Forgetting Pandora

Friday, 1 April 2022 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Six months ago, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) uncovered the financial secrets of more than 330 politicians in 91 countries and exposed a shadow economy thriving in offshore or secret jurisdictions. Among the group were former minister Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband, Thirukumar Nadesan, niece of the President and the Prime Minister.  The documents reveal that Rajapaksa and Nadesan together controlled a shell company used to buy luxury apartments in London and Sydney, and art while using them also to make numerous other investments. Based on the Pandora Papers, Nadesan is said to have set up other shell companies and trusts in secret jurisdictions and used them to obtain lucrative consulting contracts from foreign companies doing business with the Sri Lankan Government. The amount of money stashed in these offshore accounts by the Sri Lankan duo is in the range of $160 million.   

As soon as these revelations were made President Gotabaya Rajapaksa directed the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption to launch an immediate investigation into the alleged malpractice and report to him of the findings within a month. In November 2021, the presidential secretariat issued a press release stating that the Bribery Commission had handed over an interim report to the President regarding their investigations. Even though the interim report was not made public, the press release stated that the Director-General of the Commission had informed that the various banks and financial institutions have been requested to submit reports containing the bank account details of Thirukumar Nadesan. “As the investigation has not been completed, the final report will be issued after further scrutinising the called reports and other relevant investigations are carried out,” the presidential secretariat said. Nothing has been heard since the investigation into  Rajapaksa and Nadesan.

Similarly, in 2020 the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) discovered a massive financial fraud by Airbus Industries which exposed that the airline company had paid huge bribes to SriLankan Airlines officials between July 2011 and June 2015 to finalise an aircraft procurement deal completely unfavourable to the national carrier. Again, President Rajapaksa ordered an investigation. Not much has been heard of that either.

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in its post-independence history. There is no doubt that the current status of affairs is mostly a result of incompetence of those who were entrusted to govern the economy. While reels could be written about the wrong policies and the mismanagement of the economy, capturing the contribution of corruption into the current economic crisis is far more difficult. The Pandora papers and the Airbus deal are in the public domain simply because they were investigated and exposed by international entities. These are only the tip of the iceberg of the colossal corruption and misappropriation of funds that occur regularly.

If Sri Lanka is to stand any chance of saving itself from its current economic woes, political leaders entrusted with public finances must regain the trust of the public. This is too late for the Rajapaksa family which has for long years been tarnished with numerous allegations of corruption, misappropriation, and abuse of public finances. Those who are hoping to replace this family dominated regime must then demonstrate their willingness to adhere to a higher standard concerning financial integrity. They must also make a clear commitment to investigate and prosecute those who have been accused of wrongdoing in Pandora Papers, Airbus deal and many such scandals. Recent experience during the Yahapalana regime was that the politically connected and the upper echelons of society protected each other from corruption investigations and prosecutions. Those signs are visible again with key players within the opposition hobnobbing with the same individuals accused of financial crimes. The public no longer has an appetite for one group of corrupt individuals to be replaced by another. It is a message that should be heard loud and clear by those who are wishing to be an alternative government.