Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lesson from Padma Bridge fiasco

The World Bank Padma Bridge fiasco has proved at least one thing and that is that a majority of our politicians on both sides of the AL BNP political divide may not be above corruption.  Our records show that apart from Hussain Muhammad Ershad, none of the politicians have been subjected to serious investigation to determine their suspected dealings.  We were fortunate, up till now, that corruption issues were confined within the country.  Bangladesh being a relatively unimportant country in the global context, our corruption issues did not attract international attention and we were able to deal with international agencies normally and international participation in our development activities remained unaffected.

Corruption is not new to Bangladesh and can be traced a very long way back.  It is all pervasive and people have become so used to it that they become pleasantly surprised when in the rare events things happen without the need for speed money.  There is a school of thought that believes that it may have its origins in the need of the political parties to raise money to fund their activities.  There is no denying that political parties need money for their activities and as there is no transparent mechanism at the disposal of the political parties to raise funds, they are forced to resort to dispensing favours in exchange of money.  This translates into corruption in any language as we are only humans and are not beyond stretching this to line our own pockets.

New dimension
Then there are election expenses to be recovered.  Ever since the businessmen started flocking into politics, it added new dimensions to corruption.  Politics became business and elections became capital investment. Thus whichever party won the elections, all government activities and projects became trading commodities, appointments and transfers included.  Government procurement and development projects were obviously the cream.  Project and procurement cost inflation and commission on them are the main vehicles of corruption.  This is why whichever party wins the election, it must physically occupy the entire country.  Thus the importance of the front organisations whom neither AL nor BNP can do without.

The Padma Bridge incident is the first of its kind where a major international multilateral donor has taken corruption or rather intent to commit corruption into cognizance.  This information is now officially available to the nearly 200 member countries and organisations of the World Bank.  It is therefore very important for us to understand the issues involves as the ramifications of the WB charges may impact negatively on Bangladesh’s development activities both on short and long term basis.  The government must therefore take time to address each and every issue raised by the WB.

One issue that is confusing our officials is that why is the WB so worked up when no corruption has taken place as yet?  How can there be any charge of corruption when in fact no money has been released as yet against this head?  Unfortunately for us the rules of the game has changed considerably and no one now waits for any corruption to be committed and the money actually stolen and salted away,  it is sufficient if these is credible proof that there was an intent to commit corruption.  It is now incumbent upon the government to present credible proof the WB that there in fact was no intention on the part of any of its officials to commit corruption.  Failing this action must be taken to the fullest extent of law against all concerned to demonstrate that there is no place for the corrupt in Bangladesh.

Credible election
This is not a light matter and should not be taken lightly.  The credibility of the government depends on this.   The ability of Bangladesh to raise funds for its development activities at low cost is at stake.  But much more importantly, if the government can not satisfy the global community that there is no corruption among its functionaries, then it will indeed be very difficult for it to convince the world, let alone its citizens, that it can hold free, fair and credible national elections while staying in power.

BY :  M.I. Ali.

Why WB cancelled Padma Bridge funding

When the evidence seems irrefutable and the teeth of the law razor sharp, soft talk does not cut the ice. Amidst a major global scandal involving the nation’s image and wellbeing, some hedonistic ruling party leaders threatened the leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia, of legal actions if the latter did not rescind her comment accusing the family members of the Prime Minister of being involved in the Padma bridge corruption scandal.

This appears too audacious. A statement deserves to be rescinded if it is proven untrue. When the World Bank (WB) claims to have ‘credible evidence’ with respect to corrupt transactions having occurred while choosing companies to construct the Padma bridge, brushing aside the allegation is not the answer. Nor will making threat on the opposition leader reduce the propensity of this exposed humiliation.

Without wasting time, independent probing must take place and the alleged culprits must be identified and punished. The WB has cited, as the basis for censoring the $1.2 billion loan for the project, high level corruption involving a Canadian engineering company, SNC-Lavalin, and senior Bangladesh government officials.

The Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin is one of the world’s largest engineering and construction companies. Already an internal investigation of the company revealed in February that US$35 million has been used to make “improper payments” to agents of Bangladesh government officials to win contracts on the project. 

The saga entails a wayward tentacle spread across continents; money changing hands as kickbacks in Canada for the beneficiaries both in Canada, UK and Bangladesh. And, notwithstanding the blame game being sported by the government – some senior ministers even accusing the US State Department for behind-the-scene machination – the allegation is based on irrefutable evidence. 

Following a tip off from the World Bank in May of 2011, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) executed a number of search warrants and raided SNC-Lavalin offices in last September. After an exhaustive investigation, Canadian Crown Prosecution Services brought corruption charges against two former SNC executives in connection with the Padma Bridge Project. 

