By Jehan Perera –
One of the promises of the government alliance when they contested the 2015 presidential and general elections was to end corruption. The belief that corruption was deep rooted in the former government was well entrenched by the time of those elections. The promise to end corruption by the new government leaders was also believable as both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not come with such baggage. This belief was increased by the immediate passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution that strengthened the independence of the judiciary, the police and the bribery commission.
However, by the time of the local government elections in early 2018 the situation with regard to corruption had deteriorated for the government alliance. The Central Bank bond issue took a heavy toll on the government’s anti corruption credentials. This was coupled with slow movement of the anti corruption investigations into members of the former government. Making matters worse for the government, at the local government elections President Sirisena made anti corruption one of the main planks of his campaign. Ironically his target appeared to be his own coalition partner, the UNP and its leadership.
Indeed, the local government election campaign became a bizarre one in which the SLFP section of the national unity government led by the president publicly came out assailing its main coalition partner the UNP led by the prime minister and undermining the credibility of the entire government. In an ironical twist, those in the opposition who, under more rational circumstances, ought to have been the targets of anti corruption investigations were spared. They made use of the advantageous political environment to attack the government on charges of corruption. In these circumstances of internecine warfare within the government, it was not surprising that the government parties performed poorly at the local government elections.
The sudden arrest of President Maithripala Sirisena’s chief of staff on a charge of extorting a large bribe for a commercial transaction in a sting operation by the Bribery Commission came as a surprise. The question is why the President’s chief of staff was selected for the sting operation when corruption is believed to be widespread and sting operations could have been done elsewhere as well. It would be an embarrassment to the president who only three months ago during the local government election campaign was championing anti corruption and promising to put an end to it.
The revelation of corruption at the highest level of government and the president’s own office would weaken the attempt of the president to present himself as the anti corruption champion of the government. This could have implications for the balance of power within the national unity government. Following the abortive no confidence motion and the attempt of the president to sack the prime minister, the balance of power within the national unity government has been steadily shifting in favour of the UNP led by the prime minister.
The sting operation involving the president’s chief of staff is a testament to the strengthening of institutions that has taken place during the past three years and indicates that political interference is no longer absolute. However, there is much more to be done in terms of strengthening institutions of accountability. Highlighting the continuing weakness of independent institutions, Director General of Commission to Investigate Allegations against Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC), Sarath Jayamanne said that only four persons had been convicted of corruption during the past 23 years. He said that corruption had been categorised as an offence in 1994 with the establishment of the CIABOC. According to him, 75 cases had been heard over the past 23 years though only four cases had been proved. On the positive side, convictions were brought in 57 Bribery cases last year, the highest recorded in a single year.
The Commissioner further said that the amendments would be made to the Bribery Act, Bribery Commission Act and the Property Evaluation Act. However, he added that it is likely that the capacity to implement the law will continue to be weak as CIABOC is understaffed with competent personnel. The commissioner said that some 200 investigators had been secured from the police but none of them was a degree holder from a university or an accountant. When compared with other countries in Asia, the number of investigators available to CIABOC was not sufficient. Comparing Hongkong with Sri Lanka he said, “We have 200 investigators for 21 million people. Hong Kong has 1,200 investigators for six million. All those investigators are graduates and have expert qualifications.”
One of the government’s proposals to counter corruption by strengthening institutions is to set up a special high court on corruption through amendments to the Judicature Act. This would have three Special High Courts with three-judge benches to conduct daily sittings, in the morning and the afternoon, in cases related to bribery, corruption, fraud or other political crimes by politicians or officials. Although several cases have been currently filed against those accused of corruption at the highest levels from the former government there has been long delays, slow progress and allegations of political deals.
There is a need for the government to invest in anti corruption measures. These investments can yield quick political and economic dividends. If corruption is not dealt with the cycle will not stop and will reach crippling levels. It is because corruption happens with impunity that ideology does not matter, and politicians shift from right to left to right depending on what they can get. They look at their self interest rather than the collective interest. Instead of merely skimming off the top it can lead to entire development schemes being jeopardized. There is the production of inferior economic infrastructure and services, such as the highways that are narrower than they should be or airports set in the midst of bird sanctuaries.
There is also a need for the political and opinion leaders in the country to engage in public education programmes on the importance of anti corruption activities. It is necessary for the government to develop a communication strategy to counter opposition that downplays anti corruption work as a political vendetta. If corruption is not dealt with others problems too cannot be dealt with. The evidence gathered so far suggests that the president’s chief of staff kept blocking the commercial transaction for three years in order to get his money. This shows how corruption becomes an obstacle to economic development. Investors, especially foreign investors, prefer to go where they can invest their money without being blocked by those who are seeking illegal gains.
It is to the president’s credit that he did not make any attempt to thwart the law enforcement authorities. It is important that this incident should not be used by one side of the government to weaken the other and undermine it as occurred during the local government election. The manner in which the president and prime minister are handling the situation suggest that they are cooperating with one another rather than engaging in one-upmanship. Such a course of action, as followed by the law enforcement authorities against the president’s chief of staff would have been inconceivable during the former government, when impunity prevailed in regard to the highest in the land.
If the country is to develop, the practices in the country should reflect those practices in developed countries. Those who are in positions of power, whether in developed or undeveloped countries, often succumb to the desire for personal benefit. The difference is that in developed countries the law is applied to all without fear or favour. This is the difference in approach which Sri Lanka too should strive to achieve. The sting operation that has netted the president’s chief of staff needs to become the first of many such actions that shrinks the culture of corruption that has been threatening to envelop the country.