Transparency International makes headlines every year when they release their Corruption Perception Index.
The causes of official corruption are many – from historical roots that can be traced to the Mughal empire to the pervasiveness of petty bribery in daily life. Earlier this week, however, Transparency International identified one are of particular interest: political instability.
This is not an uncommon problem. A study of political corruption in Africa pointed to a situation that may be familiar.
From east to west, the pattern is drearily repetitive. Keep just enough at home to rig the next election/pay off the army/build a garish palace (complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool and helicopter on the lawn). Stow the rest in offshore bank accounts in Uncle Binzi’s name, buy flats in the most expensive districts of Brussels, Paris and London – the kids, after all, will need a base in between terms at Eton and Harrow – and set up a handful of offshore companies. Whatever you do, get the money out of the country and never bring it back.
Africa’s history of political instability has also played its part. Presidents who knew they could be overturned at any moment rushed to steal as much as they could in the time available to them. In Nigeria, the post-independence elite initially invested their new-found wealth domestically, only to see those assets appropriated by incoming administrations. The likes of the late General Sani Abacha, who sent an estimated $4bn abroad, were careful not to repeat the mistake. “The thinking is always: ‘I am certain to be probed once I leave power, so I had better put everything abroad’,” says a Nigerian banker.
It’s widely suspected that Gen. Musharraf’s London lifestyle is financed in part by funds siphoned from US aid to Pakistan. And he’s not the only former Pakistani leader to face exile, and not the only one accused of funding his exile with looted funds. Former Prime-Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto both lived in exile, and both suffered accusations of official corruption.
We learned from the diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks that Pakistan’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari, has asked the United Arab Emirates to allow his family to live there in the event of his death, an event he believes would not be accidental. His concerns are not without merit. A popular theme in the Pakistani media during 2009 was the “Minus One Formula” – an alleged plan by the military to remove Zardari from power.
In the US, we put our ex-Presidents to pasture on book tours and lecture circuits. Pakistan’s political leadership has historically faced less attractive options. Knowing the stakes, it would be irrational for Pakistani political leaders not to make decisions to ensure their self-preservation – decisions that may involve engaging in some level of official corruption as a means to establishing a foreign safety net in the event of a coup. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it a reality.
All of this, of course, reinforces the need to support the democratic process as key to reducing corruption and the perception of corruption in Pakistan. Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida writes for the English-language daily Dawn that Pakistan still lacks political stability and the threat of military intervention, while weakened, still looms in the background of Pakistan’s domestic politics. His solution – stabilizing the nation’s contentious democratic process.
Official corruption is not a problem unique to Pakistan. A recent BBC report claims that the entire world may be more corrupt than it was three years ago. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, says the government considers corruption a form of terrorism, and is taking action to eliminate it throughout the government. Without the assurance of a stable democratic system, though, the temptation to engage in corruption as a means to create a safety net will endure. The US has many options when it comes to helping Pakistan eliminate corruption – the first should be working to ensure a stable and enduring democratic system. Without that foundation, progress will be hard to come by.