By Mass L. Usuf –
“Corruption is a threat to development, democracy and stability” ~ Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations
An increasingly common refrain one hears from the public these days is that whichever government comes to power, all are the same. This statement encapsulates a mix of resignation, disdain and hopelessness expressed in so many words. People are unhappy with the manner in which the investigations into corruption is being handled.
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, the people are resilient and will endure patiently until the next general elections to express their dismay. The people who experienced the kleptocratic rule of the former regime did just that. They unceremoniously jettisoned the perceived ‘Dutugemunu’ of the modern century, not by the bullet but by the ballot. However, an analysis of the current political reality begs the question, are the circumstances ‘normal’? We all know that the transference of power by the democratic process of election is the universally accepted norm. However, a mutated form of power grabbing is evolving under the guise of the Joint Opposition. The mutated strategy envisages returning to power neither through elections nor by violent rebellion but by harnessing the people’s power. In these circumstances, it may be naïve to imagine that change can take place only at the next general elections. Is the country treading on a dangerous course?
Democratic principles demand the opposition to be the policeman of the public in the legislature. Hence part of their job entails guiding, questioning, correcting course etc. of the government ensuring benefits to the people and the nation. In fact, the joint opposition has some other agenda and this they confess without any qualms. Their mission is to grab power and to do this they would not leave no stone unturned. The government with its financial woes and inept management of governmental business including that of corruption investigations is consistently providing a lifeline to the joint opposition. Metaphorically, the situation is like a wound in the leg which is festering. Left unattended it would turn gangrenous leading to amputation.
The Fight, Real Or Fake?
The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption was established by Act No. 19 of 1994 (CIABOC). Ten years later, Sri Lanka ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption in March 2004. Sri Lanka then was in the 67th position among 145 countries as per the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index 2004.
The collapse of the Constitutional Council around 2005 led to appointments being made by the then President. These direct appointments to the bureaucracy and commissions by the Executive President weakened the institutions and their independence. The 17th amendment to the Constitution which to some degree ensured independence of the Commissions was in tatters. By 2007, the corruption level had deteriorated to the extent that Sri Lanka was placed 94 in the Corruption Index. Public perception was that there was widespread corruption at the highest levels in the government at that time. There was no willingness on the part of anyone to curtail the upward movement in the corruption index.
In August 2007, a White Paper was submitted to the USAID by one of its resource organisations, with a view inter alia, to strengthen the institutional framework in the fight against corruption. The report identified several areas that needed to be addressed. Some of which were:
- Lack of political will at the highest level of government
- A weak institutional framework
- A lack of capacity and skills within institutions
- Political interference in the investigation and prosecuting of cases on bribery and corruption
This apparently was neither implemented nor was there a willingness by the then powers to be to do so. Of course, the institutions were efficient in nabbing the Clerk in the Municipality for accepting Rs. 1000/- for a favour or the Policeman in the street accepting Rs. 500/- from a three-wheel driver.
Disgust And Disappointment
The government which came to power on the promise to fight corruption, hurriedly established the Financial Crimes Investigations Department (FCID) in February 2015 under the instructions of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. A move that won him the admiration of the people. Since its establishment many people lined up with stacks of files to lodge their complaints. By April, just two months after FCID started the celebrated arrest of former Minister Basil Rajapakse was announced. One month later, in May 2015 former Minister Johnston Fernando was arrested. There were also the other lesser mortals who were arrested as part of the investigation on various allegations. All were excited. Hopes and expectations picked up only to gradually diminish. Some reports indicate that nearly 200 complaints have been lodged out of which only a very few have been prosecuted up to now.
There is an increasing sense of disgust and disappointment among the masses. Some even regret the decision of ridding the previous regime. They feel that they have been deceptively sucked into the illusionary slogans of good governance, anti-corruption and the so called new government. It is now almost twenty-two years since CIABOC was established, twelve years have passed since Sri Lanka ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption in 2004, sixteen months have passed since the good governance President assumed Executive Office and now its more than a year since the establishment of the FCID.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde says the direct economic costs of corruption are clear. But the indirect costs may be even worse “leading to low growth and greater income inequality. It undermines trust in government and erodes the ethical standards of private citizens,” (VOA News, May 11, 2016). A fertile ground for the joint opposition to breed and they in fact are breeding very well. Democracy is being threatened, development retrogressing and stability shaking as the government seems to be dilly dallying in its efforts to stem corruption. Serious efforts at substantial reformations and improvements is not evident, at least in enhancing the areas mentioned in the White Paper above.
Corruption directly and indirectly impacts on politics, economics, society and the environment. The effect on each of these in general influences the values inherent in them. Political corruption would result in the erosion of democracy, the rule of law and the institutions which protect and safeguards these principles. The loss in tax revenues, inflated cost of development projects, prioritising infrastructure development based on kickbacks rather than on national priorities are the direct consequences of economic corruption. The extended effect of these two is the emergence of social corruption. The social structure gradually gets destabilised and society learns to accept corruption as a way life. Social corruption becomes endemic among the people as they lose hope in the political leadership, trust in the police and the existing bureaucracy. When it reaches this level fighting corruption will be a herculean task for any one. Lack of concern and consideration to the environment and the ecological system becomes a minor issue in the mind of the corrupt. For example, deforestation, logging, mining etc. all contributing towards unsustainability, disastrous environmental consequences and depriving our future generation from what nature has to offer to them.
Speed Up The Process
The promised investigation and prosecutions are progressing very slowly. It is acknowledged that the process of investigation is a slow and time consuming task. It is also clear that the public is not in any way clamouring for a kangaroo court type of justice. What the public is looking for is the speeding up of the bureaucratic mechanism, the investigative process and efficiency in the administration of justice. Is there a sincere commitment and willingness to bring to justice the alleged perpetrators of corruption? Obviously, to continue under the existing system will see this saga playing itself for many years to come. By which time, corruption will only be rampant rather than a taboo. The public is therefore, questioning whether they can trust the political leaders to fight corruption?
From the viewpoint of those against whom are complains, it is grossly unjust only to continuously accuse them without prosecuting them for any wrongdoing. Even an accused has the constitutional guarantee of being presumed as innocent until proved guilty vide Article 13 (5) of the Sri Lankan Constitution. Meanwhile, the mudslinging exercise which is a tragic part of our politician’s psyche will convict the presumptively innocent accused not by the due process of the law but by public opinion. This should be avoided if we as a nation wish to move forward with justice, fairness and equality to all.