THE road to good governance is frequently a bumpy one. Sri Lanka’s attempt is in danger of getting knotted in too many institutions and red tape with multiple bodies appointed to probe graft allegedly perpetrated by the previous government.
At the start, it all seemed quite simple. Many members of the public knew, by experience and instinct, corruption was on a rampage in Sri Lanka. The election promise of bringing that to a halt and bringing the wrongdoers to book made a fantastic base for a fractured but fighting coalition. It was a stand they could all take and throw their weight behind.
Then the unthinkable happened. The group which was the flag carrier for ending corruption not only made it to the corridors of power, it effectively runs them. Suddenly it was time to give promises life and with it came an entire container-load of challenges. One of the biggest issues was going after the whales of the previous regime that were suspected to have siphoned off millions during their decade in power. This meant appointing bodies to investigate and strengthening institutions to help them, including the police and Judiciary.
One of the first steps taken by the Government was to strengthen the Bribery and Corruption Commission but they were barely able to stay ahead of the vast numbers of complaints that flooded through the doors just days after President Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera attempted this week to put a number on the magnitude of the allegedly embezzled assets, saying investigators were looking at the gargantuan number of $ 18 billion, which is a quarter of Sri Lanka’s entire GDP. Since money knows no borders, technical assistance is being obtained from four countries. Additionally, President Sirisena also appointed his own commission to conduct probes.
It was soon obvious that this process would take time, perhaps even years, to resolve. Sandwiched between elections, the Government had to take more decisive steps. Thus, the Financial Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) was born. Top officials of the former Government were whetted by a Cabinet subcommittee presided over by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and forwarded to be investigated by the FCID. The process has produced results, including the arrest of former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, but has come at a cost.
The FCID, which arguably has been able to get the most significant results since its inception, is under threat. Talks between President Sirisena and his predecessor on Wednesday highlighted the intention of the pro-Rajapaksa camp to temper this effectiveness by insisting it was the instrument of a “political witch-hunt.” As with many issues, opinions are a matter of perspective, but this puts a fresh quandary before the Government.
If they take the political out of the FCID and broad base it to include complaints outside of the subcommittee, they run the danger of diluting its effectiveness. Distracted by a tidal wave of complaints, like the other bodies, it will not be able to bring results demanded by an impatient public. On the flipside it will continue to draw the ire of politicians on the other side of the fence.
Pleasing everyone is impossible. The responsibility of implementing election promises has proved to be the waterloo for many elected politicians and the Government would do well to remember it as another election looms closer.