Catching big fish

  • Recent high-profile corruption cases run the risk of being lost in a jurisdiction jumble
- Narayan Manandhar
Catching big fish

Nov 4, 2014-

This October, two high-profile corruption cases have dominated the news. There were the corruption charges, involving Rs 590 million, against the president of the All Nepal Football Association (Anfa), Ganesh Thapa, who has been holding onto this position for 20 years and was recently even nominated as a Member of Parliament by his brother, Kamal Thapa’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N). The accusations came into light with the media reporting on Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President Mohammad bin Hammam’s transfer of a large sum of money into Ganesh Thapa’s son’s bank account. This incident was part of news revelations related to corruption at Fifa, the international football governing body.

The second case concerns complaints against the CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), Subas Niraula, over blatant abuse of authority, involving corruption charges estimated to run over Rs 800 million. The list of authority abuse contains almost two dozen points, including the misuse of procurement laws, staff appointments, granting of contracts, et cetera.

Both cases are being investigated by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the government. Complaints have been lodged with the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) as well. In both cases, the PAC—a parliamentary oversight agency—has issued directives to the government to suspend the positions of these public officials, to the CIAA to undertake investigation for possible prosecutions, and to the Department of Money Laundering Investigation (DMLI) for a possible case of illicit enrichment. Indeed, the stated figures are mind boggling.

Bluffs and challenges

As reported in the media, if true, in the first case, Thapa has bluffed and coaxed PAC officials, claiming to be a descendant of Nepal’s first prime minister, Bhimsen Thapa, and warning them of consequences (implying he could be occupying PAC seats in the future), including a threat to suspend Nepal’s FIFA membership. In his favour, he seems to have Nepali football players rallying to his support.

In the case of the NTB CEO, citing the government’s inability to provide security, Niraula was reported to have resorted to recruiting, as in a movie, mafia-style bouncers costing the NTB a cool sum of Rs 1.5 million for three months. It is reported that other board members were so scared by this design that in the last week, the board meeting had to be held inside the Tourism Ministry instead of the NTB. Earlier, Niraula challenged the PAC by not recognising the body and by boasting that he could not be suspended by anybody other than the NTB Board.

Bad smell

In corruption literature, there is a saying—corruption need not be defined, it can be detected simply by its stench. In the both cited cases, the odour is so bad that you do not have to look for footprints, evidences, or paper trials.

At first sight, these two pieces of news may appear to be signs of a welcome development—particularly at a time when a democratically elected prime minister, supposed to carry a Spartan image, is seen on tv criticising CIAA actions, instead of issuing strong directives. It was pathetic to see Prime Minister Sushil Koirala complaining “sana karmachari lai dukkha dine kam garnu bhayana” (“Please do not harass small-time public servants”). Definitely, the CIAA is an independent constitutional body, but that does not justify the behaviour of a democratically-elected executive chief. To add insult to injury, there are four powerful divisions working directly underneath PM Koirala, looking after governance and anti-corruption issues: the National Vigilance Centre, the Nepal Trust, the Public Procurement Monitoring Office, and a legal division monitoring the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). Last but not least, Koirala has also been bequeathed the Hello Sarkar (no pun intended) hotline as a courtesy by saheeb Baburam Bhattarai.

Too many directives

It may take ages before the public learns of a final verdict for these two super-powerful corruption cases. But talking of the anti-corruption drive, things are not going swimmingly in Nepal. First, why did the PAC decide to issue three directives to three different agencies? It sounds like the PAC is not certain whether its directives will be implemented and hence, wants to diversify the risk—if you issue three directives, at least one should be implemented. When this scribe met with PAC President Janardan Sharma in September, he was complaining about the lack of manpower, budget, skills, and even courage to undertake investigative works. Someone visiting his office at Singha Durbar can easily ascertain his situation. I am a 100 percent certain that the Maoist leader has realised that fighting a ‘people’s war’ was far easier than fighting corruption in Nepal.

Second, although the directives issued by the PAC differ from each other, when you issue directives to many organs, everybody’s job can easily turn into nobody’s job. The CIAA may leave the work to the DMLI, while at the DMLI, they may think that as small time departmental staff, they needn’t take the risk of attempting to land big fish like Thapa and Niraula—such a task could be well beyond their competency.

Third, the operation of multiple anti-corruption agencies in Nepal has brought us to a situation where we now have problems of not just interagency coordination and work duplication but also the issue of protecting jurisdictional boundaries and avoiding encroachment. A constitutional body like the CIAA may feel humiliated to be working at the same level as the DMLI, which is simply headed by a joint secretary within the Ministry of Finance. Nepali bureaucrats are very sensitive to their status, privileges, and boundary encroachments. Just look at the grumbling of staff at the National Vigilance Centre because they were not placed directly and physically under the office of the prime minister.

And amid the overlapping mandates and the problems of interagency coordination, the drafters of the new constitution are now reported to have agreed to establish one more anti-corruption agency to investigate corruption in the judiciary.

Manandhar is a freelance consultant with an interest in corruption and governance issues

Published: 05-11-2014 09:02

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