Three out of the bottom 10 countries on Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index are from the Middle East and North Africa. Two of these three are in the midst of gruesome civil wars where lives are being lost daily. Iraq and Libya tell a story of a region in turmoil plagued with geopolitical insecurity, rampant corruption and governments unwilling or unable to seriously make a clean break with their cronyism.
Unstable security situations, violence and armed conflicts have facilitated the spread of illicit flows and corrupt practices. Many countries in the region have politically and financially invested in dealing with the imminent security threats rather than pour more resources in fighting corruption effectively.
When Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) captured Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, the international community was deeply rattled – and they still are. Iraqi Prime Minister Hedar Al Abadi recently revealed that 50,000 ghost soldiers were on the payroll of the Iraqi army – equivalent to four full army divisions. The inflated numbers are one of the reasons for the Iraqi army’s inability to contain ISIL and why they are unable to hold on to their posts in Mosul.
In the past 10 years, the US had provided US$25 billion in training and funding to the Iraqi military, but it still has not been able to counter ISIL’s extensive territorial grab with large sums of money being wasted on unaccounted salaries of non-existent soldiers.
Political corruption is the main challenge in the region. Ruling elites have concentrated power with small groups blurring the distinction of separation of powers, which spill into decision-making processes that affect millions of citizens.
Political elites in the region have systematically abused their authority and operate with often startling levels of impunity. They have safeguarded their personal interests through undue influence and networks of patronage.
The institutional reforms that were supposed to take place after 2011 have not happened. Ensuring the separation of powers between the executive and legislative should be a top priority for those elected into power, such as in Tunisia recently. Further, independent judiciaries devoid of political interference are integral to transitional justice and sorely needed democratic reforms.
Several countries have made positive steps toward reform, and some legislative progress has been made in the region through the ratification or accession to the United Nations Convention against Corruption. However, the region lags behind in terms of key robust laws that can have a significant impact on improving integrity, transparency and accountability.
Earlier this year, Oman took positive steps where 20 high-ranking government officials and private executives went on trial on charges of offering or accepting bribes in exchange for large infrastructure contracts. This is one important example of a government arming its anti-corruption bodies to deal with bribery adequately. Still, in most Arab countries loopholes, lax regulations and disparate laws benefit those allied with a certain regime.
The regime of deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali demonstrated this when his clan captured 21 per cent of the private sector through political and market manipulation. Bold laws that are tied to national anti-corruption plans and strategies must be legislated as well as anti-corruption commissions that can act as independent watchdogs of the public’s purse string.
The people demand
One of the main problems for the poor showing of most Middle East and North African countries on the index is a lack of important laws that give the public the opportunity to monitor how their money is spent. Only three countries have an access to information law and four have protection for whistleblowers.
People need to trust their institutions, especially during times of instability, and governments must be willing to work with their citizens. The continuing clampdown on civil society signals a dangerous moment where governments are not serious about being transparent. Civil society is an important partner in the fight against corruption: from courageous whistleblowers to brave journalists they expose corruption that destroys lives.