Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Corruption Rampant at Every Level

Citizens complain that nothing in the country can be accomplished without paying someone a bribe.
By Hafizullah Gardish

When the truck filled with top-of-the-line televisions, stereos, DVD players and satellite dishes pulled up to Adil's shop in the Nadir Pushtoon section of Kabul earlier this year, it didn't come alone. It was closely followed by a police officer, who pointed out that the truck was parked illegally but said he would ignore the offence if he was given a bribe.

An offer of about 10 US dollars by the 28-year-old shopkeeper was rejected by the police officer as inadequate. After a brief argument, Adil and the officer marched down to the local police station, where the police chief promptly demanded a payment of 200 dollars.

"After this experience, I will give the policeman whatever he wants at the beginning, because when you complain to high-ranking officials, the bribes just get bigger," Adil said.

Bakhshish, or bribes, are part of everyday life in Afghanistan. Corruption and extortion are rife among the the police, judicial system, public utilities - even the national airline. In a bid to curb the problem, President Hamed Karzai in March declared the establishment of an anti-corruption department with a staff of almost 400.

Two months later, the department has just three staff and is working out of a room in the presidential palace because there is not yet any budget for additional staff, or to pay for a building and other resources.

When people here talk about corruption in their society, Afghans often cite a old proverb: "Water is muddy from the source."

In fact, people at the highest level of government concede that bribery is a way of life in Afghanistan.

Fazil Ahmad Manawi, a Supreme Court deputy, acknowledges that bribery exists among the judiciary. By way of justification, he said that judges in other countries are paid high salaries to discourage them from resorting to accepting bribes.

But those who have sought justice in the Afghan court system are less than sympathetic to Manawi's explanation.

Haji Mohammed Gul, of Deh Sabaz district northeast of Kabul, said he took a land-dispute issue to a government-established legal panel. He claimed that his family owned 2,000 jerib, or or 4000 square kilometres, of land and had the documents to prove it. But another tribe also filed a claim on the land. When Mohammed Gul appealed to the Joint Delegation for Land Solutions, the judge hearing the case demanded he pay 1,000 US dollars per jerib - an exorbitant price considering the price of land in the district was less than 400 dollars a jerib.

After much bargaining, the judge said that he would decide in favour of the rival claimant unless Mohammed Gul agreed to pay 100 dollars per Jerib.

"I told the judge that I had performed Hajj [pilgrimage] and had sworn in God's house not to offer bribe to anybody, Mohammed Gul said, but the judge said he would take the bribe, whatever Gul had done.

Mohammed Gul eventually won his case - but the judge continues to issue a formal judgement in his favour until the bribe is paid.

Petrol station owner Ahmad Shah says he paid 4,000 dollars in bribes to city and police officials when he was setting up his business.

"Even now police officers take fuel without payment four and five times a month," he said. "I just don't know who to turn to for help"

Street vendors and pushcart owners complain that policemen demand they pay anywhere from 20 cents to two dollars a day to be allowed to operate their businesses.

Eid Mohammad, 12, who sells spinach on the street, said "I pay 6 dollars [a day] to policemen so that I can stay here. If not, they trample over the vegetables..." Mohammad said the police "beat the people who do not pay up".

Haji Yousuf, the owner of Muslimyar, a company in Kabul that sells air conditioners, TVs and freezers, complained that officials with the government department for private business, along with customs officials, often create more problems than they solve. But once a bribe has been paid, he said, the problems suddenly disappear.

Yousuf said there is no distinction between a legal and illegal business since anyone willing to pay 400 dollars can have a business permit.

Stories of corruption at practically every level are legion.

Mirajuddin, who lives in north Kabul, said his electric bill was 120 dollars, but when he went to pay, an official at the utility offered him a deal: Buy a new book of payment slips and a false bill for 20 dollars, then pay 30 dollars for the false bill and a bribe of 30 dollars to the official.

"As it was dishonesty, I did not accept and I paid 120 dollars in total," Mirjuddin said.

Gul Rahman, of east Kabul, said he had to pay 500 dollars in bribes before he could begin reconstruction on his family's house: 260 dollars to the local police and 240 dollars to city planning officials.

Waisuddin, of Kabul, wanted a driving license and road permit for his Mercedes. He said that people who follow the legal procedure could wait a month for the documents to be approved.

"I was issued the driving license and a road permit in 24 hours, after I paid 100 dollars as 'commission'," he said.

In the offices of Ariana, Afghanistan's national airline, a member of staff admits taking bribes from passengers. He said he will continue to do so because he currently must pay 140 dollars a month for rent and support a family of eight on a government salary that ranges from 34 dollars to 80 dollars a month.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has asked the international community to support a number of initiatives launched by the Karzai administration designed to help reduce corruption. Germany is supporting Afghanistan by taking the lead role in training police; Italy is taking the lead role in reform of the judicial system.

Major Gen. Sibghatullah Sayeq, director of the anti-crime department at the Ministry of Interior, all but concedes that corruption is rampant in Afghanistan.

"We have information that bribery is common within government and that bribery takes place in all government institutions," he said.

He doesn't deny the involvement of police, but said that not all police are corrupt. He blames low salary, lack of co-ordination among offices, injustice and unemployment as reasons people resort to corruption.

He added that the president has promised to prosecute any official accused of corruption. "Anyone misusing any national resource is not loyal to this nation, and should know that the law is pursuing him," he said.

Still, rooting out corruption may prove a tough challenge, especially when some high-ranking officials continue to deny its existence.

Mohammed Zia Noor Khail, the deputy attorney general, expressed his own scepticism that he could identify bribery among government officials.

"We are not computers nor have we Ilm-e Ghaib [extraordinary visionary powers] to know where corruption takes place," he said.

Hafizullah Gardish is an local editor for IWPR in Kabul.

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