Monday, October 26, 2009

Arrogance, humility and corruption

A news item that has appeared in newspapers recently on the former Chairman and others in the ACC during the emergency has attracted very wide attention. One could not help thinking, while reading the news, how quickly fate of people change in politics where the victor becomes the victim and the victim, the victor. This news item said that the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Public Undertakings has recommended to authorities that Taka 16 crores should be recovered from the former Chairman of the ACC and his colleagues for "unauthorised' expenditure. In the breakdown for the "unauthorised" spending, the Chairman said that the ACC paid Taka 10 crores to lawyers in violation of rules and Taka 6 crores was for "spying."
The former Chairman is none other than General Hassan Mashud, who for a variety of reasons was both respected and criticised for his actions while he held the position of the Chairman of the ACC during the emergency. The Chairman of the Standing Committee is Dr Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir. He is one of the high profile politicians who faced the institutional wrath of the ACC and the personal wrath of the General.

It is true that the allegation has little validity till the General acknowledges it or in case he does not, appropriate authorities take him to court over it and the case is proved there. In view of the personal stake the Chairman of the Standing Committee may have in the case, there is also need to be extra cautious in handling this matter. Nevertheless, the Standing Committee's recommendations merit serious consideration because it is based upon the work of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General that is the institutional watchdog to oversee such inappropriate acts.

It is indeed an irony that such an allegation has come up against the former ACC chief. During the emergency, he assured the people of Bangladesh that he would change the character of the people to ensure that corruption is banished from the country. As he pursued his almost revolutionary zeal against corruption that everyone agreed with him was the cancer killing the nation, he became an instant hero. People thought he was fearless and fair when he incarcerated high profile politicians, irrespective of their standing. Then somewhere down the line, he lost his way and wasted the respect of people by going overboard with the corruption agenda. He made a number of extremely subjective conclusions and acted on them. He concluded all politicians were corrupt and he went after them. He also concluded that all businessmen were also corrupt and went after them as well that had tremendous adverse impact on the economy for which the ordinary people of the country suffered. He had no doubt that the civil bureaucrats were all thoroughly corrupt and acted upon it to scare the daylight out of the civil bureaucracy.

Against all these, he also concluded that the military bureaucracy was free of the corruption that tainted the rest of the society. His subjectivity in understanding corruption encouraged the ACC to incarcerate people with scant respect for an individual's fundamental rights. At the Commission, he allowed senior officials to hold regular press conferences where charges were read out against individuals, sometimes in dramatic fashion. These conferences were also televised and later shown on TV channels for the people to see at home and our expatriates abroad. In allowing this to happen, it is incredible that he did not consider the simple fact of the law that an individual is innocent till a court of law proves his/her guilt. It is true that allegations made by the ACC against individuals had to be given out to the media. It was nevertheless extremely inappropriate that these allegations were given to the media through press conferences in a manner that humiliated people with standing in society and showed the Commission's scant respect for the law. It was the ACC's handling of the case of an Ambassador that was simply astounding. This career diplomat was posted to a station where the ACC boss himself had been an Ambassador. Charges were brought against him he had changed residence that led the government to lose money. The Ambassador was also charged about visits he made in his area of accreditation that the ACC considered illegal. There were other flimsy charges against him. The point the Commission missed was that no Ambassador can change his house without the permission of the Ministry. Again, an Ambassador does not need permission to undertake visits in his area of accreditation. In fact, the ACC wrongly concluded what were, in the worst case scenario, audit violations, to be criminal offences and filed a case against him. When the Ambassador moved to the High Court and won a stay order, the Commission secured a five year jail conviction for him for which the lower court that sentenced him was issued with a contempt of court order. It was just not the flimsy nature of the case against him that is incredible. The ACC, while pursuing his case, stated before the media that Ambassadors are not above the law and that all Ambassadors that the ACC thought were "corrupt", would be treated accordingly. It is true that Ambassadors are not above the law. But then a government that has taken leave of its senses would think of trying an Ambassador in the media for corruption charges while he is posted abroad.

The civilised way of doing this would have been to re-call the Ambassador through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then proceed with the case against him out of media focus. When the ACC held press conference to announce its charges against this Ambassador that was carried in the newspapers and TV, it was not the poor Ambassador's poor name that was tarnished; it was Bangladesh's image that suffered more. As a career diplomat, this Ambassador had a hefty amount with the government as pension while the ACC's charges against him required him to pay back only a small portion of what the government held in his account. Common sense, legality, appropriateness and the rest required this matter to be dealt with discreetly. It was not. The astounding part of this sordid affair was the silence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chief Adviser's Office who should have forced the ACC not to take leave of common sense. They silently watched the ACC humiliate not the Ambassador but the country to foreign governments! Going by what the ACC did to this Ambassador and hundreds of other politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats, the Standing Committee's charge of Taka 16 crores "unauthorised" expenditure against the former ACC boss and his associates is a very big sum and a very serious allegation. Former Ministers were humiliated and incarcerated for a pittance compared to this amount. This matter should be pursued seriously within the limits of the law. It should also act as a reminder to those who when placed at important places do not lose touch with reality and more important than that, do not lose their sense of humility. During the emergency, the ACC had lost its touch with reality and thought arrogance was a virtue and humility a weakness. As a result, the ACC during the emergency lost for the nation, a rare opportunity to do something really worthwhile on the agenda of corruption. The present government has been withdrawing the cases of corruption filed by the ACC during the emergency because majority of the cases were filed without due regard to procedure and where the Commission, given its ability and resources, had filed far too many cases thus leaving too many loop holes for pursuing these cases in the court.

The former ACC Chief lost his focus on corruption despite all his good intentions because he did not want to spare anyone. He wanted to catch both the "big and small fish." That was arrogance for it did not let him realise that with his resources, he could just not do that. He therefore messed up on everything. The present ACC Chief is a sharp contrast to his predecessor, a picture of humility. In the middle of this pendulum swing, corruption remains unscathed. The country needs a mixture of a little bit of arrogance and humility in its ACC Chief. Perhaps the elected leaders of this government could help the country have such a Chief someday.

Published in The Daily Indepedent,

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