of opinion in democratic practice is quite natural, but that doesn't mean that “either you are with us or with our enemies”.
It is not that as an anti-corruption activist I myself also don't sometimes feel disappointed or even consider myself a failure. As a result of our work, we do realise and people tell us, that there has been a much greater degree of awareness in the country on the issue of corruption and its negative impact in the society and for the future of development. Corruption now occupies the centre stage in public discourse in Bangladesh. Quite a prominent and substantial space has also been captured by the anti-corruption discourse in both print and electronic media.
All the major political parties condemn corruption publicly and have made electoral pledge against corruption. The election manifesto of the biggest party in the ruling grand alliance, the Bangladesh Awami League was in a way conceptually based on anti-corruption theme as they also made at least over a dozen specific commitments to create the capacity to control corruption. The Prime Minister, ministers and advisers, members of the parliament, high officials of the government speak against corruption quite assertively. Much remains to be desired though in terms of actual implementation and enforcement of such pronouncements and commitments.
On the other hand, notwithstanding often negative response to our work from some powerful quarters, we have indeed succeeded in catalysing some important institutional and policy reforms. The establishment of the Anti-corruption Commission and the sustained campaign against undermining the Commission's independence and effectiveness; Bangladesh's accession to the UN Convention against Corruption; enactment of the Right to Information Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act are among changes in which we played catalytical role. These are aimed at strengthening the capacity of the state to control corruption so that corruption becomes a truly punishable offence and the culture of impunity can be effectively challenged irrespective of the identity or status of the individual concerned.
But that has not happened. On the contrary, TIB research demonstrates, as it is also clear to the people at large, corruption continues unabated, adversely affecting the development prospects. There are a few refreshing exceptions as in the education and agriculture sectors where determination of leadership coupled with committed and sincere efforts have shown that changes are possible. But on the whole, it is a commonplace wisdom that corruption is deepening and widening aggressively.
It becomes more frustrating when foreigners jump in to advise our government. The intent of some of them, especially the bilateral donors, may be understandable enough as they are also answerable to their tax payers. So it may be quite natural that they would be concerned. However, it becomes doubly humiliating and exasperating when a World Bank-like institution, whose own credibility in terms of transparency was a matter of research until just a few years back jumps in to shower sermons to our government and to threaten withdrawal of funds for a project of national pride like Padma bridge because of allegation of corruption -- as if you chop off your head because of a headache.
We are a nation of extraordinary achievements for our globally unprecedented struggles -- whether it is for our rights of linguistic-cultural identity, for our glorious independence or for our passion for democracy and democratic rights for which people remain as ready as ever to shed blood and life. Proud as a nation as we are, it is deeply agonizing and frustrating that the scourge of corruption flourishes unabated. However, those who are responsible for this evil don't seem to be disturbed or worried at all. If they were, the dream that drives the anti-corruption movement would have come closer to fulfillment.
That dream is about downsizing the anti-corruption movement to an extent that TIB could be gradually closed down. If our political leaders, in whose hands the authority is to control corruption discharged on their commitment without bias or favour, if the Parliament and parliamentary committees whose responsibility it is to hold the government accountable to the people were effective, if the law enforcement institutions were able to promote the rule of law, if the corrupt individuals in public, private or non-government sector were to face justice irrespective of whether it is a “small fry” or a “big fish”, why should we have an organisation like TIB!
That is a dream that remains far from reality yet. On the contrary, the linkage of the high and mighty with corruption, particularly triangular equations between politics, administration and private sector keep on sustaining corruption. Nevertheless, there is an optimist in me drawing inspiration from the extraordinary courage and capacity of the people of this country. The people have never failed in making the correct choice; they have always taken the right decision to write the glorious chapters of history. Drawing the right lesson from those historical experiences, the people will continue to play their due role in creating the demand and voice in a manner that those who are in positions of power will be forced to deliver.
