Why we must never stop the fight against corruption
Veteran Malaysian leader Mahatir Mohammed’s election victory over incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak last week was described by many observers as a victory in the fight against corruption. Razak, who was once a protege of Mahatir, is accused of blocking the 1MDB investigation (which would have looked into the billions embezzled from the government fund overseen by Razak). Viewing the prevailing situation with concern, the old leader came out of a long retirement to restore government integrity and the rule of law. Mahatir had earlier ruled Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 and his stint in government is synonymous with rapid and sustained growth, which catapulted Malaysia to the class of an Asian Tiger. Although accused of overlooking human rights violations at times, nobody could ever raise a finger at his honesty.
That power corrupts is an old dictum. Though corruption is a global phenomenon, it is more pronounced in developing countries. This could be due to the low salaries of government functionaries or a lack of accountability. Some observers are of the view that a certain degree of corruption is inevitable. They also opine that, in some cases, corruption facilitates development. Some nations are more tolerant of corruption than others and impose less harsh punishments. But corruption may not just be in the form of bribes — a more accepted definition of corruption is the misuse of power. Thus, appointing one’s friends or relatives to jobs, disregarding merit, is also corruption.
In Pakistan in the 1990s, Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were sacked four times by the heads of state and corruption was invariably a charge. They, however, pleaded that their removal was arbitrary. The heads of state, at that time, enjoyed powers that allowed them to remove prime ministers under article 58-2 (b) of the constitution, which has since been withdrawn. However, in the 2013 general elections, the people voted against the Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan Peoples Party, which was widely perceived to be corrupt. The economic development rate had been low and the government could not deliver on its promises because of ineptitude and corruption. Some political leaders, ministers and government officials had become very rich in just a few years.
Sharif, who became the head of government for a third time after his election victory in 2013, was initially thought to be less tainted than his predecessors. But Imran Khan, the opposition leader, would have us believe that Zardari and Sharif were chips off the same block. In 2014, Khan started his daily public meetings in Islamabad to protest against the alleged rigging of four constituencies in the national elections. While addressing these meetings, Khan would invariably highlight the fact that Sharif’s sons owned some of the choicest properties in London, which he alleged had been purchased through kickbacks received in the early 1990s. Khan’s protest rallies fizzled out after a judicial commission said no organized rigging was discernible in the 2013 elections.
And then came the Panama Papers leaks in 2015. They revealed that Sharif’s sons owned some offshore companies and that properties in London had been purchased through those firms. Owning an offshore company was no crime under Pakistani law, but this revelation led to the prime minister and his children making contradictory statements. The case was taken up by the Supreme Court and Sharif was ousted as PM because he had not fully disclosed the required information to the Election Commission. Since July last year, Sharif and his close family have been shuttling between various courts and the National Accountability Bureau.
Corruption nullifies efforts for economic development and exacerbates disparities in society
Since the arrival of its new chairman last year, the NAB has been proactive in Pakistan. It recovered 50 billion rupees of ill-gotten money in 2017.
Corruption is, however, not Pakistan-specific and has emerged as a global issue. India, Mexico and Thailand have witnessed major anti-corruption rallies. Government leaders in South Korea, Guatemala and Brazil have been put in the dock on corruption charges.
Pakistan and China have signed a Memorandum of Understanding aiming to eradicate corruption. This step was necessary to ensure transparency in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects, which are a $50 billion-plus investment. That corruption can impede foreign investment and increase the cost of doing business is universally acknowledged. Various international forums, including the UN, have adopted resolutions and taken other measures to curb corruption.
It may, however, be quite impossible to root out corruption completely. But that underlines the need for consistent efforts to eradicate it at national and global levels. Corruption nullifies efforts for economic development and exacerbates disparities in society. If the rich and powerful can ensure lucrative jobs for their kith and kin regardless of merit or win elections with their economic muscle, this promotes a feeling of frustration among ordinary citizens. However, due process and caution are necessary when tackling corruption cases. If they are over-zealous, the anti-graft institutions could end up damaging their own credibility and effectiveness.
• Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst. Twitter: @hafiz_javed