By Claude Salhani
Iraq, like many Arab countries, is plagued by rampant corruption at nearly all levels of government. Many public servants, from the policeman directing traffic at the corner of the street to the office of the highest authority in the land, are open to accepting bribes.
Every few years we hear of a new government being formed in Iraq, Lebanon or Jordan, to name but a few, whereupon being sworn in the new prime minister vows to fight corruption. Sometimes there is a cabinet post created with the specific task to eliminate corruption.
That is far easier said than done. There are two basic reasons why corruption and bribery are so common in the Arab world.
This is not to say that people in power in other countries are not corrupt. Just look at the price that the US Air Force was once charged for such banal items as a toilet seat or a coffee cup.
However, nothing comes close to the imagination of corrupt Iraqi officials who in all seriousness can blame the rain. Iraq is a rich oil country but is poor when it comes to services the state can provide to its citizens. A key reason is corruption, a source of unending protests in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
In the corruption-plagued country, it appears that even the rain can be blamed for corruption and, some Iraqis say, the rain has a mind of its own, a criminal mind. It can enter bank vaults and steal huge sums of money.
The government’s explanations obviously do not wash — no pun intended. The population has been accustomed to politicians and civil servants at all levels finding their way to public money. When they do not believe official arguments and lose trust in the state, citizens take to the streets or, even worse, they can start seeing the state as their enemy.
Poor citizens in filthy-rich countries cannot be expected to provide their rulers with a vote of confidence when banknotes keep on drifting away with the rain.
The latest scam, because this can be nothing but a scam, has the parliament investigating how $6 million worth of local currency stored in a public bank were damaged by heavy rains.
This case has just resurfaced, quashing hopes among some lawmakers that it would just wash away, No such luck. The case drifted around for about five years but it will not go away.
“At the end of 2013, the vaults of the Rafidain Bank were flooded because of huge rains at the time, damaging the bills that were stored there,” said Ali Mohsen al-Allaq, who was head of the Central Bank at the time. “They were worth around 7 billion dinars ($6 dollars),” he said.
He said the Central Bank printed new bills to replace the soaked ones but, because the money had not been in circulation, the only real “loss” was the cost of printing. Seriously?
“The bank governor said the (damaged) bills were destroyed but that answer isn’t clear,” said MP Hoshyar Abdallah of Kurdish anti-corruption party Goran and a member of parliament’s finance committee.
“We have concerns over how water entered the vault. This is a source of suspicion for us. That’s why we will conduct an investigation into this as soon as possible,” Abdallah told Agence France-Presse.
The issue sparked controversy in Iraq. Corruption, shell companies and “phantom” public employees who receive salaries but do not work have cost Iraq the equivalent of $228 billion since 2003, Iraq’s parliament said.
That figure is more than the country’s GDP and nearly three times the annual budget. Any surprise, then, that the country is ranked by Transparency International as the 12th most corrupt in the world.
I mentioned there are two reasons why corruption takes hold in a country. The first is that people believe they are underpaid for the work they do and therefore help themselves to what they consider their just desserts.
Second, the notion of corruption is so embedded in society that trying to rectify the problem will not work. What authorities should do is give up on the older generations who have been raised with the understanding that nothing can ever be accomplished without bribing someone and concentrate on properly educating the young and future generations.