Conflict of interest

Published January 4, 2019

THERE is no escaping the impression that a powerful conflict of interest is at play when a government contract is awarded to a company in which a sitting cabinet member and his family have ownership stakes.

Abdul Razak Dawood may not be a federal minister — technically speaking, he holds the portfolio of adviser to the prime minister on commerce — but the fact that he has close proximity to the prime minister, sits in cabinet meetings, and wields ministerial authority cannot be missed.

It may also be the case that, before entering into this position, he ‘resigned’ from all offices he held in Descon, the company that has just been awarded the mega contract for Mohmand dam, and, as his own office has tried to clarify, “totally distanced himself” from his business interests.

But the point at issue is his ownership stakes in the company, as well as stakes owned by his family members.

Until that point is robustly addressed, the impression of a deep conflict of interest and inappropriate award of contract will continue to hold the field, no matter how many denials come from all quarters of government.

There is no doubt, however, that Descon is a company uniquely suited to execute such a contract. It has deep experience in the work of dams and heavy engineering.

But acknowledgement of this fact does not negate the impression that a conflict of interest has arisen. Descon might be an accomplished company, but it is a commercial enterprise.

The clarification issued by the adviser’s office did little to answer the questions about his ownership of the company. Pointing out that Mr Dawood had ‘disclosed’ his ownership of the company to the prime minister, as well as the fact that it was in the bidding for this contract prior to his appointment, does not make everything alright.

The statement gives the impression that the prime minister has now become party to a conflict of interest, especially since the clarification goes on to say that the prime minister, after knowing all the facts, “made a strong plea for the services” of Mr Dawood.

If this is true, it runs contrary to promises made repeatedly by the prime minister that conflicts of interest would be scrupulously avoided under his leadership.

Scruples and ethics are the cornerstone of this government’s claim to legitimacy. It should not be seen to be cutting corners here.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2019

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