The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) has arrested 23 people, 21 of them officials from the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), in a corruption case relating to the purchase of substandard transformers.
CIAA estimates that the transformer scam has caused NEA a loss of Rs 411 million. That amount would have been enough to provide free electricity to half of Nepal’s poor households for a year. Instead, they went into the pockets of those who benefitted illegally from the scam.
In a special court case last week, a bail amount of Rs 240 million was set for the 21 NEA officials. CIAA has demanded seizing property and other assets from them equivalent to the loss that they caused. It has requested jail time of ten years for some and longer sentences for those in higher levels of authority.
It was hard not to cheer as the NEA officials were paraded in court. For a country bereft of any positive political or economic sign, the arrest seemed to be a faint glimmer of hope that someone had resolved to fight the filth and callousness of our institutions.
But it is also in times of distress that we are most easily beguiled by the charm and magic of charlatans. Look a bit more closely.
CIAA isn’t exactly a charlatan. But in this instance with NEA, it has come across as nothing more than a schoolyard bully that is too wimpy to pick on people his own size.
With the arrest of 21 NEA officials, and possibly more to come, CIAA is letting go of an opportunity to clean out institutional corruption within one of the most politicized agencies in Nepal.
CIAA must begin to behave like a Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, not merely as a local constable looking to fish out pick-pockets from a busy market street.
There is little doubt that there has been a clear instance of corruption in NEA with the transformers. Substandard transformers were purchased. Government procurement rules and the NEA’s own guidelines were violated.
Due process and secondary controls were subverted not just in one or two instances, but systematically over a period of time. There was widespread fraud and forgery. The abuse of authority in this case appears to have been systemic across the whole institution.
CIAA’s investigation in the transformer scam follows several internal investigations by NEA. Clearly, NEA itself was aware that something was amiss not just in one or two instances but across the entire organization. Internal corporate governance had broken down or had been rendered meaningless as the substandard purchases were authorized.
Who should be held responsible?
CIAA has booked 21 officials, including several former Directors for their direct involvement in the case. They are all being charged with abusing their authority for personal gains—an instance of personal corruption. But given the systemic nature of the scam and the fact that so many officials have already been charged, it is clear that there was widespread collusion across the organization. NEA’s transformer case isn’t just about personal corruption—where one person cheats another or defrauds an organization. It is a case of institutional corruption.
And this is why CIAA’s investigation and charges into the case are a bit of a smokescreen.
Why should the responsibility of corruption rest only with the 21 arrested officials? Perhaps there will be more arrests.
But even if there are, it doesn’t matter. The charge against all those that have been arrested is that they acted out of personal greed. That’s not the whole story though. In the NEA transformer case, there appears to be a clear instance of institutional corruption—an institutional abuse of power.
The responsibility for that corruption must rest with the highest levels of authority: the Chairman of the NEA Board and the Minister responsible for NEA. These authorities are responsible for NEA’s institutional performance. They are the ones that need to be paraded before the special court to explain why they allowed institutional corruption at NEA to flourish under their watch. They are ones that need to explain why the internal corporate governance failed, why systems were bypassed, why there was fraud, why internal investigations produced no result, and why it all went unnoticed for years.
This doesn’t mean that the 21 officials arrested so far should be allowed to go free. Instead it means that for us to meaningfully tackle corruption, we must have a two-tier approach to such cases.
On one tier, CIAA must take on institutional corruption. Those who have an institutional responsibility—in the case of NEA, the minister and the Chairman of the NEA Board—must be held accountable, whether they personally profited from the corruption or not. They should be charged with abdication of duty, for their failure to prevent systemic corruption within the institution.
On the second tier must be personal corruption. This is where the police and the usual criminal justice system must bring a personal charge against an individual for profiting or participating in a crime related to corruption. The cases of 21 individuals that CIAA has so proudly paraded in front of the special court must have been brought by the police, not CIAA.
If CIAA remains intent on prosecuting individuals merely for charges of personal corruption, what then is the difference between CIAA and the constable trying to catch pick-pockets in a busy market?
For Nepal to root out institutional corruption both the tiers within the process must be able to work in tandem. The police must be able to use the criminal justice system to press charges against an individual for corruption. At the same time, CIAA must have the power to bring charges against those in institutional authority for abdication of duty. In the absence of such processes, fighting corruption will be one big show with smoke and mirrors, much like how a charlatan might pull off a magic trick.
The 21 officials charged could be convicted and receive 10 or 20 year prison terms as CIAA is requesting. But unless institutional authorities of NEA are brought to justice for allowing the transformer scam to happen, the muck on NEA’s wall will remain. Corruption will not have been solved. Only a scapegoat will have been found.
Even as one of Nepal’s most dramatic corruption cases unfolds within NEA, political parties have remained oddly silent. There have been no visible comments of endorsement or opposition; nothing to suggest that they agree or disagree.
If the CIAA were anything more than a schoolyard bully, it would take the fight right into the political parties, all of whom have political responsibility for the mess that NEA is in now.
Most importantly, it will be blotch on our national consciousness if we allow the 21 NEA officials to go to jail while we also elect the true beneficiaries of those crimes to be our representatives to draft our next constitution.
Source : Republica