By Kumar David –
How are some countries winning the battle to control corruption? Lanka’s lost fight against corruption
Sleaze, skulduggery and the purchase of officials, politicians and businessmen great and small is a cancer metastasizing not only in the less developed part of the world but also in powerful and rich nations as well. The latter is epitomised by Donald Trump. No US president has been as embroiled as this individual in scandals, investigations of wrongful collusion, sex-related indignities, hiring disgraced White House aides (five have pleaded guilty, one tried and convicted, and several still arraigned before the courts) and concealment of financial dealings. At the same time worldwide the fight against corruption led by people’s movements, journalists, brave prosecutors and political leaders who seem able to hold their head above water, goes on. There are winners and losers.
Sleaze galore in Mother Lanka
Sri Lanka, in the last five decades and at the present is a resounding loser; the future is bleak. Nothing will happen from now till the next election cycle; Yahalalana has in the three months since 10 February, made it amply clear that it is toothless. If the present lot, together or separately, win the next election cycle the paralysis will drag, nothing will improve; Ranil has no spunk, his leadership is tinsel. Whatever was left of Sirisena after his pulverisation in the LG elections was ground into dust the when his Chief-of Staff was nabbed collecting Rs 20 million – for himself or for his boss we do not yet know – in a carpark. When you rob, do it in style man! Gramasevakas don’t get it! If the Ranil-Maithri twosome is driven out, then what? God-forbid, Alibaba and the One Thousand and One thieves will return. It will be frying pan to fire, shit-hole to hell-hole. For the rest of this election cycle ending in 2019-20 and the end next in 2025-26, only brave souls see bright skies. If you are hopeful that public anger will slip the electoral leash and break out in direct action, well, not impossible but hard to prophesy though hopelessness leads to desperation –vide Palestine.
The leader of the JVP is quoted as saying:
“The president’s chief of staff has been arrested over taking a bribe of Rs. 20 million. The chief of staff of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was also arrested over a bribery charge. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s chief of staff who was also arrested on a bribery charge is now released on bail. The international police are searching for two relatives of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ― who were engaged in diplomatic service ― in order to arrest them. The prime minister is completely responsible for the Central Bank governor fleeing the country after the bond scandal. The prime minister is silent on that issue. All these fraudulent activities have taken place with the blessings of the present and former heads of state. While the leaders who organise these frauds remain free, it is only the middlemen who are caught” (JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake quoted in Verite Research).
[Verite Research in its May 7-13 Media Analysis Release summarises 11 pieces from the Sinhala press on recent big-time corruption scandals. Readers who do not customarily track the Sinhala press can benefit from the source].
The spread of corruption among politicians, bureaucrats and bureaucrats is epidemic all across the world. Previous windows in human history have gone down by names such as The Warring States Period, The Rise of Islam, The Enlightenment, Age of Reason, Industrial Revolution and Decolonisation; it is likely that the 50-year phase of the socio-political story in the middle of which we seem to be, will go into the books as the Aeon of Global Graft.
El Dorado of sleaze: Central America
The presidencies of Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras have been marked by crime and corruption since he first won in 2013. His campaign was fraught with embezzlement as he and his cronies siphoned off US$90 million from the Honduran Social Security Institute for the campaign against Xiomara Castro, wife of President Manuel Zelaya, a democratically-elected leftist ousted in a U.S.-supported coup in 2009. Hernandez stole US$300 million from the social security system while president of the National Assembly. Pakasa-clique larceny, comparatively, is diminutive.
Hernandez of course was re-elected in November 2017, despite (no actually because of) the grand larceny and a fraudulent vote which the United States blithely and routinely endorsed; “he is a bastard but he is our bastard”. Hernandez sterilised the judiciary, took de facto control of the attorney-general’s department and had congress defang legislation to investigate high level corruption, and castrated an investigative body that could expose his highway robbery.
