Exclusive interview: Iftekharuzzaman

‘No other country has so much corruption in tackling coronavirus’

Iftekharuzzaman
IftekharuzzamanFile photo
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Iftekharuzzaman is the executive director of the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International (TIB). In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, he spoke about the widespread corruption in Bangladesh, the nature of corruption, the government and the state’s role, the competence and commitment of the Anti-Corruption Commission, political corruption and more.

There are two types of corruption, observed Iftekharuzzaman. The first is direct corruption like taking bribes. The second is corruption in collusion with others where all parties benefit.

The Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) chief was responding to a question concerning the recent sensational news about two brothers in Faridpur who had managed to grab around 2,500 bighas of land in seven years had bank transactions of over Tk 30 billion (Tk 3000 crore). Yet the land was registered and the bank transactions were ostensibly within legal bounds. How had they continued in their corruption for long, only recently being arrested?

Iftekharuzzaman pointed out that others had aided and abetted the two brothers in illegally amassing their wealth, grabbing land and registering it in their own names. The local administration, local political leaders, influential persons, the registration authorities, members of the law enforcement, all had benefitted from these dealings. So it was natural that these misdemeanours would be kept under covers. The two brothers' criminal activities were not isolated incidents. This was just a reflection of the corruption being carried out jointly by several quarters.

There is more effort to prevent news of corruption leaking out rather than taking action against corruption
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Prothom Alo pointed out that the incidents may not be isolated, but incidents that are caught out and revealed are few and far between. There were the casino raids which exposed how the casinos had been illegally operating in the city under the very nose of the law enforcement.

The TIB executive director said that only a few isolated incidents were exposed because those involved in such corruption had connection with influential quarters. So even persons were aware of what was going on, they were too scared to reveal it.

He said under our present system, there is more effort to prevent news of corruption leaking out rather than taking action against corruption. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is not carrying out its responsibility against corruption. They take too many factors into consideration.

Further examples of corruption that were revealed in the media, were placed before the TIB chief: pillow purchase at Rooppur, procurements by the Department of Livestock Services, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir purchasing a hospital by skimming off bank loans taken by others, PK Halder making off with Tk 35 billion (Tk 3500 crore ) and so on.

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He termed such corruption that appeared in the media as just “the tip of the iceberg.” He said a rule of fear had been establishment and the Digital Security Act hung above everyone’s heads, whether it was the media or individual persons. Various means were used to shrink the media’s scope of independence. Under such circumstances, it was difficult for the media to play an effective role against corruption. As for the news that is published, the question remains as to how far any action is actually taken against these instances of corruption. There are very few instances of big and influential corrupt persons actually being punished.

The next instance of corruption brought to the attention of Iftekharuzzaman was the BASIC Bank Tk 45 billion (Tk 4500 crore) scam, which was now under investigation. While the bank’s chairman at the time, Abdul Hye Bachchu, was taken to be the main person responsible for the scam, his name is nowhere in the ACC case. Why?

“The BASIC Bank incident remains a mysterious puzzle to many,” Iftekharuzzaman said. “Abdul Hye Bachchu and the allegations against him have been discussed in parliament. Ministers have even spoken about his irregularities. But he remains untouchable. But to me it is very clear. So much money was looted from BASIC Bank that it is not at all difficult to use money to control the investigations and inquiries. There are allegations of corruption against many ACC officials. The ACC leadership lacks courage. They have drawn their own boundaries and do not step beyond that. They are always scared of the names of some influential persons popping up in their investigations.”

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Another characteristic of Bangladesh’s corruption is its contradictions, said Iftekharuzzaman. From the top government and political leadership there are declarations of zero-tolerance against corruption, but that is not manifest on the ground.

ACC probably saw itself as a government institution and so did not have the courage to do anything that may displease the government or any powerful persons. Also, the incompetence, misdemeanours and corruption of a section of ACC officials and employees are no secret

What has TIB’s contribution been, working so long in Bangladesh, but with no decrease in corruption?

