Thursday, 7 March 2013

Libya’s Culture of Corruption: Threat to democracy

Libya’s Culture of Corruption threatens the Democratic Gains of the Revolution.

This week, the Libyan Justice Minister Salah Margani urged the Attorney General to release the newspaper editor Amara Abdalla Al-Khatabi who had been arrested on the 19/12/2012 following the publication of a list containing the name of 84 judges allegedly involved in corruption.

The phenomenon of corruption is neither new to Libya nor unique to the country. However, comparing Libya to the rest of the world paints a grim picture. NATO estimated that Gaddafi and his associates had around $150 billion stashed abroad. In 2012, Libya ranked 160th amongst the 176 countries covered by Transparency International’s authoritative Corruption Perception Index. An improvement from the previous year (2011: 168/176), but it till classifies Libya as a highly corrupt country.

The scourge of corruption has long been identified as a major problem by the new regime.  As the leader of the National Transition Council (NTC), Mustapha Abdul Jalil had acknowledged in that it would take years to overcome the “heavy heritage’ of corruption in Libya. Yet, allegations of corruptions surfaced during the turbulent period of NTC rule.

Two scandals emerged in 2012 surrounding funds set up to compensate revolutionary fighters and their medical treatment abroad, respectively. Both funds were eventually halted due to widespread misuse and fraud.  Commenting on the medical-fund scandal, former Interim Health Minister Fatima Hamroush clarified the prevailing attitudes succinctly when she said: “there was a fear from a dictator and that’s why order was kept without law basically. Law wasn’t applied, but there was order. Now there’s no order, everything’s a mess because there’s no fear”.

The scandals draw attention to two issues concerning corruption in Libya. Firstly, they point to the authorities’ ineptness in curtailing corruption. Secondly, they highlight the prevalence of a ‘culture of corruption’. The head of Libya’s Audit Bureau Ibrahim Belkheir acknowledged the widespread nature of the problem amongst Libyans:  As they are so used to it, it does not seem to be corruption to them."

While it is worth noting that this was a turbulent time for the country, the issue of corruption and government’s will (or lack thereof) to tackle it remains in the headlines. On 18/01/2013 Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced a number of measures taken by his administration to fight corruption. These included close cooperation with the Audit Bureau, the establishment of a central bidding committee to ensure transparency in contract awards, enlisting the help of the secret service in investigations, and new measures to prevent irregular recruitment of government employees. He also urged the Libyan people to play their part and to report those who violate the law.

Zeidan’s government appears committed to curbing corruption, at least on the surface. The Prime Minister’s 23/02/2013 surpriseannouncement about the sacking of a number of government officials allegedly involved in corruption. Details and names have yet to emerge, but Zeidan did stress that he “will not allow the misuse of public funds and I will take the strongest procedures against corruption”. Due to the lack of details or subsequent action, the statement should be seen as more than populist rhetoric. It should interpret as a warning addressed to all officials including those under investigations. Zeidan’s words have yet to turn to action as a recent whistleblower case indicates.

The government seems unable or unwilling to address public accounts of alleged corruption. The deputy minister of Culture and Civil Society, Ms. Awatif al-Tushani, announced her resignation on 7/02/2013 citing alleged financial and administrative irregularities in the ministry.  She claims to have raised such issues to the Prime Minister, but no action was taken. Furthermore, reports indicate that she was forced to resign and that her stand against dishonest practices at the ministry made her a target for personal harassment.

A more comprehensive approach needs to be taken by the Libyan Government. The International anti-corruption group Global Witness says that the new government should learn from the previous regime’s practices and implement reforms in Libya’s oil and gas sector. The strategic importance of the sector and the prevalence of shady practices in the industry make this the most important area for reform the new government.

Global Witness’ ‘blueprint for reforms’ (2012) should provide sufficient guidance to prevent large-scale corruption in the new Libya. Their recommendations include the promotion of transparency through the publication of all existing and future oil contracts, to work with international audit organisations to improve accounting and auditing practice within the National Oil Company so that revenues can be accurately measured and reported on. Furthermore, real commitment to transparency should be enshrined into Libya's new constitution, and all current and future contracts should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
Nothing could indicate a stronger commitment to fighting corruption and illegal practices than a comprehensive reform in the oil sector. Such actions would not only promote an image of ‘responsible governance’ but would improve the trust of Libyans in their nascent democratic institutions. It would also facilitate  a change in the entrenched attitudes about corruption at both the institutional and individual levels.

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