Appeared in The Independent, May 10, 2010
Awami League parliamentarian Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir’s views and anger related to the ACC for its role during the Caretaker Government has hit a sympathetic chord in many minds. His attack on the former TIB Chief Dr. Muzzaffar Ahmed for his presence in the book launching ceremony of the former and controversial army chief General Moin U Ahmed has also likewise hit the right chord in a lot of people .
However from an institutional point of view, objectivity and not anger should lead the way. Most of the wrong doings by the ACC during the Caretaker Government was carried out by the General who headed the organization at that time for which the institution should not be blamed. He used the public’s anger with corruption in government and politics to bring charges against people, many with position and standing in society, acting as both the judge and the jury. It was disgusting and illegal the way those days the ACC regularly humiliated individuals in full glare of the media by announcing charges against them to lead people to believe that these individuals were guilty as charged. He trashed the most fundamental foundation of the law that an individual is innocent till proven guilty.
The assumptions upon which he set about tackling corruption were biased and questionable. For instance his assumption that all politicians/businessmen and civil bureaucrats were corrupt and that the military was above reproach were both false assumptions. He also failed to distinguish between greed based corruption and need based corruption. For example, he failed to consider the fact that the average civil servant at middle and low rungs of the ladder tend to be corrupt because they Government does not provide them the salary or privileges necessary to meet the basic needs of maintaining a family while with the military, the government ensures these necessities and much more. If he had thought on this for a moment, he would have been more sympathetic towards the unfortunate civil servants, who unlike their military counterparts, are not assured food rationing at throw away prices, many other privileges and frequent tour of duty as peace keepers to put that extra money in their pockets that some of their civilian counterparts have to seek elsewhere. In the end, it was his biased views and wrong assumptions about corruption that resulted in the Caretaker Government’s failure to govern and implement their vision about the future of the country. In fact, the mess they made of governance that many say has pushed the country back decades was to a large extent the result of the way the ACC Chief went about with the corruption agenda. By scaring the public servants and the businessmen, he managed to create gross inertia in governance and the economy.
The unbelievable thing about the ACC during the Caretaker Government was the indulgence given to it by the latter. It gave the ACC Chief Ministerial rank that encouraged him to consider himself larger than the Government, to boast and brag that he would catch both the big and small fish of corruption and make Bangladesh corruption free. After the initial enthusiasm was over, the public was left with no choice but to conclude that the ACC was implementing a blueprint whose objective was to discredit the politicians thoroughly and break the backbone of the civil bureaucracy to toe without question, the dictates of the men in uniform. Such a plan, for logical reasons, was doomed as soon as it was set into motion. In the end though, many innocent individuals have been harassed and some even tortured, with the ACC unable to prove any case of corruption against the politicians/civil servants/ businessmen because bias and preconceived notions were used against these individuals without adequate evidence, in some cases blatantly manufactured as was done with BNP leader Maudud Ahmed, to try them in a court of law. The military intelligence used the scare caused by the ACC to good purpose by arm twisting civilians to collect large sums of money that have gone to their pockets. One would like to ask where has all thousands of crores of money that General Moin had boasted would be recovered from corrupt politicians/businessmen and spent to build hospitals gone? In fact, the present government has a legal obligation to look through a Commission where the money collected from civilians have gone, together with the violation of human rights committed during that period. The military should also look into this on its own because of the greed of a few; the image of the military has been seriously tarnished during the emergency.
There was one issue concerning an Ambassador that should surely stand as an example of the high-handedness of the ACC Chief. The charges against the Ambassador were routine that should have been quietly handled in consultation with the Foreign Ministry. Instead the ACC chose to deal with the case publicly, accusing the Ambassador of wrong doing in full media glare while he was at his station as the country’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary abroad!. At that time the ACC stated that it would subject all Ambassadors to public scrutiny something that no country would even in a fit of madness think of doing. It is not that Ambassadors are above the law; but in their case corruption charges are dealt out of the glare of the media and only after recalling them from their posts in consultation with the Foreign Ministry to save the country from embarrassment. In case of this Ambassador, some of the accusations brought against him like change of residence, touring, are no business of the ACC and the Foreign Ministry is more than competent to deal with such matters. What was surprising at that time was the Foreign Ministry’s failure to instill some common sense in the ACC to refrain it from embarrassing the country. It acted like a nincompoop.
Nevertheless, corruption has been a serious matter in public life in Bangladesh since independence. With the widening of the gap between pay and price of necessities, need based corruption was inevitable and over the years, has become widespread in government and public life. As aid money started coming to the country and development fund began to be distributed through the government, greed based corruption also became a part of public and political life in which every government in varying degrees have been involved. It is for good reasons that Bangladesh was declared by Transparency International as the most corrupt country in the world, once under the AL and thrice under the BNP. Although it has improved in that dubious standing, it is still languishing not very far from the top. Therefore the need of an independent Anti Corruption Commission has always been and will continue to be a fundamental necessity for the country; a Commission based under the law and subject to it but having the power and authority of moving against anybody indulging in corruption.
One cannot argue against an independent and powerful ACC. The former ACC Chief’s misuse of the institution has nothing to do with the institution itself. It is also not whether the ACC or the Parliament is superior because they are not in any conflict with each other. ACC is subject to the laws of the land, laws that are made by the parliament. But once the laws are made, ACC can be and should be independent of the Parliament and questioned only in a court of law when it violates the laws that guide its work and its staff.
The present Chairman and his colleagues are men of high integrity to lead a powerful ACC subject to the laws laid down for its functioning. The Chairman had unequivocally stressed the need for an independent and powerful ACC, adding that any curtailment of its powers would not be good for the country before the Cabinet decided to make the amendments. That the Cabinet would clip the wings of the ACC was, however, expected. Corruption is still very widespread and for a ruling party to allow an independent and powerful ACC would be like a cat allowing a bell around its own neck.
The AL led Government has set to motion action to quash all the cases against AL politicians filed by the ACC during emergency. It has however recommended a ridiculously low number of cases concerning the BNP politicians. This speaks of a mindset and underlines certain hard facts about corruption in Bangladesh. First, Bangladesh is still far away from reaching that level of political and economic development where a party in power would be in a position to allow an independent and powerful ACC to function because in the present state of affairs that would net its own politicians who as members of the ruling party have all the opportunities for corruption, opportunities they are like to take because of ground realities. Second, thanks to the former ACC Chief, the bureaucracy needs to regain their confidence and freedom from fear to function. Finally, our people and our development partners have to be realistic about their expectations with corruption which will remain as long as we do not pay our public servants enough to ignore the temptations of corruption. Meanwhile, we can only day dream of a powerful and independent ACC free from political influence.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.