“TIB does not have the responsibility or jurisdiction to curb corruption. That is the responsibility or jurisdiction of the government, the law enforcement agencies, the judicial process and especially the Anti-Corruption Commission. TIB’s responsibility or agenda is to create a demand and bolster this, so that these institutions can perform their duties properly and effectively. We have played this role actively and with success,” replied the TIB chief.

“Our multidimensional research, campaigns and advocacy have increased people’s demand against corruption, political parties make anti-corruption declarations in their manifestoes and there have been many legal and policy reforms too. ACC was created from TIB’s demands and technical support. There is much more. The main problem lies in the application of all this.”

When asked about the competence, capabilities and commitment of ACC at present, Iftekharuzzaman replied that in 2017 and then in 2019 TIB has carried out research that showed ACC that the commission has the potential to effectively control corruption in Bangladesh, both legally and institutionally, though reforms would be required in certain cases. But there is hardly a single instance where ACC could rise above personal identity and position to carry out its responsibilities.

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He said that ACC probably saw itself as a government institution and so did not have the courage to do anything that may displease the government or any powerful persons. Also, the incompetence, misdemeanours and corruption of a section of ACC officials and employees are no secret.

Why does TIB not cover private sector corruption as this is on the rise?

We work relatively less in the private sector, admitted Iftekharuzzaman, but we do not ignore it completely. We have already included education, health, readymade garment, local and foreign employment sectors in our agenda and more is to come.

Bangabandhu, at various times and in various ways, had called for this social movement against corruption. In his speech delivered on Independence Day in 1975, he had said that just as forts were built up in every home in 1971, forts against corruption would also have to be built up in every home.

He said, “Two facets of the unholy trinity of big fish in government sector corruption are the private sector. One is the contractors in government purchase and the other is businesspersons occupying state machinery in the guise of politicians. Around 62 per cent of the members of parliament are businesspersons. So any work on corruption must be considered work on corruption in the business sector. That is why the private sector also reacts strongly against TIB.”

Responding to a query about corruption in projects funded by the World Bank, IMF and other development partners, the TIB executive director said the development partners made strong statements against corruption. But their strong words are not reflected in practice. In fact, he said, in many cases corruption continues due to their lack of supervision, negligence and even direct and indirect involvement. They often play the role of silent spectators.

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“According to one of our recent studies,” continued Iftekharuzzaman, “at least one large project aimed at tackling the coronavirus crisis, being implemented with World Bank funds, has been rife with corruption. Purchases and work orders have been issued with unrealistically exorbitant prices and without fair competition. We have no evidence of the World Bank making an effort to prevent that. And yet they moved away from the country’s biggest project of constructing the Padma bridge just on grounds of ‘conspiracies of corruption’, finally being castigated themselves. There is no end to contradictions in institutions like the World Bank.”

The next questioned pertained to corruption among the politicians, with instances of widespread irregularities in recent elections. Then there was Bangladesh member of parliament Kazi Shahid Islam’s arrest in Kuwait on charges of human trafficking.

The TIB chief said that election irregularities were the main catalyst and medium for institutionalising corruption in politics. It is exceptional, he said, to see how the state machinery, particularly the election commission, abused its power, and how the election commission willingly allowed its authority to be misused.

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How hopeful are you about corruption being curbed in Bangladesh?

“Despite many deficiencies and adversities, I am hopeful,” said Iftekharuzzaman. “If I wasn’t hopeful, we couldn’t do such work like this in Bangladesh. One among many major reasons of hope is the young generation. They are emerging as the driving force of social movements against corruption. Bangabandhu, at various times and in various ways, had called for this social movement against corruption. In his speech delivered on Independence Day in 1975, he had said that just as forts were built up in every home in 1971, forts against corruption would also have to be built up in every home. I want to pay my respects to him on this Mujib centenary with hope for an anti-corruption social movement.”

He concluded that if the government wants to truly and wholly honour Bangabandhu on the Mujib centenary, this is time to include the pledge against corruption in the mainstream functioning of the state.

*This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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