Can ACC salvage its self-inflicted reputational damage?
Since its creation in 2004, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has always faced trust and credibility issues. The key question is whether it can genuinely and consistently deliver its legally and institutionally entrusted mandate of effectively controlling corruption—going beyond chasing petty corruption of the small fries to hold accountable the "big fish" behind grand corruption. While the ACC may have become used to its credibility deficit by now, never before has it taken as deep a nosedive in its self-image as around the dismissal of one of its own investigation officers, Deputy Assistant Director Sharif Uddin, on February 16, 2022.
According to the media and other trustworthy sources, Sharif Uddin took upon himself the challenge of investigating and taking legally entrusted actions against some key perpetrators of grand corruption within his Chattogram and Cox's Bazar jurisdiction. He has been efficiently and courageously involved as a key person in investigating and taking action against some very powerful corrupt syndicates. He brought into his net dozens of corruption cases in which syndicates of politically influential people—including public representatives and mid-to-senior-level public officials including members of the law enforcement agencies—were involved as key actors. The amount of money estimated to have been illegally usurped runs into thousands of crores of taka.
His actions, unsurprisingly, made him a target of vengeance of these powerful groups, some of whom not only lodged motivated complaints against him to the ACC but also threatened his job and life. Such risks for conducting a genuine investigation into grand corruption are not unusual in Bangladesh, but what has shocked everyone is that the duty that Sharif was discharging—as per his job description, and with courage, commitment and professionalism—apparently also made his employer itself so uncomfortable that he had to be dismissed.
Instead of acting against the threats against him and ensuring his safety, the ACC opted to apply a controversial provision of its service rules whereby his appointment was terminated without any reason shown. The issue of the legality of the provision 54(2) of the ACC service rules 2008 is pending in the court. Even if one assumes, for the sake of argument, that the court verdict goes in favour of ACC's jurisdiction to retain such a provision, whether or not this can be applied to Sharif's case will remain debatable.
The underlying justification and standard organisational practice of such a provision of termination, without the mandatory requirement of issuing show cause, are that it can be applicable on a "no foul, no harm" basis usually warranted by compulsions like budgetary constraints or organisational restructuring causing the redundancy of the relevant position of the staff. The ACC has not given any indication that such factors could be in play.
After an initial reluctance to disclose why the dismissal took place, when the ACC decided to do so in the face of media pressure and public expectations, it moved the goal post and conveyed the message that there were complaints against Sharif that could cause reputational damage to the ACC. But again, it didn't disclose any specifics nor the process adopted to address those complaints, and whether Sharif was given his right to self-defence. Note that while the ACC may not need to allow the right to self-defence if clause 54(2) is applied, it does become mandatory under 40(6) of the same service rules if the dismissal occurs on the ground of accusations brought against him. By ACC's own admission, the claim that the termination took place under 54(2) was thus made untenable, because it is no longer a case of 54(2) but one of disciplinary action on unsubstantiated grounds.
By the time the ACC was constrained to further open up on this, over a dozen complaints were mentioned on each of which, according to media reports, Sharif had specific grounds of self-defence which were not heard. In addition, many of the allegations against Sharif were reportedly drawn upon the "grievances" of those investigated by him, which is, clearly, an issue of conflict of interest.
Be that as it may, no one is above unaccountability, and hence, as efficient and courageous as he may be, if Sharif is found guilty of misconduct in the due process, he should face disciplinary action proportionate to the offence, if established in the due credible and unbiased process. The question is: since the ACC claims it to be a disciplinary issue, why did he have to be dismissed without being allowed the mandatory right to self-defence?
According to credible sources, Sharif Uddin's annual performance assessment was consistently of high-grade. But this took a U-turn when his investigations raised eyebrows within the ACC, which also raises the question whether it was part of a design to victimise Sharif and whether there are vested quarters at the higher management level in ACC who are amongst the protectors of the politically and administratively linked sections of the corruption syndicate whose impunity Sharif proceeded to challenge.
A sense of job insecurity among a large section of the ACC staff following Sharif's dismissal led to an unprecedented act of protest which has subsequently taken the course of organising themselves to establish their job-related rights. This speaks volumes about the extent of management weaknesses within the ACC—a matter of grave concern for the organisational effectiveness of this organisation.
The dismissal comes as an acid test for the commission. A critical question that ACC needs to ask itself is what it means by "reputational damage". Even if all the reported allegations against Sharif were proved valid, and actions duly taken, any potential harm thus caused would be peanuts compared to the huge reputational gain that the ACC could have achieved if it could take action on the basis of the progress he made towards holding to account the powerful syndicates of grand corruption.
What the people would like to know is, while it was expected of the ACC to stand by Sharif and ensure his full protection in the discharge of his duties, why has the commission taken the course of outright dismissal and thereby put at risk their reputation and credibility in the eyes of the public? Was the ACC afraid that if it didn't get rid of Sharif, and if it allowed the accountability process against the said powerful syndicate to continue, the higher-ups in the ACC could also be a target of vengeance of the same powerful forces within or outside the ACC?
It remains to be seen if and how the ACC tries to salvage its self-inflicted reputational damage.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman is the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).