Back to Basics To Own or To Manage: The Mandate of Political Leaders [Archives:1998/01/Viewpoint]

January 5 1998

An e-mail from a Yemeni friend in the USA raised this basic issue with me last week. How does the Yemeni leadership handle public funds?
The problem in the Third World is that their leaders in general perceive themselves as owners of the country they are in charge of. There is no clear dividing line between their private funds and the public coffers. Therefore, you can see many examples of rulers siphoning off government money. When one traces the evolution of Euro-American democracies, starting with the Magna Carta, it is readily visible that one of the main controversies was how much control the sovereign should have over public resources. It was well into the 19th century when the whimsical control of the rulers over public funds was brought to an end. In other words, the duty of the top person in the country has become to manage the affairs of the country within a well-defined set of guidelines and rules. Thus a system based on checks-and-balances came into place.
In the Third World today, the rulers have no fixed budgets or allocations, even when these exist on paper. The rulers simply spend as they please. Actually, the only limiting element is the lack of funds or the general poverty of the country. Here in Yemen, this problem exists in a shameless way. Just a couple of weeks ago, a number of government palaces built by foreign aid were simply given away to the top president’s men. Each of those palaces is worth several hundred million Riyals, and it is given to people who already have hundreds of millions. But that is not all. We have two additional complications:
1) The behavior of the top politicians is beyond accountability. To add insult to injury, such malpractices are emulated by the ministers, governors, commanders, chairman of corporations, etc. Most of these individuals interact with the institutions they are in charge of as if they own them. This attitude becomes ever more damaging given the lack of accountability, even at the middle and low levels of bureaucracy.
2) The behavior of the top politicians and their entourage is no longer limited to public assets, but is steadily moving to eat away on private property. Politicians, using their powers, infringe on private enterprise and snatch agency dealerships, representation rights, ‘confiscate’ real estate property, force co-ownership arrangements, and make other deals.
No laws will hold back the greed of the ruling clique. What is needed is really a high level of morals and ethical values on the part of the ruling group to see and observe the limits of their powers. Unless they do this, the system loses much of its integrity, legitimacy and credibility. I use this opportunity to call on our leadership to check this matter and bring things under control. In the New Year, people in the West are used to making resolutions for themselves. May I urge our leadership to make correcting its relationship with public funds its main resolution for 1998. This effort falls within the reforms presently under way. And it is ethically right.

By: Pro. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf Editor-in-Chief and Publisher