Meanwhile, an internal probe resulted in the discovery of an improper payment of US$ 35 million and resulted in the resignation of the company’s CEO and two other senior executives.

In Bangladesh, where the beneficiaries of the alleged kickbacks are ensconced in their corrupt fiefdoms, anxiety-free, no heads rolled as yet despite the WB having provided evidence from the two investigations to the Bangladesh Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Chairman of the Anti -Corruption Commission (ACC), in September 2011 and April 2012.

Even the total stoppage of the loan last week did not shatter the government’s complacency despite the course of law having taken many a spin not to offer the government any further wiggle room to relax and reflex over this staid international scandal. 

Contrast this with what Canada did so far. On February 20, the RCMP arrested two SNC-Lavalin executives and charged them formally on April 11 under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act in relation to the Padma bridge project. The arrestees, Ramesh Shah and Mohammad Ismail, former vice-president and director of international projects respectively, of the company, have made several court appearances since  and an RCMP team has visited Dhaka in late June to appraise the government about the gravity of the crime. 

Prior to that, the RCMP concluded on June 21 that SNC-Lavalin had offered bribes to a number of influential Bangladeshis, some of them government officials, in order to secure the Padma bridge contract.  

The government was told, with no ambiguous term, that the officials allegedly bribed by the SNC-Lavalin include former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain (now minister for Information and Communications Technology), former state minister for foreign affairs, Abul Hasan Chowdhury, former secretary of the bridges division of the communications ministry, Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan, former director of Padma Multipurpose Bridge project, Rafiqul Islam,  three businessmen working on the project, and, Noor-E-Alam Chowdhury, a member of parliament.

There is evidence of physical payment of money from SNC Lavalin-nominated- sources to four individuals residing in Toronto. Three of the Canadian recipients of the kickbacks have reportedly visited Bangladesh recently and each of them was allegedly allotted with a plot of land in Dhaka, a reliable source said.

The alleged accused may be as yet unaware that the law under which the Canadian segment of the case is scheduled to proceeded is pretty harsh. Subsection 3(1) of the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act represents Canada’s legislative contribution to the international effort to criminalize the conduct of trans-national corruptions. Although no particular mental element (mens rea) is expressly set out in the offence due to its intent to be interpreted in accordance with common law principles of criminal culpability, the conduct element (actus reus) of the legislation reads: “ Every person commits an offence who, in order to obtain or retain an advantage in the course of business, directly or indirectly gives, offers or agrees to give or offer a loan, reward, advantage or benefit of any kind to a foreign public official or to any person for the benefit of a foreign public official.”

Even a ‘commitment’ to bribe being a punishable offence under this Act, the irrefutable evidence relating to physical payment of kickbacks – which the World Bank says were collected and collated from various sources – can not be trivialized as something adduced only to undermine the credibility of the Bangladesh government, as the government seems to posit.  The government’s argument that the World Bank did not release any fund for the project – hence the question of offering kickback is irrelevant – does not stand the scrutiny of this or any other law.

The bank further said it had provided ‘credible evidence’ of wrongdoing directly to the Prime Minister and other top officials but hadn’t seen satisfactory action to remedy the situation. As such, another major indication of wrongdoing is evident in the manner the government has handled the allegation. 

The WB says the government has failed to comply with the recommendations set out by the bank, which included, (i) placing all public officials suspected of involvement in the corruption scheme on leave from Government employment until the investigation is completed; (ii) appointment of a special inquiry team within the ACC to handle the investigation, and, (iii) agreeing to provide full and adequate access to all investigative information to a panel appointed by the World Bank comprised of internationally recognized experts so that the panel can give guidance to the lenders on the progress, adequacy, and fairness of the investigation. 

The WB further alleged: “We worked extensively with the Government and the ACC to ensure that all actions requested were fully aligned with Bangladeshi laws and procedures,” (yet) the government did not comply with our recommendations in remedying the situation. 

The World Bank is Bangladesh’s largest development partner. At stake are the fates of another 34 projects being financed by the bank, involving US$5.8 billion. In the last fiscal alone, the bank disbursed approximately $500 million, about one-fourth of Bangladesh’s annual foreign aid inflow.

The Padma bridge loan deal, signed in April last year, was part of a funding package for construction of the $2.9 billion bridge, the longest (6.5 km) in the country. With World Bank‘s negation to fund the project, funding from other committed partners (the Asian Development Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Islamic Development Bank) has  become uncertain.

BY :  M. Shahidul Islam.