The enthusiastic national celebrations of the Mujib Year have the potential of a great historical value in many different ways. One of these is the opportunity created to reflect upon the extent to which anti-corruption can be mainstreamed in statecraft to meaningfully carry forward the mission and expectations of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His articulation of the deleterious effects of corruption for the country, especially for the toiling masses and the need to strategically confront the menace was loud and clear.
In a statement, for instance, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Bangladesh Military Academy on January 11, 1975, Bangabandhu said, "You must remain committed to morality and honesty... Some of us often become inhuman. Our independence has cost us so much blood, but the character of many amongst us has not changed. Bribe-mongers, corrupt, black-marketers, and rent-seekers have made the lives of the distressed people unbearable. For three years, I have only requested, pleaded and threatened, which hasn't worked; for a thief preaching has no value … (But) no more. I become mad to see the people suffer … whereas a bunch of thieves plunder everything meant for the common people … I have promised … these corrupt, bribe-mongers and rent-seekers who launder national resources out of the country must be uprooted ... I have promised; I call upon you … everyone to promise—no more; it has crossed the limit; the corrupt has no place in Bangla soil" (translated from the original in Bangla).
On March 26, 1975—the last Independence Day of his life—Bangabandhu elaborated further: "I had called upon you (in 1971) to transform every house into a fort … the number one priority today is to root out corruption from the Bangla soil. I need your help … I will enforce law, I will not spare anybody … there has to be a people's movement … It has to be a movement to socially boycott the bribe-taker and the corrupt … Who can do it? My student-brothers can do it, the youth can, intellectuals can, the people can … you have to convert each house into a fort … this time against corruption, so that we can alleviate the sufferings of the toiling masses of Bangladesh" (translation from the original in Bangla).
More robust exploration and analysis of Bangabandhu's concerns and mission against corruption may bear invaluable result. In the meantime, a close look at these statements shows how clear and concrete he was about what needs to be done to control corruption for the benefit of the people of this country.
Tragically, Bangabandhu was not allowed to survive long enough to fulfil his vision of a corruption-free Bangladesh. It remained far from achieved. It may not be wrong to argue that his call for integrating a truly comprehensive anti-corruption strategy in conducting the affairs of the state failed to draw the due attention.
It is not known whether the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's repeated pledges of zero tolerance of corruption for the past several months, and her announcement to spare no one including her own party leaders is inspired by her father's stance on the subject. Be that as it may, for the first time in the country's history, a high-profile anti-corruption drive was launched by a political party-led government targeting some leaders and activists within her party, which raised many expectations. It remains to be seen though if and to what extent this would truly bear fruit.
On the other hand, much has been agreeably achieved in terms of legal, policy and institutional reforms under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's regime especially since 2009 to directly and indirectly strengthen the potential of the state to control corruption, though their enforcement and effectiveness remain a separate matter.
Accountable governance and corruption control were placed at the core of successive election manifestos of her party. The Perspective Plan 2010-21 declared that the Government was determined to confront and root out the scourge of corruption. It promised to strengthen transparency and accountability of all government institutions. The Government adopted the Right to Information Act 2009, the Information Disclosure Protection Act 2011, Implementation Plan of the UN Convention against Corruption, National Integrity Strategy 2012, strengthening the Financial Intelligence Unit, introduction of e-procurement, and a series of initiatives to introduce information technology in public service delivery under the well-articulated priority on digital Bangladesh, etc., which have great potential to prevent and control corruption.
On the other hand, Bangladesh is no longer at the very bottom of global ranking as per corruption perceptions index (CPI) as it used to be between 2001 and 2005. Currently ranked 13th from below with a score of 26 out of 100, we still remain far below the global average of 43, considered to indicate moderate success in corruption control. Bangladesh remains the second worst performer among the South Asian countries after only Afghanistan. This contrasts with Bangladesh's exemplary performance in both global and regional comparison in terms of many socio-economic indicators.
On the other hand, in terms of illicit financial transfers, flagged by Bangabandhu as a major concern, Bangladesh has by now been embarrassingly ranked very high—26th globally and second in South Asia after only India in 2019. Credible estimates show at least USD 9 billion has been laundered annually from the country primarily through trade-related misinvoicing. As estimated at least USD 2 billion more are lost annually to six top destination countries for Bangladeshi expatriate workers in the form of illegal payment for work permits. By another estimate, at least USD 3.5 billion is annually laundered by illegally employed foreign nationals.
Control of money laundering and repatriation of stolen assets have received very little attention of the relevant regulatory authorities. We lag behind in terms of taking advantage of global standards to enable automatic exchange of banking and financial information internationally, while more than a hundred countries including some of our regional neighbours have already done so.
People's sufferings from bribery and other forms of corrupt practices in key sectors of service delivery remains very high, as 66.5 percent of the respondents were victims of such harassment according to the national household survey 2017 conducted by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) designed to assess people's experiences. It further showed that 89 percent of those who paid bribes were forced to do so because without this the services would not be accessible. All these indicate the opportunity cost we are incurring. It is widely believed that if corruption could be moderately controlled our annual GDP growth could be higher by 3-4 percent.
Concern over corruption at both grand and petty levels have grown further, where as in the fallout of an unprecedented national election, the political space has been converted into a monopolised territory of the ruling authority. With institutions and processes of checks and balances nearly dysfunctional, it is more likely that politically linked position is to be taken as a mandate to enhance personal wealth and property.
Mixing up what is public with what is private, much of it related to the linkage of politics with business, is a normal practice. The idea of transparently and accountably managing conflict of interest is nearly absent among power holders, whether elected or appointed. No legal and operational standards exist to manage conflict of interest so that powerholders' private interest is often promoted by decisions or actions from official position.
This has evolved as part of a qualitative transformation that has taken place over the years in our political space. From below 18 percent in the first post-independence parliament, the ratio of MPs having business as primary occupation has crossed 60 percent in the current parliament, without counting indirect beneficial ownerships of profit-making entities. The transformation is to a great extent attributed to opportunities of profit-making by using positions of politically linked power rather than that of serving public interest.
The institutional structure of the national integrity system including the legislative, executive, law enforcement, justice and rule of law, administration as well as almost every commission created to ensure accountability often serve partisan rather than public interest. Abuse of power, especially at the high level is hardly brought to justice. On the other hand, a denial syndrome prevails amongst a section of the powerful who not only reacts sharply, but also finds evil designs and conspiracy against the State in disclosure and voice against corruption.
Corruption has continued to make access of the poor and disadvantaged to the whole range of basic services and entitlements like education, health, and nutrition and safety-net conditional upon their capacity to make unauthorised payments. For public sector employment seekers bribery and/or partisan political linkage have become more important credentials than merit, experience and expertise. Political affiliation and/or capacity to make unauthorised payments are also the key determinant for securing permits or licenses for entities in nearly every sector. A vicious collusion of politics with business, administration and law enforcement guarantees impunity in the face of blatant violation of laws, policies and regulations.
Statecraft has been ominously exposed to kleptocratic capture by those who benefit from corruption and abuse of power neutralising those who would prefer to control it. The state capture is symbolised in the banking sector bedeviled by loan default through collusion, protection and promotion by those entrusted to prevent it. The burden is ruthlessly shifted to the common people who have to pay for it all in one way or the other.
Even in this context, as difficult as it may seem, effective corruption control is nevertheless possible. Referring back to Bangabandhu, four key mutually dependent components of an effective strategy to mainstream anti-corruption in statecraft are clearly discernible in the two statements quoted above—political will, bringing the corrupt to justice, building effective institutions and people's resistance.
The highest-level political commitment is distinct in the Father of the Nation's highly emotional narrative about the impact of corruption on the economy in general and the common people in particular, especially the poor. He pledges to enforce the laws. He stresses the importance of punishing the corrupt without fear or favour, which presupposes rule of law, justice and effective institutions. His emphasis on challenging impunity warrants equality of all in the eyes of law so that no one is spared. Equally importantly, to realise his vision of transforming every household into a fort against the menace of corruption, the life-long protagonist of people's power calls for a social movement in the same spirit as he had inspired and led the glorious independence movement.
A befitting tribute to the Bangabandhu in the Mujib Year would, therefore, be a national strategy to mainstream anti-corruption in the statecraft.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman is Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh.