Stretching My Gambes

Saddam’s corrupt legacy

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The Guardian’s expose of the possible Iraqi government complicity in the kidnap of five Britons is testament to the unfortunate legacy of Saddam Hussein’s system of rule.

On the 19 May 2007, Peter Moore, a British computer specialist, and his four bodyguards were kidnapped by a fleet of 19 Toyota land cruisers, containing a veritable army of eighty to a hundred armed men. Without engaging completely in the details of the operation here, I wish to focus on the (very real) allegation of government complicity in the process and the reasons behind it.

Moore was implementing a system (the Iraq financial management information system) that would monitor the movement of finance ministry revenues in an attempt to improve accountability and transparency. The ministry of finance was at the centre of the tracking system, which linked 11 other ministries. Following the kidnapping the Ministry of Finance immediately stopped the system. Thus, the entire system collapsed; accountability and transparency with it.

Eight months later, the Iraqi Central Bank, the only other institution with a full record of the government’s financial transactions, was destroyed by arson.

It is alleged that certain government officials did not want their corruption exposed. Indeed, the potential financial gains were/are not meagre. Judge al-Radhi, former commissioner of the Commission of Public Integrity in Iraq, stated in October 2007:

“The cost of corruption that my commission has uncovered so far across all ministries in Iraq has been estimated to be as high as $18bn.”

Three months previously he had fled to the US after his family’s home was targeted in a rocket attack.

How do we interpret this level of government complicity in corruption and the violent attempts to hide it? I maintain that such degrees of personal gain and complicity cannot be detached from the institutionalisation of corruption during the period of sanctions.

Following the imposition of UN sanctions following the First Gulf War, state institutions were weakened whilst Hussein’s position was strengthened through the dual state that he operated. On the one hand there was the elaborate system of public bureaucracy and government institutions; however real power was not concentrated here.

Power was found in the dual ‘shadow’ institutions, the networks of associates, patrons and clients, which dictated exclusion and privilege. Being plugged in to this system was integral for personal survival. Moreover, it was integral to survival of your dependents.

Central to these institutions were individuals (male) close to Hussein, however their positions of were never unconditional, never a foregone conclusion. Government institutions and political access and support became ruled by handouts and widespread corruption. Whilst the majority of Iraqis suffered through sanctions, those plugged in to the system lived in relative opulence.

Corruption was endemic. It was the norm. Indeed, it is fair to maintain that it was institutionalised by Hussein’s response to sanctions, most infamously by the ‘oil for food’ corruption networks.

The current levels of corruption cannot be detached from the legacy of this system. This legacy is still being felt in Iraq due to the appalling ethical standards of those catapulted to power within the post-invasion security vacuum. Ali Allawi concurs in The Occupation of Iraq, illustrating that the weakness of current state institutions do not in themselves explain the explosion of corrupt practices that border on the open plunder of the state’s resources.

Alternatively, to explain and understand current practices we must trace their origins and normative legitimation within the previous systems of governance in Iraq. The networks and practices are not conterminous with those under Hussein; rather they have been constructed using similar principles and ethical standards within the new state institutions.

This legacy and the violent implications it necessitates is testament to the old adage that old habits die hard. They cannot be changed through violent means but by a real commitment to democratic accountability, something Iraq must discover for itself.

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Written by Henry Smith

05/08/2009 at 23:08

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