Apr 8, 2015

Corruption, controversial elections and violent extremism

CORRUPTION – the use of public office for private gains – benefits a powerful few while imposing serious costs on large swathes of society. It is believed to impede economic development. More importantly, it seriously hampers poverty eradication efforts of least developed countries. In a recent best-selling book, Thieves of States: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security (W.W. Norton, 2015) Sara Chayes explains how this oldest problem of governments can also be their greatest destabilising force and the biggest threat to their national security.

Sara Chayes, currently a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a journalist and later became an adviser on corruption to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Her book is primarily on Afghanistan's governance failures and their effects on the Talabization of the country.
It also has chapters on Egypt, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Nigeria, among others. The book is enriched with its reference to medieval and Renaissance works of advice for rulers, known 'as mirrors,' to contextualise current abuses of governments. She even quotes the 11th-century Persian Administrator, Nizam-al Mulk, who cautioned that a government's ability to administer justice and hold officials accountable was key to its very survival.

In her anecdotal, but compelling story, Chayes makes the strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdowns but also violent religious extremism. She shows that where there is poor governance – specifically, no rule of law and no protected right of property – people begin a search for spiritual purity that puts them on a path to radicalization. Mired in graft, many countries of Africa, Asia and former Soviet Union, are caught in a Mafia-like system in which money flows upward. In many of those countries, according to Chayes, “Development resources passed through a corrupt system not only reinforce that system by helping to fund it but also inflamed the feelings of injustice that were driving people toward the insurgency.”

Some of the other countries Chayes covers in her book show similar patterns of stealing money, although with some variations. The variations range from military-kleptocratic complex in Egypt to bureaucratic kleptocracy in Tunisia, the post-Soviet kleptocratic autocracy in Uzbekistan and the resource kleptocracy in Nigeria. The Arab Spring, Chayes contends, “amounted to mass uprising against kleptocratic practices.” The book singles out a few characters like Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal, who crystallised popular revulsion, because he and his cronies 'hijacked' the Egyptian state, “rewriting the laws, awarding themselves privileged access to land and other public resources.”

The effect of such kleptomania is religious extremism. For example, according to Chayes, among the Nigerian Christians and Muslims, the “puritanical focus on personal behaviour has increased in recent decades, as corruption metastasized beyond the confines of officialdom to infect nearly all Nigerian behaviour.” In Uzbekistan, where Chayes says the aging dictator's eldest daughter is involved in faux charities, telecom sector bribery and possibly even sex trafficking, many people are disenchanted and turning to religion.

According to Chayes, the government of Afghanistan “could best be understood not as a government at all but as a vertically integrated criminal organisation whose core activity was not in fact exercising the functions of a state but rather extracting resources for personal gain.” As a result, Chayes quoted a local human rights activist as saying: “People are becoming more devoted because they are more and more frustrated with the government. They are turning to God for recourse.”

Faced with such a kleptocratic, criminal empire in Afghanistan, Chayes tried to convince the senior officials at ISAF and the U.S Joint Chiefs to do something about the danger it poses. Their response was, “First let's establish security, then we can worry about governance.” But, according to Chayes, in Afghanistan, corruption and social injustice are the main causes of insecurity. In a recent interview with Reuters, she claimed to have told her bosses: “If we don't address the underlying drivers of the Taliban resurgence, you can kill all the Taliban you want and you won't get anywhere. But I didn't (she admitted) make the case sufficiently enough for people to change the policy.”

In the same interview, Chayes described her experience of giving a talk in Germany in 2010, where she characterised the Afghan government as a vertically integrated criminal organisation: “I thought that was a wonky throw-away line, and I got a standing ovation! There were people from 45 different countries there and several came up to me and said 'you just described my country.' And every person who said that had a violent religious extremist movement in their country.”

Chayes also argues in her book that rigged elections can anger people and make them violent. She points to the fraudulent 2009 Afghan elections, which so frustrated citizens that the vote may have boosted support for the insurgency. The book thus identifies new stimulants to and provides new understanding of the problem of violent religious extremism.

We too have serious graft and corruption problems in Bangladesh. The problem is widespread and affects everyone. However, the common people, with their limited income and no 'patron' in positions of power to help out, are the hardest and directly hit, especially by all pervasive petty corruption. Our January 5, 2014 parliament elections were one-sided and largely voter-less. We also have a growing problem of religious extremism. We are afraid that the continued looting and plundering of our corrupt politicians-bureaucrats-businessmen nexus and the recent controversial elections have been fanning serious grassroots anger, boosting support for growing violent extremism in our country. We are concerned that unless we begin to recognise this link and start taking the necessary remedial measures, our future may be doomed.

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