A bad guy named corruption [Archives:2007/1085/Opinion]

September 13 2007

Dr. Abdullah Al-Faqih
There is a growing consensus among opposition parties, independent politicians, civil society activists, civil servants and even senior members of the ruling party that corruption is enemy number one to the Yemeni people. In some instances, president Saleh himself bandwagons and talks of a “bad guy named corruption.” The devastating impact of corruption on the country's chances to overcome instability and underdevelopment and the prospects of a total collapse is self-evident. It needs no further proof.

Talking the talk, however, is one thing, and walking the walk is another. As an international official once summed it up: everyone in Yemen considers corruption a big problem. The only thing remaining is to act on corruption. And that particular step has not been taken. Furthermore, the talk about corruption continues to the extent that makes one wonder whether Yemen's wealth is robbed by government officials or by some invisible aliens descending to earth from Mars.

To some scholars working on Yemen, corruption is deeply rooted in the culture, structure, and dynamics of the current political regime. According to Robert Burrowes, an American specialist in Yemeni politics, the Yemeni political system has developed in the past two decades into something he terms as “kleptocracy”, which he defines as the rule of, by, and for thieves. While calling for a “reconstitution” of the Yemeni regime to augment its ability to carry out reforms, and wage the war against corruption, Burrowes seems to be very skeptical about the regime's ability to restructure itself, expand the base of beneficiaries, and to carry out the needed reforms. Burrowes, however, seems to bet on the carrot and stick of the donor community.

During the past few years, the international community appears to have spared no effort in convincing President Saleh of the necessity and urgency of reforms. By the end of 2005, Saleh visited Japan, France, and the USA. As usual, Saleh was demanding generous economic aid, however in the course of the visit, Saleh got a clear message from hosts. In response, and as soon as the presidential jet landed at Sana'a airport, Saleh convened an open ended meeting of the cabinet to identify problems and suggest agenda for reforms.

Disappointingly, reforms in the past two years have been more symbolic than real. The exception to the rule has been the enactment of a law establishing a supreme commission to fight corruption. While the law itself can be considered a step forward despite its shortcomings, the regime seems to have killed the initiative in its infancy. With few exceptions, those selected to membership in the committee are shadowy figures, presidential loyalists, security affiliates, ruling party dogmatists, and mere opportunists.

Those who frequently speak strongly against corruption and have resigned from public office in protest are left out of the picture. While the committee has been busy working out benefits and privileges for members, the fight against corruption has not yet started. Many people within and without government have strong doubts about the sincerity of government when it comes to threats made against corruption. The real fight against corruption, from skeptics stand point, may never start. When asked about the Yemeni government's real intents in dealing with corruption, a European official in Sana'a commented sarcastically by saying: “let's hope that the mafia would reform the mafia.”

The author is an activist, analyst, and professor of politics at Sana'a University. He welcomes comments by email to: [email protected]