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OP-ED: Are we in Kleptopia?

  • Published at 10:16 pm September 14th, 2020
web-Stacks of Bangladeshi taka
Mehedi Hasan/ Dhaka Tribune

Corruption continues to threaten the trust and stability of our institutions

The official definition of Kleptopia is a place or den of thieves, where crooks and robbers rule. It is run by kleptocracy, which is the predominant way of governance in that domain, where rule of law does not exist. 

People are left to their own devices to protect themselves from thieves but are helpless when they fall victim to theft and robbery. It is ironic however, that in Kleptopia, the thieves themselves do not run the government, they live in the shadows and operate under the façade of trade, industry, or even educational institutions. 

They operate with the connivance of political heavyweights without burdening themselves with the task of government. This is a net benefit for both groups, because the leaders can always denounce the shady operations and the operators without really making any effort to restrain them. 

While the other group, the real thieves and robbers, can easily dodge the law because the leaders are never going to unleash law on them. Thus, a kleptocracy is different from other forms of anti-people rule such as plutocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, and autocracy which, by the way, is becoming more and more of an emerging form of government in many countries.

The epidemic of corruption

Why are we discussing Kleptopia or kleptocracy? It is because of the epidemic of corruption that has been happening in Bangladesh for the last few decades. Earlier, we used to get a labelling of corruption from Transparency International in the yearbook of corrupt countries of the world. 

But then, while we acknowledged corruption as a necessary cost of doing business, and also recognized some governmental agencies where there was systemic corruption, we did little to prevent outright theft and grand larceny of financial institutions, stealing from the government, health and educational institutions, and lastly, common citizens. 

In Kleptopia, the operating principle is kleptocracy -- everybody steals but no one gets caught because the law does not apply to the people who operate in this system. Before, when we spoke of corruption, we used to think of bribing government officials and public servants, or payoffs to obtain permits, licenses, government contracts, etc. 

In this round, we hardly captured a thieving businessman, or a political worker. In Kleptopia, everything works in a circle. Each person in this circle is an enabler of sorts to keep the system alive. 

The thieving businessman or public official operates with a political worker who provides necessary access to authority, who in turn shields the individual or group from the law. In this process, many palms are greased, a ton of money is made, and laundered to safe destinations.

The thieves are uniting

In a recently published book titled Kleptopia the author Tom Burgis, a reputed investigative journalist, narrates how the dirty money made this way is flooding the global economy, emboldening dictators, and poisoning democracies. 

From the Kremlin to Beijing, Harare to Riyadh, Paris to the White House, the trail shows something even more sinister: The thieves are uniting. And the human cost will be great. 

Bangladesh is not captured in the sweep of the narrative of Burgis’s book, but Bangladesh fits the way the book describes how dirty money is generated by corruption, deception, stealing, and outright looting. 

These dastardly acts are perpetrated by individuals or syndicated mafia-like groups in open defiance of the law, either because they have become too powerful, or because they exercise tremendous control over the government through payoffs or political connections. 

We know corruption or bribery of officials, starting from a constable to higher officials, is not new. The instances of corruption in government and their impact on government services were recorded in a seminal report titled “Government that Works” jointly prepared by the government and the World Bank some 20 plus years ago. 

The report had also identified ways to improve services and prevent corruption. But this report had probably not foreseen how larceny and grand theft would overtake bribery and palm-greasing, and would give rise to a new order of kleptocracy where a simple sports club messenger would be able to amass a fortune by operating casinos under the very nose of law enforcement officials, only because he knew the right people in politics and worked with them. 

The report did not foresee how a bank official would steal crores of takas from the very bank he was managing, by helping dozens of businesses default on their loans and launder the money abroad. 

The report could not forecast how non-medical individuals could build hospitals and defraud the government using their connections with political overlords. 

Under the nose of the law

The marvel is not how these fraudulent people could establish their deceitful operations, the marvel is that they continued their deceit under the nose of law enforcement officials who acted only when the operations became open and a general outcry formed against them. But by then, the damage to the public exchequer had already been made. Billions of taka fled the country. 

What made this sham possible? Why and how could we not detect these in time, or where were the law enforcement authorities when the crimes were being committed? 

A simple answer would be that in our country, we have never let law enforcement agencies operate with a free hand. Our police, investigative agencies, and so-called anti-corruption authorities have to work under political pressure. 

Our police have been used more for political aims than for establishing the rule of law. We have allowed our bureaucracy to deteriorate to a stage where sycophancy works more than merit. 

We have subjugated each institution to political will rather than public will. Our law enforcement has become like a weather cock which is driven more by political wind than by public services. 

That is why, before preventing a businessman or a kleptocrat from stealing, they look for possible political connections of the criminal. They will not act until they are assured of non-interference from the political bosses. 

Our financial institutions have become dens of thieves because people who operate these institutions survive at the will of their politically-connected founders and they become willing partners in the grand larceny of the banks.

Many of our privately run health facilities have been set up by people who want to launder their ill-gotten wealth, and then they want to double or triple their investment by coalescing with pliable government officials to steal from the government. 

No one objects because the founders of these institutions have political nexus.  Operators of fraudulent medical facilities, illegal casinos, and suppliers of spurious lifesaving medicines thrive under political patronage. All make money by stealing people’s wealth and property and life savings.

Silent spectators for how long?

Should we all be silent spectators while the country turns into a haven of looters and money launderers? Is there still time for the country to turn around and stop this descent into the abyss? 

In the book Kleptopia, the author Burgis writes: “If there is an antidote to kleptocracy, it is honesty, the sort of indomitable resistance to lies and obfuscation.” 

But that honesty in Bangladesh has to come from our top leadership with a strong will to impose rule of law, transparency in governance, and stopping the rot in our system. 

To regain the trust and confidence of people in our law enforcement agencies, we need the leadership to free them from political control and allow them to bring to justice all those who flout the law and loot the country. 

This still may be a long way to free the country from the clutches of kleptocrats, but we have to make a beginning.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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