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Afghanistan - interview - anti-corruption official

Can Karzai end Afghan corruption?

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-11-13 Latest update 2009-11-24 18:33 TU

Kebab seller Ebadullah in Kabul's Cinema Pamir market(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

Kebab seller Ebadullah in Kabul's Cinema Pamir market
(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

The Cinema Pamir market in Kabul bustles with activity. Vendors shout praise for their wares, children sell packets of cheese and soft drinks, a stallholder passes a feather duster over his collection of cheap bras and other clothing.

The crowds make the street a desirable site for shopkeepers like Mohammed Hadi, who sells jackets in a rudimentary store next door to another run by his brother.

The site doesn’t come cheap, both in rent and in bribes to the officials who hand out trading permits. The last signature costs the most, says Hadi.

They have to pay, he claims, because, if they don’t, officials will close his store, and reopening will cost much more.

Everybody’s at it, from provincial governors to traffic police.

Even the President’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is reported to be involved with the opium trade as well as with the US Central Intelligence Agency.

As for the cops, they are desperate to be posted to busy crossroads where they can hand out fines to the city’s thousands of motorists, and maybe forget to hand some of them in to the treasury.

“The government should know about the people,” storms Ebadullah, who sells kebabs at the market. “We have many problems with corruption.”

When he went looking for work, Ebadulla says he was asked to pay for the privilege of putting himself on the labour market.

Corruption has worsened over the last two years, says Ershad Ahmadi, the deputy head of the newly-established anti-corruption commission.

Increasing violence by Taliban insurgents means people are unsure that the present regime will last.

“So public officials see public office as a means of short-term enrichment,” he says. And companies don’t invest for the future, they just chase American contracts.

Anti-corruption official Ershad Ahmadi.(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

Anti-corruption official Ershad Ahmadi.
(Photo: Tony Cross/RFI)

Ahmadi’s organisation, the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, was set up by the government when a report by Afghan experts called for a number of anti-graft measures. Also established was a special court and special police, who are currently being trained by British and American advisers.

But, like the Independent Electoral Commission, which proved so controversial after the August presidential election, the High Office’s chief was appointed by the President.

And there are other limits to its power, which troubles Ahmadi.

“Unfortunately, the law does not give us powers to investigate and prosecute corruption,” he says. “In the meantime we have been able to identify several corruption cases and we have to refer them to the Attorney General’s office for further investigation and possible prosecution.”

One case involved four Kabul city officials who confiscated land, transferred it to themselves and sold it.

In some cases suspects have been released by the Attorney General’s office which has claimed there was insufficient evidence, while, in reality they have bribed their way out of jail.

“It is very sad to see corruption is happening and you cannot do much about it,” says Ahmadi.

Q+A: Ershad Ahmadi, deputy head, Afghan High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption

13/11/2009 by Tony Cross

The latest anti-graft measures were taken after Karzai’s regime came under fire at last year’s Paris conference on Afghanistan. Today, visiting foreign politicians - not to mention ambassadors - thump their fists on the table and demand action.

But foreign institutions are partly responsible for the problem, Ahmadi believes. He points out that almost 70 per cent of aid money is spent by foreign agencies, while only 30 per cent goes through the government. There are problems in international organisations, international companies and NGOs, he says.

“So there is corruption in the international system, there is wastage of resources. That is why it is important, both for the international community and the Afghan government to come to a clear recognition that corruption is a problem on both sides and both sides have to make a clear commitment.”

Ahmadi believes it is important that the new mechanisms are run by Afghans, although he would like more checks on their work and has proposed an oversight board with representatives from the UN, the Afghan media and civil society.

Ahmadi volunteered for the job, even though it means he needs bodyguards (perhaps they would be more necessary if the commission had more power, he jokes).

As a student, he wrote a dissertation on governance reform in Indonesia after the fall of dictatorial ruler, General Suharto. He believes that Afghanistan can learn from the Indonesian efforts towards tackling nepotism and corruption and the way that they related an increase in democracy to their own culture and the teachings of Islam.

Shopkeeper Mohammed Hadi might agree with him.

“We can stop corruption ourselves, as Afghans,” he says. “If we want to do it.”

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