Public interest sacrificed to save Syed Abul Hossain over Padma Bridge scandal

Commentary: ‘Public interest sacrificed to protect one man’

Mahfuz Anam, Editor & Publisher, The Daily Star

July 5, 2012

After sifting through the government’s letters to the World Bank (WB) concerning the Padma Bridge, made public the other day, we cannot but conclude that it was all done to save one man. The correspondence shows that all these negotiations, trips by our officials to the WB headquarters in Washington DC and meetings in Dhaka had helped us to cross all hurdles, but ultimately the deal fell through because the government would not agree to let one minister go “on leave”.

Below we give an explanation as to how we reach such a conclusion.

At the end of the long and tortuous negotiation process, it was the last three conditions of the WB upon which final agreement or non-agreement depended. These conditions, as mentioned in the WB’s press statement of June 29, 2012, were “(1) place all public officials suspected of involvement in the corruption scheme on leave from Government employment until the investigation is completed; (ii) appoint a special inquiry team within the ACC to handle the investigation, and (iii) agree to provide full and adequate access to all investigative information to a panel appointed by the World Bank comprised of internationally recognised experts so that the panel can give guidance to the lenders on the progress, adequacy, and fairness of the investigation.”

Let us examine the finance minister’s statement in parliament on Monday on these “conditions”. About the second, he termed it “redundant” (in paragraph 16 of the official English text). About the third, he claimed it was “in contradiction with the existing laws of the ACC ….” But later he said in the same paragraph that given the practice that prior approval of development partners is obtained in all matters of foreign aided projects “the ACC, giving due regard to this reality, worked out a mechanism in consultation with the expert group of the World bank. They agreed to send a letter to the WB detailing the manner in which they would circulate information, consider/act on advice and ensure the involvement of the development partners.”

It is obvious from the above text that both parties, our government and the WB, were able to thrash out an agreement on the second and the third conditions. That leaves us with the first, in which the WB demands that suspected “public officials” be sent on leave till the investigation is over. This is where, as we understand, the negotiations broke down.

A letter written by senior secretary Iqbal Mahmood is very revealing on this score.

The letter addressed to Isabel Guerrero, WB vice president for South Asia, dated June 26, 2012, said, and we quote, “The government of Bangladesh is fully committed to taking actions against all officials and ministers on the recommendation of the BACC (Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission). In deference to your request for immediate action against the ‘officials’ for the duration of inquiry, the Government of Bangladesh agreed to take immediate actions against the ‘officials’ named in your referral.

“However, there appears to have been a genuine miscommunication. Your letter of June 05, 2012 referred clearly to ‘officials’ and not ‘ministers’. Our reading of the letter was confirmed by the advice we got from our colleagues in Washington DC and therefore agreed to the actions only against the ‘officials’. The actions against the ‘ministers’ would essentially await preliminary findings of the BACC,” unquote.

From the above we get the impression that all the while our government thought the WB was only talking about some government officials and not any minister, and that the government was taken aback now that the WB was also referring to a minister.

Is this “miscommunication” argument genuine? It is interesting to note that the WB press statement dated June 30 (we have not been given copies of the WB letters to the government) uses the term “public officials”, whereas the government letters to the WB uses “officials”, which was also the term used by the finance minister in his speech to parliament.

Did the WB use the term “public officials” in its letters? Only copies of their letters can prove it, which we do not possess at the moment. But if they did, then why did our government keep on using the term “officials” and not “public officials”? This one word now becomes important to understand if there were any genuine grounds for the “miscommunication”.

The government’s position becomes quite untenable if we consider another letter by the same correspondent dated June 28. In it he says and we quote, “In early October, the Vice President South Asia (VPSA) and Vice President INT visited Dhaka and provided a verbal report (but no evidence) of “pay to play” in the consultancy prequalification. The VPSA suggested in a private conversation with the Honorable Finance Minister, that if the two officers and the ministers in charge were moved out, the Bank would resume the project,” unquote. (Emphasis ours).

At this stage, only three individuals stood between our dream of a bridge over the Padma and the national humiliation that we are now suffering under. Out of these three, the government later agrees about the two. And then we are stuck with the third as we see below.

In his last letter, dated June 29, Iqbal Mahmood writes, among other things, and we quote, “One officer mentioned in your referral will proceed on leave, while the other one has already been retired from Government Service. Action against the remaining person will take more time as explained in the previous letter,” unquote. (Emphasis ours)

It is amply clear from the above letters by the government that it had agreed to all the latest three conditions of the WB except removing one minister. The argument that to remove the minister was to admit guilt is facile at best. There are numerous cases where a person accused of wrongdoing is temporarily removed to facilitate investigation, and reinstated with honour if exonerated. Wasn’t that what the WB was asking for? Recently, the German president, when accused of wrongdoing immediately resigned, saying he was doing it for the sake of proper investigation. Nobody took it for admission of guilt.

Was it worth jeopardising the Padma bridge project that the government itself describes as one “on which hangs the prosperity and wellbeing of 60 million people of Bangladesh?” How could an elected government choose to protect one individual against the interest of 60 million people? Can a people’s government, in its wildest of errors, make such a choice? But ours did — consciously, deliberately and over a long period.

The finance minister said that the WB statement has “humiliated the whole country.” Yes, it did, and we all feel humiliated and outraged. And we also feel that the government chose to insult us only to protect a minister.

Throughout our piece and the accompanying reports, we have chosen to keep the minister unnamed. We do so to underscore the point that we hold the government far more guilty for protecting him against the interest of the whole nation than we hold the minister guilty for bringing us all to such disrepute.

I have wondered about the minister in question. When he saw how a major national project was being jeopardised because of him, how the very government of which he was a part was moving towards a head-on clash with the WB, how his country would face international stigma of corruption and how the 60 million people would feel let down, why didn’t he have the simple decency to remove himself from the scene by resigning? Would it have meant admission of guilt? Isn’t the public holding him guilty now? If he had left with an appeal to the PM, whom he claims to respect, saying “I am resigning to spare the government any embarrassment, and in the greater interest of the country and the people and I demand an independent inquiry in my absence to prove my innocence”, his stature would have been heightened tenfold than it is now. Recently, he called a few media outlets and wrote to a few saying how honest, pious and innocent he was. All his piety did not give him the moral courage to spare his country, his party and especially his Prime Minister this shameful predicament.