The anti-corruption watchdog has a choiceOfficials at the CIAA need to understand that history may judge them for protecting corrupt leaders.
The Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) has gained more criticism than appreciation for its recent actions against the 175 persons, including former ministers and former secretaries, who were involved in the unlawful transfer of government-owned land to a number of individuals—popularly known as the Lalita Niwas land grab. The criticisms are mainly for two reasons. First, the charges have missed two former prime ministers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai, who were leading the cabinet in 2010 and 2012 respectively, on the ground that these were ‘policy decisions’. Second, its charge sheet did not include Nabin Paudel, son of the current General Secretary of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, and Kumar Regmi, currently a Supreme Court justice, who were engaged in what CIAA labelled as unlawful purchase, simply because these individuals agreed to return the land in question to the government.
The federal anti-corruption watchdog’s recent actions, or inactions, have far-reaching implications; these cast doubt on its institutional capacity and impartiality. Corruption control needs to be a priority to ensure good governance and speedy national development. The CIAA, despite being a lead constitutional body to investigate the cases of misuse of authority by public officials, to prosecute the suspected ones and submit them to the court for adjudication, has often been unable to investigate thoroughly high profile cases of corruption. One frequently cited reason is that it cannot investigate the decisions taken by the cabinet, as these are arguably labelled as policy decisions made collectively. However, all cabinet decisions are not necessarily policy decisions.
The watchdog’s exclusion of a few influential persons in the Lalita Niwas land grab comes at a time when many government directives, made as so-called policy decisions, have been questioned in public. Massive corruption is suspected in the purchase of aeroplanes by the national carrier, in the leasing of public properties to public parties (Gokarna Forest Resort, etc.) and in the procurement of high-value capital goods and services. Even the CIAA, in its last annual report submitted to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, has sought clarity in what a policy decision actually means. Many proposals, even if they are not a policy measure by nature, are submitted to the cabinet by the respective ministry for collective decision-making. This is an evasive measure. But legal and policy experts, including public officials, say that the illegal transfer of public lands to individuals cannot be deemed as a policy decision made by the cabinet.
Most corrupt acts in Nepal are committed through the nexus of political leaders, administrators, businesspersons and brokers. The Lalita Niwas land grab is one example. In this case, CIAA could have taken action against two former prime ministers. The charges then could have been left to the Court to interpret; this has been a lost opportunity for the CIAA to get ‘policy decisions’ defined by the judicial branch. Likewise, it could have acted against the two influential buyers, as the Court has already set a precedence of taking actions against those involved in fraudulent land purchase. It is another lost opportunity to show zero tolerance towards the corruption nexus. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has questioned the watchdog’s inaction in this case.
With the federalisation of state power, the scope of making immoral and corrupt decisions by designing compatible policy and laws has become deeply rooted—covering all levels of the state and all sectors. Though political leaders and senior administrators are known to be vocal against corrupt acts, they are hardly serious about equipping the CIAA with required laws and provisions to make it effective. Ironically, if the current initiatives of the government for so-called legal reforms are approved, CIAA will be further weakened in its fight against organised corruption.
In Nepal, there are more challenges than opportunities in controlling corruption. It is also a fact that the CIAA has lost many opportunities to prove its existence as being effective. It can, however, still emerge as a strong institution by revealing the corrupt acts and actors in the recent scams concerning gold smuggling, the purchase of aircraft, the leasing of public properties and a minister’s bargaining for commission in the procurement of security printing facilities, among others. The CIAA is very much likely to get massive public support in its drive against the spreading of corruption in Nepal. For this, what is needed most is courage and integrity on the part of CIAA officials, which can compensate for any institutional limitations imposed on them.
In order to earn the respect of the people and give justice to their roles, the top CIAA officials should free themselves from the fear of being impeached through Parliament. They only need to be afraid of being judged by Nepali society in this stage of their official career. Remaining in the good side of history will mean more in the long run, over being protected by corrupt political leaders or parties in the short.
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