| ||Afghans Hostage to Corruption|
By Gulab Shah Bawer
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Everyone knows it’s undermining the country, but no one has a solution.
The mayor of Mazar-e Sharif was outlining how the Afghan authorities were tackling corruption, when an elderly man stopped him in his tracks.
"If you want to fight corruption, the greatest corruption exists in your own administration, the municipality,” said the man, Nek Baba. “You should reform yourself first."
The event was a “corruption awareness workshop”, held at the municipal offices in the north Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif with an invited audience of 300 local elders and dignitaries.
Nek Baba’s particular grievance was that land-plots were being handed out free of charge to the rich and powerful, instead of to people who needed them.
In response, Mayor Yunos Moqim acknowledged that Nek Baba was largely right. He accepted that corrupt practices took place in the city government, but promised that he was serious about rooting them out.
The encounter neatly encapsulates the problem with corruption in Afghanistan. Everyone agrees it exists. Everyone, including officials, says something needs to be done about it. But little tangible progress has been made in making the bureaucracy more honest over the last decade. Few are arrested, few are held accountable.
Residents of northern Afghanistan say they cannot get anything done without paying off some official.
"People have to pay bribes just to get what’s legally due to them. If they won’t pay up, they get harassed under a range of pretexts, their affairs don’t get processed, and obstacles are placed in their way," Mazar-e Sharif resident Gholam Sakhi said.
He should know. As community leader of Qarghan Kocha, a neighbourhood of Mazar-e Sharif, Gholam Sakhi has to cope with daily requests from residents to accompany them to local government offices and help sort out their affairs.
He explained how the system worked. "Every office has middlemen. When somebody goes to the office to get some paperwork processed, the staff hassle him so much that he’s forced to turn to the middlemen, who then do the processing for money."
He said district and other local-level leaders like himself had been issued with official seals and stamps which – in theory – should be recognised as proof of their status, but in reality officials ignore them.
"Corruption in government offices undermines our confidence in them,” he said. “The staff there don’t care about anyone or anything except money."
Afghans are frustrated by the impact that bribery and other corrupt practices has on their lives. But many feel powerless to fight back, saying there is little chance of change at day-to-day level unless the culture of impunity is reformed from the top down.
"If high-ranking officials weren’t involved in corruption, lower-level employees would never be corrupt," said a trader who rents a shop at the Balkh Bazaar in Mazar-e Sharif.
He described how he had to accept things as they were.
"Look, this document shows how we’ve been charged for six square metres of floorspace, while they’ve only given us three square metres,” he said. “These ground-floor shops are owned by a senior official in the [provincial] governor's office. How are we going to file a complaint against him? He has the prosecution, judiciary and police in his pockets. If we said anything, he’s got his own armed men who could kill us."
According to Wakil Matin, a social affairs expert in Balkh province, "The fundamental roots of administrative corruption lie in the capital, and they’ve spread into the provinces from there. If the president gets serious about it and launches a proper effort in the capital, it will take two days to eliminate administrative corruption in the provinces.”
President Hamid Karzai has in fact said he is serious about dealing with corruption on more than on occasion, most recently in a June speech clearly intended to reassure international donors, followed by a wide-ranging, 164-point decree setting out plans to improve governance and rule of law, combat corruption, and make the country more self-reliant. (See Karzai's Anti-Graft Call Gets Lukewarm Response.)
The head of the High Office for Oversight and Anti-Corruption, Azizullah Ludin, has made public allegations against two cabinet ministers, Ismail Khan and Hazrat Omar Zakhelwal, but so far both have robustly defended their positions.
In Herat, the western region of which Water and Energy Minister Ismail Khan was once governor and where the anti-corruption chief accuses him of misappropriating land, his supporters staged protests against Ludin.
Finance Minister Zakhelwal roundly rejects allegations that the large sums of money in his bank account are anything other than honest earnings. He told the BBC, “I have earned a million dollars over ten years. There are individuals in the system who earn one million in a day."
Ludin said he was also looking into the affairs of other officials, but it was too early to reveal details.
In Balkh province, counter-corruption chief Shamsullah Jawid, says he too is digging away at official malpractice.
He believes inadequate public-sector pay, the general atmosphere of impunity and lawlessness, poor levels of education, and a sense of despondency about Afghanistan’s future all contribute to dishonest practices.
"Not only in Balkh, in the entire northern zone, administrative corruption has proliferated to a level where people have completely lost faith in government," he said. "I have identified some corrupt individuals in the northern zone, and I will shortly be handing them over to the law."
At the same time, Jawid acknowledged that corruption was at its worst in the legal system itself.
He added, “Although I have received direct and indirect threats that I should stop, I am resolved to fight corruption fearlessly in my area of responsibility."
At the anti-graft meeting in Mazar-e Sharif, Nek Baba had little faith that the authorities had any intention of changing things.
"This gathering is an attempt to deceive people," he said. “For God's sake, do not pour salt on our wounds any more. Stop making fun of us. Halt this performance."