Somalia’s corruption epidemic

The world’s ‘most corrupt country’ should take a lesson from Liberia, says Somali scholar.

Corrupt government officials grow wealthy at the expense of poor and displaced Somalis [AFP]

In 2005, Liberia was ranked 137th in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Somalia followed closely behind in the 144th position. But while by 2009, Liberia had managed to creep up the rankings to 97th, Somalia had slipped into 180th – earning the unenviable title of the country perceived to be the most corrupt.

So while Somalia and Liberia share many characteristics – a collapsed state, warlordism, countless peace processes and leaders who have used their country’s resources for self-enrichment – one country appears to be recovering, while the other deteriorates further.

Corruption has marred every aspect of Somali society. Business warlords have adjusted to the climate of lawlessness – avoiding taxes, selling expired food and drugs, sustaining anti-state forces and commercialising so as to profit from areas that were traditionally in the public sector.

In many parts of the country inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations have become de facto governments without any accountability. These organisations provide the little education and health care the Somali people receive. Ironically, even the UN prefers to fund NGOs rather than local and national government institutions.

Worse still, as the UN Monitoring Group reported, corruption is rife within Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), with malpractice reported in most government institutions. Ministers selling visas and signing dubious deals, misusing revenues, covering for organised crime and piracy, selling weapons and diverting food aid are just a few of the practices taking place within the national and regional governments.

The government’s establishment of an anti-corruption committee did nothing to halt corruption. While the idea to hire accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to manage donor funds was novel, the government was not transparent about the process of hiring the agency or the content of its contract and the prestigious firm’s impact proved to be minimal.

As a result, the Somali government does not have reliable sources of income. Of the TFG’s approximately $115mn budget, more than 90 per cent is expected to come from donors.

In response to these abuses, the International Contact Group on Somalia, and more broadly the international community, has made it clear that the TFG will not receive the financial support it used to unless it displays accountability for its actions and transparency in the way it does business.

Lessons from Liberia

NGOs have replaced government institutions in many parts of Somalia [AFP]

Liberia’s improving corruption status corresponds with a move by the international community to force the country’s leaders to accept the Governance Economic Management Assistance Plan (GEMAP) – an institutional mechanism designed to tackle corruption.

The National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the UN, the European Union, the US, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) signed an agreement installing GEMAP in 2005.

It was designed to control corruption, support government institutions, establish a sustainable revenue base for the public sector and build the capacity of Liberia’s people and institutions. The international community placed internationally recruited financial controllers with managerial and cheque-signing authority in the country’s state-owned revenue generating sectors, such as the national port, airport, petroleum agency and forestry development department.

As a result, Antoinette Sayeh, the former Liberian finance minister, reported that the government’s revenue increased to $185mn in 2008 to 2009, while Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, the current finance minister, projects that his government will secure more than $340mn in revenues in 2010 to 2011.

Many analysts have attributed these quick successes to the introduction of GEMAP.

Somalia is desperately in need of a similar mechanism.

Naming and shaming

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The status quo in Somalia is not acceptable. Somalia’s meager resources are not being managed in a way that serves the poor and displaced Somali people. The government has failed, thus far, to prove that it is transparent and accountable. Moreover, rules and institutions that can govern the management of public finances are non-existent and there is no functioning anti-corruption agency.

The time has come when the international community must introduce a revised and context-appropriate form of GEMAP in Somalia.

But, while the introduction of GEMAP is a necessary medium- to long-term response to Somalia’s corruption problem, it is not sufficient. The international community and Somali stakeholders should consider two other short-term strategies.

Firstly, naming and shaming public officials who abuse their authority would certainly serve as a deterrence. In fact, while corruption is a popular topic of conversation among Somalis, it has become part of the country’s political culture not to publicly discuss it. The main Somali media outlets, such as the BBC and the VOA, rarely report on corruption related news and when they do those allegedly involved are not named.

The international community is similarly silent. Back in 2007 and 2008, I interviewed officials from the UN, Western diplomatic missions and the NGO community. Many of those I spoke to were clear about which members of the transitional government were involved in corruption at that time. But nobody came forward to publicly name those they accused.

Turning a blind eye to corruption only encourages the perpetuation of this culture and this must end if Somalia’s leaders are to be held accountable.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. The UN Monitoring Group recently named several individuals associated with corruption. Perhaps the international community should now empower the Monitoring Group to do more to tackle corruption.

Travel ban

It is not enough to defeat Somalia’s
extremist groups [AFP]

Secondly, the international community must consider freezing the assets of and imposing travel bans on corrupt Somali officials.

The US and other countries recently took steps in this direction by banning several Africans from entering their countries.

Many criminals leave the country they have looted to live more comfortably in developed countries.

Sending a signal that corrupt officials will not enjoy the money they looted in developed countries will surely help to combat corruption.

The mostly poor and displaced Somali people deserve better.

The Somali state is not a sovereign entity and the international community controls most of the functions of governance. It is, therefore, obligated to ensure the accountability and transparency of the public officials it has selected and legitimised. After all, the Somali people did not elect the members of the transitional government.

Reclaiming Somalia’s destiny

Despite the many interventions by powerful external actors in Somali affairs, Somali civil society groups, traditional leaders, religious scholars and those who understand and care about Somalia should reclaim their agency in dealing with the problem of corruption.

Recognising that we Somalis have lost much in controlling our own destiny is understandable, but relying on others to do everything for us while playing the blame-game is unacceptable.

Defeating the country’s extremist groups militarily is not enough. As the Somali saying goes “all the parts of an adult’s body are eyes” – meaning that people will immediately recognise good behaviour from a bad no matter how deceptive or subtle one tries to be. If the government cannot compete with extremist groups in the area of governance, accountability, transparency and provision of services then it is not worthy of the name.

In sum, until the government earns the respect of the Somali people and the support of its donors by showing that it is accountable and transparent, the international community must institute GEMAP mechanisms, name and shame corrupt officials, freeze their overseas assets and impose travel bans on those found guilty of looting their country. No immunity should be accorded to those who steal what should be public property.

Dr Afyare Abdi Elmi is a professor of International Affairs at Qatar University and the author of Understanding the Somalia Conflagration.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera