Costs of high-level corruption: Further down the kleptocratic route

Published: 29 June 2024

Mahatma Gandhi's quote that there is enough in this world to meet everyone's need but not for anyone's greed is aptly illustrated by the ongoing media and other credible exposures of evidence of corruption in Bangladesh. Confirming that sky is the limit, these revelations of high-level abuse of power, known as grand corruption, though nothing new except the procession of disclosures, have shocked and awed the nation.

Several key institutions, apparently sanctuaries of high-level corruption and related criminalities, have been exposed to risks of kleptocratic capture. These include the army, police, Rab, National Board of Revenue (NBR) and, not the least, the country's major political parties. A former army chief and his immediate family have been slapped with sanctions for "significant corruption," including assistance in evasion of accountability for criminal activity, facilitating improper awarding of military contracts, and acceptance of bribes. His actions have been assessed to have "contributed to undermining Bangladesh's democratic institutions and the public faith in public institutions and processes."

Having retired after gaining the dubious distinction of topping the list of kingpins behind sanctions against Rab for gross human rights violations, the former police chief has managed to flee the country with questionable ease, arguably as part of a suspected sinister deal. This at a time when he has been publicised to be under the Anti-Corruption Commission's (ACC) radar for amassing unbelievable amounts of income and wealth acquired across the country by ruthlessly violating entrusted institutional power coupled with political blessing, fraud and criminal extortion. In so doing, he applied the skills acquired over the years as a crime control professional and transformed himself from his mandated position of protector of law to a role model of lawbreaking. As widely expected, he was not the only instance of such brazenly normalised corruption in the police force as many other similar exposures followed, including that of the former Dhaka Metropolitan Police commissioner.

A member of NBR and president of its Customs, Excise and VAT Appellate Tribunal came to the spotlight, catalysed by his son's goat scandal and subsequent exposure of grotesque details of his and his family's accumulation of income and properties. He did so abusing his oversight role of revenue generation for the state, which he converted into that of the tax evasion guru as an illegitimate source of income. It is again obvious that he is not the sole X percent person in the NBR, nor is it possible that he operated in isolation without collusion and protection of many others.

No less troubling is the case of the brutal killing of an MP allegedly as an example of infighting of political power abusers over the share of booties of gold smuggling and the related illicit business facilitated and protected over the years by those mandated to control such criminalisation of politics. Again, this is no isolated case of political corruption, as symbolised by the case of an MP serving prison term in Kuwait for transnational crimes, including money laundering and human trafficking. Nor is criminalisation of politics a monopoly of the current ruling party, as its arch-rival left behind a legacy of no less grand corruption, arms smuggling and ruthless political criminalisation, including several attempts at the life of the top leader of their rival political party, causing multiple deaths.

As scandalous as these examples are, it is no surprise at all because successive regimes have driven the state to this level through their desperate bids to ensure partisan capture of the institutions to facilitate, promote and protect power abuse and thereby grant impunity to high-level perpetrators.

Implications of such grand corruption are destabilising for the state. Their money value can be concretely measured only by the government and relevant agencies, only if done with integrity, free from conflict of interest. For some general idea, one may consider the value of compromise of the least cost, best quality principle in procurements and other public expenditures in which the officials were involved and received kickbacks or shares; value of concealed and laundered income and wealth; undervalued price of acquired properties and taxes evaded, etc.

On the other hand, a close look at the files of clients of NBR officials will take independent investigators to a gold mine of data to explain why Bangladesh's tax-GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the world; why the target of increased pressures for higher revenue collection are the common people through indirect taxes; and why honest taxpayers are most often treated as enemies of unscrupulous NBR officials while tax evaders as close allies. Tax officials' bribery and kickback are more directly damaging for the state than any other sector. Irrespective of the amount a tax official collects to facilitate illicit tax evasion, the evaded tax amount is a direct loss of revenue. Add to this, the unabated problem of money laundering, the lion's share of which takes place through trade-based illicit transfers allegedly with the knowledge, facilitation and collusion of the revenue authority.

Collusive abuse of power in all these cases is also among the reasons why nothing has happened to the perpetrators. The former NBR member, for instance, conveniently outsmarted several initiatives for departmental procedure in response to allegations over the years, nor could the ACC proceed with concrete action. It's also no secret that he has been enjoying the patronage and protection of the business-politics-bureaucracy power structure, which also helped invincibility of the overall illegal tax evasion system.

Non-monetary costs of corruption are no less ominous for the state, the worst victim of which are the institutions in general and particularly those at the centre of recent focus. None of them has yet shown the courage to come up with any action or concrete pledge against those within their own ranks, who have pushed the respective institutions to severe reputational damage. None of them seem to care that it is time to face the mirror and undertake strategies to ensure accountability and justice in the short term, and overhaul themselves in the medium and long terms, which is indispensable to restore their credibility and uphold the spirit and values of Bangladesh's independence.

What has happened instead has only added to the already existing atmosphere of intimidation to the media, as demonstrated by the infamous statement by the BPSA, which has been viewed as nothing but an effort to grossly curtail media freedom guaranteed by the constitution. Aggrieved by the disclosures and with an apparent sense of insecurity as birds of the same feather, the association adopted the "shoot the messenger" tactic and blamed media reports as motivated, while in fact the statement itself was a motivated act to suppress disclosure of corruption information. It is also no coincidence that the home ministry reached out quickly to the information ministry with a note that practically endorsed the BPSA position.

Coming as all these do simultaneously with the creation (once again) of the provision in the national budget for an unconstitutional, discriminatory and corruption-friendly reward system for black money, the key message given to the people is that corruption enjoys systemic guarantee of impunity. Little do the power holders seem to care that by converting the commitment of zero tolerance against corruption in election manifestos and other public pronouncements into useless rhetoric, floodgates are being opened to further kleptocratic disorder of the state.

Dr Iftekharuzzaman is executive director at Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).

The Daily Star
June 29, 2024