Re-writing the history of Bangladesh's Padma Bridge criminal conspiracy

The Daily Star stands against corruption, so why criticise the World Bank for its investigation into the alleged criminal conspiracy?

Re-writing the history of Bangladesh's Padma Bridge criminal conspiracy
The ongoing construction of the Padma Bridge on November 12th 2019 — the bridge will connect the south-west of the country to the northern and eastern regions in Bangladesh. Photo: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Alamy

The Bangladeshi English language newspaper The Daily Star, along with its Editor, Mahfuz Anam, have in recent years been subjected to significant coercive state activities seeking to restrict their critical journalism — with the two most public examples of this being when large businesses were forced to stop advertising in the paper in 2015 and the filing of a barrage of criminal cases against Anam in 2016.

And whilst government pressure remains in place — not just against it but all other independent minded newspapers — The Daily Star does still try to push back against these restrictions to the extent reasonably possible. And the columns written by its editor, Mahfuz Anam, reflect this tension where he sometimes does criticise the government — but does so in a careful manner.  

However, a few days ago Anam wrote a very difficult kind of article. It was a paean of praise for the prime minister — in her role in building the Padma Bridge which is now close to completion with the last span of the bridge having just been installed. He remarked on “her single-minded determination”, her “courage”  and her “iron will” which, according to Anam, were the reasons why the bridge was built. 

Cynics may say that this is the price Anam has to pay — the quid quo pro — to provide  him the leeway to publish some critical journalism. In authoritarian societies, like Bangladesh, with their increasingly censored media, this is the kind of game that newspapers have to play. Critics may also point to Anam’s failure to spare a word about the actual construction workers who built the bridge, the role of Chinese companies who organised all the work, the basis on which the army won lucrative contracts or that the building of the bridge will cost vastly more than its original costing.

However, what is more concerning about the article is how his over-the-top praise for Hasina rewrites the history of the alleged corruption conspiracy which resulted in the World Bank ending its $1.3 billion loan, and requiring the Bangladesh government to spend its own money in building the bridge. Anam is certainly not the only senior Bangladesh journalist to do so, but it is worthwhile focusing on his article as it is an unexpected intervention from the editor of a newspaper that has in the past so strongly campaigned against corruption.

The relevant part of the Daily Star column states:

“The bridge had been transformed into a national challenge when World Bank, ADB, JICA and IDB injudiciously and without much self-examination refused to extend fund due to ‘corruption intention’ charges that later proved unfounded. It was definitely the highhandedness and arrogance of the donors that moved them into such one-sided action. But it did tremendous damage to our image and reinforced the stereotype of a corruption ridden Third World country, the forever ‘basket case’.”

In many respects The Daily Star has been a campaigning paper against corruption, but here Anam argues that it was somehow “injudicious” and lacking in “self-examination” — indeed  also showing “highhandedness” and “arrogance” — for international donors to stop funding a project where it had received information about a corrupt conspiracy.

But the World bank did not precipitously suspend its $1.2 billion loan immediately after obtaining evidence of the alleged corruption conspiracy, but sought to find a way to continue funding the project through “an alternative, turnkey-style implementation approach to the project”, provided that the government “took serious actions against the high level corruption” it had unearthed .

The World Bank only suspended the agreement after the government was unwilling to adopt two of the four investigation measures that it had asked the government to comply with. These involved excluding certain public officials from public service for the duration of the investigation and accepting a formal relationship between Bangladesh’s Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) and the World Bank external panel for the sharing of information.

How that is high handed, arrogant, or injudicious is far from self-explanatory. It would be more accurate to use those epithets in describing Sheikh Hasina in failing to accede to the World Bank requirements — not the international donors. Had she done so the bridge would have been built a long time ago, at perhaps a third of the cost.

Anam then goes on to say that the corruption allegations were later “proved unfounded”. That is a misleading description of what happened.

If the corruption claims were proved unfounded, why in April 2013, did SNC Lavelin (the large Canadian based consultancy company bidding for the Padma Bridge supervision contract) agree to a Negotiated Resolution Agreement with the World Bank which included it being disbarred from bidding for World Bank contracts for ten years? The agreement between the World Bank and the corporate group also required that the company make changes in its operations to prevent future corruption.

Ten years debarment is a very significant sanction and the company would not have agreed to it unless it recognised that the evidence collected by the World Bank was compelling. Moreover, the Canadian company must have  accepted that it had acted in a corrupt manner in concert with Bangladesh politicians/officials since a World Bank criteria for putting in place  Negotiated Resolution Agreement is for the  accused company  to “admit culpability”.

Indeed following the agreement, the president and CEO of the SNC-Lavalin Group issued a press release which stated, “[T]he company’s decision to settle signals our determination as we go forward to set standards for ethics in business conduct and for good governance that are beyond reproach.”

It is correct that the criminal case taking place in Canada against two former SNC Lavalin executives and a Bangladeshi-Canadian businessman was brought to an end. However, whilst the dropping of the charges meant the accused were acquitted — it does not mean that there was no evidence of a criminal corruption conspiracy.

What happened was that a Canadian judge ruled that a previous judicial decision to permit wire-tapping to take place was not well founded. This meant that the evidence collected by the investigators against these the three men using these wiretaps could not be used by the prosecutors in the trial. Since the prosecutors were basing its case on the evidence contained in the wiretaps — the contents of which still remains confidential —  they were forced to disband the trial and acquit the accused.

That is far from meaning that the corruption allegations were unfounded.

Finally, Anam argues that the World Bank “[D]id tremendous damage to our image and reinforced the stereotype of a corruption ridden Third World country, the forever ‘basket case’.”

It should surely go without saying that if there was any damage to Bangladesh’s image it was done by those who were involved in the corrupt conspiracy and not by those who investigated it. Does Anam think it appropriate for  The Daily Star to be accused  of tarnishing the image of the nation when it publishes investigative reports on corruption? Of course not.

Does he also believe that Transparency International Bangladesh, the anti-corruption organisation where Anam is himself the board treasurer, should be accused of reinforcing the stereotype of Bangladesh as a “corruption ridden third world country” when it produces its reports? No, he certainly does not. So, why now make that claim against the World Bank and other international donors?

Unfortunately, these criticisms seem to be a reflection of a form of reductive nationalism. It seems that even the finest of editors, and Anam certainly falls within the category, can sometimes find it difficult to escape the attractions of this narrative — perhaps to gain some respite from government pressure or short-term applause from so-called Bangladeshi “patriots” — even when it contradicts so much of what his own paper stands for.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.

🔗 The Daily Star – Padma Bridge: Bangladesh tells a story (Dec 11th 2020)

🔗 World Bank – Statement on Padma Bridge (June 29th, 2012)

🔗 World Bank – Frequently asked Qustions Related to the Cancellation of the World Bank Credit for the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project (July 17th, 2012)

🔗 World Bank – World Bank Debars SNC-Lavalin Inc. and its Affiliates for 10 years (April 17th, 2013)

🔗 World Bank – Final Report of the Expert Panel of Experts: The Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project (Feb, 2013)

🔗 World Bank – How Negotiated Resolution Agreements Fit Within the World Bank Group’s
Sanctions System