In Guatemala president Jimmy Morales with the full backing of US Senator Marco Rubio is taking the stops out in a fight to disembowel CICIG, a UN baked agency that exposed his campaign financing malpractices. It is not for nothing that Central America’s ‘northern triangle’ of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is famed for graft, drugs and rotten dictators. The proportion of people who paid a bribe in 2017 to access a public service is: Panama 38%, Honduras 33%, El Salvador 31%, Nicaragua 30%, Guatemala 28% and Costa Rica, 24%. (CentralAmericadata.com, Feb 2018).
In her book Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister explains how she discovered just how dangerous it could be. Her 83-year-old mother was kidnapped in 2012 by powerful criminals who objected to her Ministry’s attempts at reform – in particular a crackdown on fraudulent claims for oil subsidy payments, a huge drain on the country’s finances. The kidnappers demanded that she resign from her position on live television and leave the country. She refused, her mother escaped, and the program of economic reforms continued. Lanka’s journalists, Lasantha, Eknaligoda and Nayar were much less lucky.
All is not lost
Nevertheless the fight goes on. Hong Kong’s ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) is a model that Sri Lanka should copy; but of course it never will so long as legislation depends on the 225 coots who warm their backsides in Kotte. It is a paradox that the public despises every one of them, but the same public dutifully votes them into office; an inexplicable instance of mass schizophrenia. The ICAC has fearlessly pursued billionaires and the powerful. It has succeeded in putting a former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang behind bars for five years. In South Korea three former Presidents have been convicted on corruption charges, one was impeached but not convicted and one was assassinated. Should one be overjoyed at the courage and independence of prosecutors or weep for a country whose heads of state are serial crooks?
A lady who has won great laurels is Thelma Aldana, the attorney-general of Guatemala who is just stepping down having completed her term of office. During her four years she put a serving president (Otto Perez Molina) and a Vice-President (Roxana Baldetti) behind bars in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Thelma, oh Thelma wherefore art though Thelma? Sri Lanka is in need of a man or a woman of thy calibre! Why are we cursed with prosecutorial sheep? Why is our judicial system an exemplar of what Dickensian lore calls the ‘laws delays’? Why is our PM bereft of willpower; why is our gramasevakeya, his siblings and progeny suspected of larceny? Oh unlucky Lanka!
Even Malaysia, a pit of corruption for more than a decade under the prime ministership of Najib Razak, may do better. Najib gerrymandered electoral boundaries, looted $680 million (a feat beyond the bravest Paksa) from 1MDB a sovereign investment fund, boiled the race pot and threw critics into prison. The electorate has given him his desserts; UMNO lost power for the first time in 60 years. His passport has been seized, his house searched and sacks of valuables and files removed and Najib been barred from leaving the country. He may be arrested by the time you read this.
I think it unlikely that Mahathir and Anwar will betray the public outcry for justice. The big difference is that Mahathir is not clay like Ranil, nor stained by ineptitude like Maithri. Mahathir has vowed to bring charges against Najib so perhaps the wheels of justice will grind finer in Malaysia – still fingers crossed, we have learnt much the hard way. Unlike the Mahinda-Maithripala incompetent jellyfish, Mahathir-Anwar alliance has promised not to cut a deal with Najib if wrongdoing is found in the 1MDB probe.
Populism has been on the march elsewhere earlier this month as well. I devoted an entire section of my 1 April column to the victory of neo-populism in Italy; 70% of Italians voted for the rightist Northern League or the Centre-Left 5-Star movement in about equal numbers. The split hindered the formation of a government, but they have now managed to get together to form a unity government. This is not a surprise; as I told at the time “modern neo-populism has no ideology”. The tension between the factions will impede corruption in Italy though it could not do so in Lanka because our politicians, personally, are of much inferior ethical worth.
Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s alliance won the largest number of seats (54 of 329 seats) on an anti-corruption, anti-elite populist platform in the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s notoriously fractured parliament. Sadr a nationalist is opposed to American and Iranian interference; his alliance includes secularists, the Communist Party and independents. The Hezbollah alliance won more than half the seats in the Lebanese parliament and will have to be included in the next government. These changes may lead to a little less corruption in Iraq and Lebanon, as after the switch from Paksa to yahapalana. In a context where Israel and America are determined on war if regime change in Iran is unachievable, these realignments are a harbinger of a much modified Middle Eastern calculus.