Written By: Mohammed Humaid
Article Date: Dec 16, 2011 - 8:06:06 PM
Although debilitating to the economy, corruption and its impact on the country rarely takes center stage or attracts serious discourse. Yemen ranked 131st out of 179 countries and territories on Transparency International's corruption perception index (2007). However, the corruption index provides a snap shot at a given moment but does not explain how corruption has thrived inexorably during the last three or four decades in Yemen. This article intends to shed light on this issue.
Mohammed Humaid is a Yemeni journalist and economist.
Prior to the revolution of 1962, corruption was minimal due to the simplicity of life and relative class rigidity. Government officials were drawn from an elite class who worked mostly in the judiciary, customs and taxation offices. Corruption was confined to those areas and was practiced in total secrecy. The political system was based on a monarchy and therefore enjoyed, at least for some time, some form of legitimacy.
Following the 1962 revolution and ensuing struggle to protect it, corruption remained low within the government but the civil war necessitated the support of powerful tribes, a step that inevitably lead to the emergence of a formal tribal patronage that took the form of government monthly payoffs to tribal sheikhs as a means to appease them, or to buy their allegiance. These payoffs were referred to as "mizaniyya” or "Budget". The Mizaniyya sum depended on the primacy of the tribe and value of the services provided by the sheikh. MIzaniyya become even more of a necessity when Anti revolutionary forces began paying their supporters and mercenaries in British gold sovereigns. Tribal leaders savored the lucrative business and began to offer their services to the side that paid most. Some tribal leaders changed sides several times in pursue of better deals.
The government apparatus at the time was minimally affected but by the time the revolution prevailed in 1968 tribal leaders had become deeply involved in the government political and military structure.
The political instability of the Seventies and the repeated assassination of Yemeni presidents (Ibrahim al-hamdi, Salem Rubia Ali and Ahmed al-Ghashmi) within a time span of one year underscored the importance of political stability. This perception was further strengthened when President Saleh became a victim of a coup d' etate only three months from assuming power, credit for his survival goes to his relative Ali Mohsin. A combination of family and close tribal connections took charge from thereon of key military positions. Adoption of this strategy did bring stability, but it also created a clique of elites glued together by close interests which began to grow disproportionately to the extent of becoming more of a problem than a solution
The period leading to the unification of Yemen, witnessed another form of political corruption represented in wide scale recruitment of politically affiliated personal and militia men in the southern states who were added to the civil service pay roll. This was compounded with mass recruitment of staff who had previously served in small socialist operated enterprises such bakeries and petrol station workers, leading to a hugely overstaffed and underpaid civil service.
Following the 1994 civil war, victory of the central government and its tribal allies consolidated the tribe’s hold over state resources. This was particularly apparent by the extensive seizure of government land in Aden and elsewhere.
As time progressed the elite secured more and more power and began to infiltrate in all walks of life. Sheikhs and military elites extended their interest to the business, oil and services sectors and began to crowd out traditional businessmen; they used their influence to win contracts and secure business agencies and seize large swathes of land. New business tycoons, who entered into partnership with the elites sprang up and proliferated very quickly.
Grand corruption included omission or partial omission of oil sales from national accounts between 1990 and 1994. The difference was consumed in agreement between the partners of the interim government.
Other grand corruption took the form of supplementary budgets which reached in some years 800 billion Rials, equivalent to about 3-4 billion dollars. Supplementary budgets were submitted to the parliament for ratification at the end of the year with no real debate over their allocations or disbursement.
One other form of systematic corruption that was widely practiced was the differentiated exchange rate of the US Dollar; you could buy a dollar for 4.5 YR or 12.5 Rials , 25 YR or 150 YR. Which exchange rate you get depended on how well connected you are. The system was originally introduced under the noble cause of making hard currency accessible to patients seeking medical treatment abroad or earmarked for importing basic food stuffs to serve as a form of subsidy.
Oil derivates cost the government in recent years more than 25% of the general budget. However, much of oil derivates ended up being smuggled and sold to neighboring country at world market price. Outgoing Prime Minister Dr. Ali Mohammed Mujawar once said six or seven individuals swallow much of the subsides, but declined to name them.
Petite corruption practiced by civil servants who occupied administrative or bureaucratic positions was tolerated because this group bore the bulk of the government daily grinding. A similar group who had subscribed to the hegemonic political orientation consisting of former executive staff who had grown too old or too bold to hold public office and who have now been reappointed to the Shura council or elected with the help of the ruling party to the parliament were pacified by occasional payoffs, new cars etc. were allowed to operate as intermediaries and middlemen in contract tenders, civil service recruitment from which they made a slice for themselves.
Tolerance of corruption and its pervasiveness and insufficiency of public sector salaries encouraged civil servants to explore new areas of corruption such as ghost employment in the educational sector and army, selling of educational certificates and monopoly over scholarships abroad.
The average person found him/herself besieged and pushed to the limits with opportunities shrinking before their eyes. The whole situation was no longer economically, or socially viable. It needed a popular uprising to shake the country awake.
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