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OP-ED: Surrounded by loose cannons

  • Published at 02:43 am February 25th, 2021
Bangladesh Parliament building Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban Mehedi Hasan
File photo of the Bangladesh Parliament complex in Dhaka Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

When running a tight ship, it is better to have intelligent foes than foolish friends


Running a tight ship means managing an organization strictly and skillfully with all your crew maintaining strict discipline. This is more aptly used for institutions and organizations that follow a chain of command than for a political government, but nevertheless, the success of every government is determined by how disciplined or well-ordered it is. 

The head of an organization, and, for that matter, a government, is well served when the chain of command is respected and obeyed. But it is not easy to run a tight ship when the skipper is surrounded by loose cannons. 

To run the ship, the skipper has either to repair the loose cannons or replace these cannons if they have become too old and cannot be repaired. In governments, there are often errant officials who hamper its operation by behaving irresponsibly, their acts comparable to the loose cannons on a ship. In parliamentary governments, often cabinet or high officials act in ways which are deemed inappropriate or contrary to the government’s stated policy. 

In these cases, the reprimand from the head of the government is issued either in the form of denial or through the acknowledgment by the errant official of their mistake. If this behaviour repeats, the official is asked to resign. 

If the official is an appointee of the government, they are removed from office. This is discipline. This is a how government is run. This is how public trust and confidence are earned. This is how a government elected by people demonstrates its integrity. 

In an autocracy, none of this is required, since neither the government nor its officials are accountable to the people. The government retains its legitimacy and absolute control over all public agencies -- legislature, law enforcement, bureaucracy, judiciary. There is no scope for a loose cannon or errant official in such a state. Any behaviour that violates state policy will lead to the ousting of the guilty official. 

Unfortunately, in a democracy, or a state that operates on democratic principles, the government cannot operate in such a fashion. It follows its own rules and procedures. 

In parliament, a parliament member can be censured for unparliamentary behaviour, but cannot be expelled unless he or she is charged and convicted of a criminal offense. But a minister can be removed from the cabinet, an appointed high official can be discharged from his/her office, and a law enforcement official can be dismissed, for actions that are deemed illegal or adequately inappropriate. 

There is, of course, a process for such a removal just as there are rules of conduct for all officials, whether they are elected or appointed. But before talking about the process for removal, let us understand the code of behaviour and conduct for public officials. 

The guiding principle of a public official is a strict standard of ethics and morality. The five codes of ethics are integrity, objectivity, professional competence, confidentiality, and professional behaviour. These are textbook rules that are laid down for public officials in every country, and Bangladesh should be no exception. 

Unfortunately, these rules are only in the books, and not seen in practice. Otherwise, we would not be having so many loose cannons surrounding our government these days. 

We would not be having statements by senior public officials at minister level that run counter to government efforts to help migrant workers, that berate their contributions, and exasperate with unreal claims our relationship with friendly countries. These statements do not reflect the country’s actual policies on many issues, and they bring down the image of the country. 

And then we have appointed officials running our most sensitive agencies, who have become controversial because of their alleged involvement with people and activities that are counter to the conduct of public officials. We do not know if the allegations are real or fake. Insensitive statements by high public officials on migrant workers have seriously angered our migrants abroad. They felt ignored and ridiculed. 

These statements, along with a highly negative foreign report on our defense officials, have presented an image of a number of loose cannons surrounding the ship of this nation. 

Domestically, we may not know what the overall fallout has been, but internationally, we do know that these reports have harmed our image severely. We may deny these allegations and cry conspiracy but that alone will not serve us well. 

These errant officials are a risk to efficient governance and its leadership. They may serve the short-term purpose of keeping a ship afloat, but in the long run, they will sink the ship. It is not only bad for the ship’s passengers, but also its crew and the skipper. 

Keeping them on board because of their perceived loyalty is a mistake, because their loyalty is always highly suspect. One never knows when a delinquent official will switch sides and point the gun back on the person he or she has served.   

There is an old saying, that it is better to have intelligent foes than foolish friends. To put it in this current context, one could say that it is better to have no cannon at all than to have loose cannons. 

They can do more harm through their foolish speech and reprobate actions than their apparent loyalty. The sooner we take action to stop these actors, the better it is for the country.

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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