Sri Lanka: How corruption swept away the ruling party

Sri Lanka Flag
Sri Lanka Flag

By Charles Onunaiju

It is true that there was always corruption and fraud. But the extent of corruption in Sri Lanka in the last few years is utterly unprecedented– Maithripala Sirisena (former opposition candidate, newly elected president)

Opening the electoral season for the 2015, Sri Lankans who went to the polls on January 8 to elect the president of the country, pulled a major stunning election upset and dumped their former over-confident leader, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaska, who has called the election two years before it is due. The Sri Lankans elected the candidate of the opposition alliance, the 63 years old Maithripala Sirisena, who campaigned against the debilitating corruption of the former ruling united peoples freedom alliance that is eating away at the fabric of Sri Lankan society.

The former president, Rajapaska, who crushed the insurgency of the vicious Tamil Tiger- 25 year armed confrontation with the state in 2009 had easily won a re-election in 2010 and basking in the euphoria, the former strongman scrapped the constitutional limits of two terms, angling for a maximum ruler. The rebuilding of infrastructure following the defeat of the Tigers provided a huge avenue for cronies of the regime to help themselves generously to the public till.

Extensive nepotism in which the relatives and kinsmen of the former president manned key government positions added to the erosion of public confidence in the administration.

But after the former president has allegedly consulted his astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, who had predicted an easy win for the 69 year strongman, MrRajapaska called a snap election two years before it is due and have the opposition sweeping to victory with 51.28% of total votes. The defeated ruling party managed to scoop 47.58% in a high turnout of 81.52% of the total registered voters.

The formerly fractious opposition has united under the common candidacy of Mr. Sirisena, who himself belonged to the majority ethnic Sinhalese, from the where the former president hailed also. Rajapaska, who crushed the Tamil Tigers but without effective reconciliation with the Tamil minority population in the north of the country, had them, looking over his shoulder for a conciliating national leader. The Tamils, Muslim and Christian minorities, who endured the nepotism and corruption of the Rajapaska regime seized the opportunity of the snap election to throw in their lots with the opposition alliance whom they helped sweep to victory.

According to the former opposition, the former government and its hangers-on has through public infrastructure projects looted public funds, leaving majority of Sri Lankans in economic misery with bourgeoning social tensions. The opposition insisted that should the ruling party be re-elected, Sri Lankans in no time would have no country, except one wreaked by poverty and misery. It warned that while the regime’s hangers-on live in an unfathomable affluence, the ordinary Sri Lankans whether the minority or even the majority ethnic Sinhalese would sink further into misery except they cease the opportunity of the snap, election, confidently called by the ruling party to end its corruption and nepotism. The message resonated very deeply and profoundly too to the Sri Lankans, who in exercising their vote, took out the ruling party in the historic January 8th election.

Even with the victory the former resilient guerrilla, the Tamil Tigers in the pocket, the ruling party, the united peoples freedom alliance of Mr Rajapaska, have difficult time convincing the ordinary Sri Lankans that corruption is a non issue and that ending the torment of the formerly brutal Tamil Tigers was the issue for all time. By plucking in to the opposition, the Sri Lankans showed that they understood very clearly that corruption is not mere abstraction but a crucial variable that affect the qualities of their health care delivery, and access to education, water supply and other crucial services, including even the quality of food on their tables. With heavily government-protected stalwarts who have their hands in the public till, corruption could never be an abstract issue or a non-political starter either in Sri Lanka or Nigeria, where its corrosive impact have left millions of young people in a state of hopelessness.

In Nigeria, whose election calendar is coming quick in the heels of the Sri Lanka’s election tsunami, corruption is also taking centre stage. The ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party far from having in its pocket, the containment of the Boko Haram insurgency, unlike its Sri Lankan counterpart that crushed the tigers, is actually being overwhelmed by the insurgency. Even mocking the opposition for its highlight of the devastating impact of corruption in public life, the ruling party’s candidate and the president, Mr Goodluck Jonathan said that while the opposition is poised to throw corrupt people behind bars, he would continue to follow the ‘due process and rule of law’ in the treatment of corrupt people. Nigerians are not definitely forgetting that following “due process and rule of law”, has rendered several cases of corruption involving formerly key public office holders either inconclusive or abruptly discontinued from government intervention through an application of the federal attorney general’s office. Even assets of suspected fraudsters temporarily seized by statutory government agencies in the course of investigation were returned to them in apparently partisan-motivated decision by the PDP controlled federal government.

The most depressing of these serial politically-motivated compromise involved one Mr. Ifeanyi Uba, whose capital oil and gas company taken in by the asset management company (AMCON) for alleged public debt of nearly 50 billion naira was ordered returned to him by the federal government without any resolution of the public debt issue. The 41 year old Anambra-born is alleged to be the financial patron of the Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria (TAN), a key advocacy group of the president Jonathan re-election effort.

Try as the ruling party might exert itself, it will be hard as the formerly Sri- Lankan ruling party has found out, to banish corruption and its corrosive impact from the key issues affecting the voting decisions of the electorates in the February 14th president polls.The newly elected Sri Lankan leader, Mr. Sirisena has promised to deal fatal blows to corruption and even limit the presidential powers that have been deployed in the past to condone it.According to him, all those stalwarts of the former ruling party and their accessories who previously help themselves unhindered to the public treasury must come to terms that the day of reckoning is here.

President Jonathan spoke glowing recently about measures his government has taken to block loopholes of the financial leakages in the public service.In the most comprehensive anti-corruption campaign in the modern Chinese history, its president, Mr. Xi Xinping set a catch not only the low and medium scale crooks which he dubbed the ‘flies’ but also to bring to account, heavy weight political figures that he characterized as ‘tigers’. Now he has not only netted several ‘flies’ but some ‘tigers’ that are previously sacred cows.

The former member of the ruling party 9-member standing committee of the politburo, the most powerful collegiate leadership of the party and state, Mr Zhou Yokang is in the net for corruption. He is the highest official of the ruling party and State to stand trial for corruption since the political and economic reforms in the late 1970s.Corruption has bounced in the front burner in several countries for its extensive corrosive impact and will Nigeria be different?

Charles Onunaiju is an Abuja-based journalist.


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