Ahmed Mohammed Sharafuddin: “The ability of parliament to do its job is hampered by the distorted distribution of power among  the branches of authority.” [Archives:1999/10/Business & Economy]

March 8 1999

Ahmed Mohammed Sharafuddin is one of the most distinguished and well-respected members of parliament. He is reliable, with near complete attendance, prepares his positions well for parliamentary discussions, and speaks with authority and confidence. Mr. Sharafuddin, of the Islah Party, chairs the Trade and Industry Committee in parliament.
Over the last few weeks, parliament passed several laws related to trade, industry and taxation of business. Besides the regulations, it has also considered several policy and pricing options.
Mr. Ismail Al-Ghabiry of Yemen Times interviewed Mr. Sharafuddin, as follows:
Q: What are the most important issues and laws that your committee dealt with during the last two years.
A: The Committee on Trade and Industry is one of 19 committees in parliament. Within the fields of trade and industry, we have passed many laws, discussed many policies, and studied many steps.
I am satisfied with our achievements, so far.
Q: How do you assess implementation of the reform program? And what are the benefits to the people, so far?
A: The government, of course, is responsible for implementation of what has been called the financial and administrative reform program. However, what we have seen so far, either through reports on government activities to the parliament or through our daily contacts with the public, is something very unsatisfactory.
Notwithstanding the propaganda and posturing of the official media, we see little substance in terms of achievements that can be said of relevance to the life of our people. No one really cares about the public or the country’s high interests. Every official seems indifferent to the situation. In fact, I can say the extent of improvement in the lives of the people due to the implementation of the reform program is non-existent or intangible. This is especially true in the administrative dimension of the reforms. On the financial side, one can endlessly list violations. Examples of financial abuse abound. We receive many complaints from all sides, but notably from the citizens and businessmen. All this proves that the the government gives lip service to the reform program.
The real situation as we see it today can only point to two facts: decline and disorder. Let me tell you this. The Committee for Trade and Industry in parliament paid field visits to 7 governorates in the republic. We saw proof of lots of corruption and embezzlement of public funds, especially with the subsidized commodities of wheat and flour. As a parliamentary committee, we were supposed to check if these two commodities reach their designated targets among the public. What we found was that the policy of subsidies goes to enrich a privileged few. Our poor citizens get no break because of the amounts of money the government pays as subsidies.
Everyone talks about corruption and corrupt officials as if they are invisible. Starting with the president and going on downward to the lowliest official, they talk about fighting corruption and stopping the corrupt officials. At the end, it all sounds funny, and of course, hard to believe.
Q: Preparations are underway for a fresh increase in prices, especially in regards to wheat and diesel. Your comments?
A: As far as wheat is concerned, let me say that the subsidy on this commodity has been totally lifted. It is no longer a subsidized commodity. Flour on the other hand is still subsidized in a small way. We have been told by the government this will continue for a certain time.
If I remember correctly, (Prime Minister Abdul-Karim) Al-Iryani pledged to our parliament that there will be no price increments until 2003.
But then again, we don’t know what will happen. As a member of parliament, I am sorry to say that we are the last place to know what is going on. Many times, we get information from the media.
Q: Ibn Khaldoun, the famous Arab sociologist has said that society’s system is ruined if politicians work in business, given the conflict of interest. The constitution of Yemen forbids senior government officials from working in trade or other business activities. Yet, the reality is different.
A: I have to tell you that almost all our senior officials engage in business in one way or another. Actually, most of them do it openly. Others do it under the names of their children, who are sometimes as young as a few years old.
Parliament was considering a law addressing this matter. But the government withdrew the draft of the law, and that was the end of that.
It is true that when decision-makers are also businessmen, then the conflict of interest leads to tremendous loss to society and to the system.
Q: Smuggling is a major headache for our economy. Why is it that we have not been able to address this matter?
A: The Yemen Times is a well-informed paper. You know the answer to your question. The reason is that the people who engage in smuggling are themselves the arbiters of power in this country. I mean the question should really be ‘Who are the smugglers?’. Those in power are directly engaged in smuggling, or they are patrons of the smugglers. I have said this on television.
Smuggling is very destructive to our national economy. It is unfair trade for our importers, investors and industrialists. It brings goods unchecked and uncontrolled for quality to our consumers. It deprives the state of legitimate revenue. It creates an underground economy. It encourages a law-breaking culture based on bad moral values.
In short, smuggling is disastrous for our nation. Yet, it cannot be controlled because those who can control it, and do have the power, are involved.
Q: You mentioned substandard goods being smuggled into Yemen. Are substandard goods actually legally imported into Yemen?
A: It is the duty of governments to check the quality of products that are brought into the country. This is necessary for health, environmental, economic and other reasons.
Parliament has a supervisory role vis-avis the government. But we cannot order them to their job, if they are not doing it. Ideally, we should be able to exert more pressure, but that is not the case, given the distorted distribution of power structure among the branches of authority. The ability of parliament to do its job is hampered by this reality.
While I am on the subject let me mention that our committee had prepared a draft law on standards and measurements. We discussed the details for one year. Then the government withdrew it.
Q: Your committee legislates for Yemen’s trade policies. Are you considering membership in the World Trade Organization at all?
A: It is true that we pass legislation on trade and industrial activities. But the initiative is often taken by the government, which sends proposals of laws to us. We also respond to the needs of the business community.
The issue of membership in the WTO has not come up yet. It will be more relevant in a few years as the world economies are increasingly integrated. Besides, least developed economies like ours have until the end of 2005 to take adjustment measures. I believe this matter will be the responsibility of the next parliament.
Q: Do you believe in full integration in the world market?
A: This is a political rather than an economic issue. At the economic level, we should care about what happens to our industry and economy when we compete head-on with much stronger competitors. We are already suffering from what is wrongly called the ‘open-door’ policy. Actually, this is a policy of no responsibility, which has inflicted a lot of damage to us. Let me specify:
1) Any such policy should be gradual and with full awareness of the consequences.
2) We should be against dumping policies that are exercised against us. Dumping policies should not be confused with open policies.
3) We should have complementary measures that will protect Yemen’s interests.
Q: Any final comments?
A: Trade is important and we should encourage it. But it should not lead to the destruction of our industrial investments. In Taiz alone, for example, 14 plants were closed down last month leading to lay-off of 1,700 workers. We should pay attention to these developments.