The overarching feature of a functioning democracy is that it has an effective system of checks and balances in place. This system should, on paper at least, ensure that government and related public institutions are held accountable for decisions that they take and for the consequences of these decisions. In principle these must be in the national interest, although that can be a very loose definition, which makes it harder to pinpoint blame and sanction those responsible for serious or obvious deviations.
However, as governments change, we seem to see almost the same pattern follow on, despite the electoral promises for remedial changes and doing things differently. The renewed pledges for transparency, meritocracy and competence soon give way to the old habits of annointing cronies, political sponsors and agents and so on. Raising of voices through the media and other forums are usually not enough to make a dent, and the government can forge on regardless.
The scenario seems to be repeating itself. The government seems to be prioritising the same game others have played in the past, taking it to another level. So, we appear to be heading again to politics of old – not on the deeper issues with which the country should be really concerned.
Looking back at the history of the country, there have been politicians with exceptional commitment to a better future for the country and its citizens. Whatever they have achieved has come through the independence and strength of public institutions implementing policies fairly and squarely in the ‘public interest’.
Conscientious responsible officers and sterling qualities of governance – much before the notion of good governance gained popular currency – made everybody accountable. Parliamentarians used all their skills to dig out facts which mattered from the government side and expose abuses, if any. The Director of Audit was awaited every year with some trepidation by all officials dealing with public funds. It was difficult for politicians to enrich themselves at public expense because the limelight of public scrutiny was cast on them well in time.
The media played its part against what they considered went against the public interest and was abusive. The judiciary, on its part, always stood as a last rampart against political abuse. Thus, even in the absence of a Freedom of Information Act, mechanisms existed to make decision-takers accountable.
Thereafter, politicians must have figured out that strong public institutions stood in the way of their being able to do as they wished. Not only were public office holders brutally disempowered by changing the Constitution to make them liable to be fired if they did not comply to the diktats of politicians in charge. The public institutions were themselves overwhelmed by sundry political appointees who were ever ready to do the bidding of the politicians. Those with nomenklatura links or willing to toe the line of master puppeteers rose through the ranks.
The question that arises is: can a system of checks and balances operate to prevent costly and harmful decisions being so endorsed and executed for the benefit of a few? The same who ensure that every contractual agreement these days seem to have a mandatory Confidentiality clause, from Liverpool Football Club to generous dishings of public monies by the Central Bank through its MIC undertaking?
People will make a hue and cry against irrational and abusive decisions if they know about them before it is too late. Moreover, such a hue and cry will be effective provided public instances deal with reported cases of abuse without delay, and stop a mala fide proposed action before contractual relations are firmly fixed for acquiring or disposing of assets by the public concerns.
Such proactive impartial moves would even have prevented many commercial decisions which have negative implications for the country and public undertakings but benefit those pulling the strings from behind. The country cannot afford to acknowledge wrong decisions taken, only to finally have taxpayers assume the costs thereof well after the real authors guilty of the guided misdeeds have departed the scene for good. Betamax, Britam, Safe City, Emergency Procurements in 2020 in the context of the Covid pandemic, amongst others, will have cost the taxpayers billions, and this cannot go on.
A redress mechanism that will act in real time to prevent abuses is very much needed. Those in office, despite their electoral prose in 2014 and again in 2019, have found it far better to run the system to their advantage. NGOs, the media and civil society can yearn for changed governance and accountability, but will those expectations be taken on board by those in the political class waiting in the wings?
* Published in print edition on 13 August 2021