That would, of course, require the leaders of the two main political parties to take a strong stance against corruption. It may appear unrealistic, still one would expect that one day they would realise that enough is enough. Shrugging off all the confrontation, mistrust and tension between them, one would propose, and the other would agree, to commit to the people jointly, to not to protect or connive with the corrupt, whoever it may be -- starting from kith and kin to ministers, public representatives, political leaders and other elements of the power-base at national and local levels as well as individuals in public and private sectors.
It is in the hands of our two leaders to create a context where the parliament will be free from the culture of boycott and a parliamentary practice will develop in a manner that the Government will hold itself accountable to this sacred institution. Thanks to the delivery of the two leaders on their commitment, we could have an administration that will be free from partisan political influence; the law enforcement institutions will operate with such a clinical objectivity that identity of the individual will never matter in enforcing the law; appointments, postings and promotions in other key institutions such as the justice system will be solely dependent on professional experience, expertise and excellence as distinct from partisan political consideration. We could also have a situation where watchdog bodies like the anti-corruption commission would be free from administrative and political control.
If our two leaders wanted, disclosure of wealth and income by the Prime Minister, members of the Cabinet, members of the parliament and other individuals in public positions could no longer remain only a commitment in paper and pronouncement but established as a practice for all without exception. It is they who could stop encouraging dishonesty and corruption by allowing whitening of black money, and thereby prevent any further violation of the constitutional commitment by which the state has pledged to discourage unearned income. Our two leaders could ensure protection of the political space from the growing influence of black money and corruption. They could present abuse of power and conflict of interest in public procurement.
It is in the hands of our two leaders to lead the process of moving away from the culture of secrecy to one of openness and reap the benefits of the Right to Information Act by enforcing it at various levels. They are the ones in whose capacity it is to create conditions to make institutions like the Information Commission, Election Commission, Human Rights Commission and Comptroller & Auditor General's Office more resourceful, independent, non-partisan and effective.
If only our political leaders wanted we could do away with the culture of determining the fate of various categories of cases including corruption cases under partisan political consideration. Who else is better placed to ensure that crimes like torture in custody and extra-judicial killings do not take place any further. It is in the hands of our political leaders to implement the whole series of commitments made under the UN Convention against Corruption as a state party so that proper functioning of institutions, laws and practices ensure effective control of corruption and restore people's trust in the leadership and in the system.
However, whether and to what extent our political leaders, public representatives will deliver and for that matter the government and institutions within the government and outside will function effectively will depend also on the people, to whom belongs all powers of the state in the ultimate analysis. It is the people who have to make their voice and demand stronger so that our political leaders deliver their commitments without fear or favour; our institutions function effectively; the corrupt are duly punished rather than becoming the ruthless carriers of the culture of impunity; democratic practice is ensured in a manner that in politics, governance and development efforts national interest is placed above anything else.
As we celebrate four decades of the glorious independence of Bangladesh we take pride recalling the dream and vision that inspired us in 1971 -- the vision of democracy, equal rights, justice and rule of law that would be applicable for everyone without any scope for discrimination. We also take pride that in this short period Bangladesh has achieved commendable progress in terms of several socio-economic indicators that have been nationally and internationally recognised.
We have also succeeded in building the key democratic structures in these 40 years to an extent that took centuries in many of the highly developed societies of the world. However, while we have the democratic structures, or what may be called as hardware, we have failed to create and practise the software to ensure the operation of the structures. We remain far from practising democracy.
When we demand transparency and accountability we are carrying forward the dreams and the spirit of our independence which was to ensure democratic governance accountable to the people. If we demand corruption to be controlled we specifically highlight what our beloved Constitution commits about unacceptability of illegitimate income, and only remind ourselves of the strong position that the father of the nation took against this malice.
The stronger these demands are from the people the stronger is the possibility of moving forward. There is no reason for our leaders to be oblivious of this, nor any reason for the people to give up.
Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.
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