The office of the ombudsman could stop abuse of power by public officials
With the 11th General Election slated for December 30 this year, there is the prevalence of a festive atmosphere amongst citizens regarding this democratic exercise, in what is expected to be the first nationwide civic engagement since the Awami League achieved a landslide in the 2008 polls.
Above and beyond issues ranging from economic development to social enhancement, political stakeholders are increasingly calling for addressing one broad phenomenon: Accountability.
Whether it is ensuring the rule of law, or protecting constitutional rights of citizens, political administration in Bangladesh has refrained from taking a full-thronged stance on instilling accountability in the public sector, and the lack of the “office of the ombudsman” showcases exactly that.
The passage of the Sarkari Chakori Ain Bill 2018 in October confirmed that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) will now require permission, by law, of the authorities concerned, before arresting any public servant, prior to a court framing charges. In retrospect, this is highly incompatible with the idea of accountability within public institutions -- and has made the ACC less independent, has diminished its autonomy, and reduced its powers.
The passage of laws such as this, in addition to the politicization of the public services since independence, begs the question as to what reforms need to take place to ensure that public servants remain accountable to independent institutions, and by definition, to the people of Bangladesh.
Whilst Bangladesh has not seen the appointment of an ombudsman in its history, the individual is hypothetically, by definition, a state official appointed by the president, to provide a check on government activity in the interest of the citizens of the country, and with the autonomous right to investigate improper actions by public servants against any citizen.
In simpler terms, an ombudsman in democratic societies acts as a non-partisan watchdog -- an institution which ensures that the state administration is responsive and accountable to the people.
The Ombudsman Act 1980 posits that the president may appoint an ombudsman -- with the institutional structure guaranteeing the ombudsman the authority to investigate actions taken by government officials, including members of different ministries. Any citizen is allowed to make a legitimate complaint against public servants who misuse their authority -- with the ombudsman having the legal right to examine matters in an independent manner.
Whilst the ombudsman does not have the constitutional authority to pass judgments about civil servants, their investigative authority grants, in theory, the ability of this institution to be a neutral body, which has the capacity to curtail the abuse of power by public servants.
In essence, if the office of the ombudsman existed in Bangladesh, it may have enhanced accountability by guaranteeing that public servants remain compliant with their oaths and duties.
Nevertheless, over the course of the history of Bangladesh, political parties have refrained from setting up this office. The legal provisions allow parliament the discretion to recommend an impartial figure, but sadly, this position has never been prioritized by parliamentarians in our country. This brings us to a larger question: Do our political parties have a willingness to be accountable?
In May 2017, BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia announced her party’s much-coveted Vision 2030 -- wherein the former prime minister promised that if elected to power, her party would create the position of the ombudsman.
With the jailed Begum Zia supposedly giving her blessings to the BNP, currently operating under the aegis of the Jatiyo Oikya Front, to participate in the polls, it will be interesting to see how this platform approaches the issue of accountability in public institutions in the future.
Leaders of the Front have called for the separation of power in-between high offices of the state, enhancing accountability in public institutions, and respect for fundamental rights, to be crucial issues for people to consider in the upcoming elections. Particular emphasis must be given to the call by the senior leader of the front, Dr Kamal Hossain, who has demanded that the people take back ownership of their country -- and perhaps the biggest way the Front can reach out to the people, is by promising, and instituting if elected to power, the formation of independent bodies such as the office of the ombudsman.
On the other end, the AL takes pride in the 1972 Constitution -- and they do so rightly. Article 21 (2) of the Constitution states that “every person in the service of the Republic has a duty to strive at all times to serve the people.” It is with this philosophy that one urges the AL to also consider appointing an ombudsman if it receives the public mandate in the upcoming general elections.
Ensuring accountability within public institutions is not a partisan call. And yes, an ombudsman could mean that the politics of nepotism, the prevalence of politically-motivated appointments, and the influence of the government on public institutions -- all aspects which have marred the legacies of our political parties, would be threatened.
But as Bangladesh moves onto middle-income status, it is issues such as this, which will dictate whether our political parties are treated as drivers of our socio-economic progress, or be barriers towards this country being a sustainable democracy.
The upcoming election is crucial for issues beyond the economic development of Bangladesh -- it is a test of where we as citizens are as owners of this country, and where political parties stand in their quest to represent the 160 million population.
The youth of this country, in particular, are fed up with the idea that political leanings, and not merit, will dictate what they achieve in society. And if accountability is not brought within the public service by the very representatives that we will elect, then our elusive right to vote will mean nothing and result in unfulfilled dreams.
If the electoral aspects of the constitution are to be treated with the sanctity that it deserves, then all aspects, including the need for accountability, the establishment of the rule of law, and the protection of fundamental rights, must also be treated with the same level of sanctity and reverence.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a recent graduate of arts, economics, and international relations from the University of Toronto.