Progress not possible till we crack down on corruption

Daily Mirror

President Sirisena attending the 2016 anti-corruption summit in London

Many of us have heard the story about a Sri Lankan minister meeting his counterpart from a developed nation. For the benefit of first time voters, the story is retold here.  Once, a Sri Lankan minister visited a developed country. During a conversation, his counterpart admitted there was corruption in his country, too. He pointed at a nearby highway and said, “ten percent”– meaning he had pocketed ten percent of the project cost.  After some time, the developed nation’s minister visited Sri Lanka and again, during a private conversation, the topic turned to corruption. To prove he is a bigger crook than his guest, the Sri Lankan minister opened the window of his office and pointed at the empty space and said, “One hundred percent” — meaning he had gobbled up the entire project cost.

Emphasising the pandemic proportion of corruption in Sri Lankan society, the latest twist to the story is that the Sri Lankan minister has told his visitor that he pocketed 200 percent. Based on this fictional story, a simple equation P=D+C can be worked out. In this equation P is politics, D is Development and C is corruption. As it is, the equation reads politics equals development plus corruption. The equation can also be expressed in this manner: P-D=C – meaning politics minus development is corruption. However, the best expression of this equation is P-C=D – i.e. politics without corruption is development. 

At every election, eliminating corruption, the public enemy number one, is one of the topmost topics most candidates wax eloquent about, only to push the issue to the back burner the moment the winner is declared.

The previous government was kicked out of office largely because the unprecedented level of corruption it is alleged to have indulged in. The present government came to office on a pledge that it would take legal action against corrupt politicians and officials of the previous regime.  Apart from the case where the former presidential secretary and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission chief were found guilty of misusing public funds to distribute Sil cloth among Buddhist women, none of the high profile cases has passed muster with the judiciary. That some of the high profile cases have been dismissed raises a question whether deliberate holes were made in the prosecution brief to let the suspects go scot free. With high profile cases being dismissed or postponed regularly, the whole process appears to be a charade. This has even led to the erosion of public confidence in the judiciary. The people wonder whether there are deals within deals between ruling party and opposition politicians to protect each other. 

Besides its pathetic record in bringing the corrupt to justice, the present government itself faced serious corruption allegations surrounding the Central Bank Treasury Bond issue. Even the President’s Office came under a cloud after its chief of staff was caught allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs. 20 million from an Indian investor. 

The supposed to be independent Commission to investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) receives complaints against politicians on regular basis. But it cuts a sorry figure when it comes to prosecution of these cases. 

What’s worse? The CIABOC’s one time Director General who was later transferred back to the Attorney General’s Department and promoted as Deputy Solicitor General, was heard saying in a leaked conversation with a suspect in a high profile case, “I can make the law and break the law”. 

In 2016, President Maithripala Sirisena attended the world anti-corruption summit in London and boasted about the measures he had taken to probe corruption and punish the culprits. As he ends his presidential term next month, his speech appears to be empty words, while those accused of corruption walk tall as though they are holy cows.

In addition to the CIABOC, the present government set up an anti-corruption secretariat, a Financial Crimes Investigation Division and a special high court. However, these mechanisms appear to be inadequate and the public trust in these institutions is fast eroding in the absence of successful convictions. Unless this trend is reversed, we cannot even afford to dream of emerging as a developed nation. The US Federal Reserve’s former chairman, Paul Volcker, says a weak rule of law is closely related to stunted economic growth. 

It is not possible to quantify the money lost due to corruption, but a London Chatham House study published in 2017 says that in Nigeria since Independence in 1960, the country’s politicians and officials had stolen more than US$ 582 billion from public coffers. No wonder Nigeria is still a poor country despite its vast oil wealth. 

At global level, the United Nations in recent years has redoubled efforts to eliminate corruption as part of its Global Compact that emerged from the Davos Economic Forum in 2003. The Partnering Against Corruption Initiative is another programme of the Davos Forum.

These programmes look good on paper, but in reality most multinationals and big businesses thrive in corruption, especially in third world countries. Last year, a New York Times article claimed that more than 7.3 million dollars had been paid by China Harbor Construction Company which is building the Colombo Port City to the 2015 political campaign of a main party. Another Chinese company, Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), admitted that it donated nearly 20 million rupees to a “foundation” of a powerful former minister’s wife as part of its “corporate social responsibility.”

In April this year, the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which built the mega stadiums for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, was accused of funding election campaigns and paying bribes to politicians in more than half of the countries in Latin America, as well as in Angola and Mozambique in Africa to secure lucrative construction contracts.

In 2016, the Panama papers saga highlighted how politicians and businessmen used tax havens and shell companies to hide their wealth. The exposé underlined that domestic arrangements alone won’t end corruption however tough the laws are, because kleptocrats with their money and muscle power know how to tackle the judiciary.To combat corruption, some countries have proposed the setting up of an international anti-corruption court in terms of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), so that big time corrupt officials can be hauled before this court when local courts fail. Unlike Sri Lanka, some countries take the anti-corruption battle seriously. In South Korea, prisons are filled with a large number of politicians, corrupt officials and business leaders. Among them was an ex-President.

In April last year, a South Korean court sentenced former President Park Geun-hye to 24 years in jail after she was found guilty of abuse of power and corruption.  In Brazil last year, socialist President Lula de Silva was sentenced to a 12-year jail term and another 13 years in April this year after he was convicted of corruption. 

But in Sri Lanka where politicians control the system that is in place to ensure public funds are spent with accountability, the long arm of the law remains paralysed. Their weakness indirectly encourages corruption and they become a major impediment to the country’s growth.