In non-violent uprisings and more full scale revolutions ranging from the Arab spring to the overthrow of the President in Ukraine, one common underlying propellant was rebellion against government corruption. The same fuel has fed continuing turmoil in post-revolutionary Libya and undercut Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram. Yet the role of acute corruption in fomenting protests and violence is underappreciated and makes Western efforts to combat it insufficient.

Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe

Former journalist and military adviser Sarah Chayes, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, outlined the severity of the threat in a recent panel discussion with two experts from the U.S. Institute of Peace – former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and Senior Program Officer Fiona Mangan.

"What's been missing is the [analysis of the] role of severe corruption in driving many of the security crises that the world is facing today," Chayes said in the June 25 discussion at USIP.

In Ukraine, exasperation with government graft was among the factors that drove citizens into Kyiv's Independence Square last November and led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych this year. The events sparked a geo-political crisis when neighboring Russia intervened militarily, over the objections of Ukraine and its U.S. and European backers.

Chayes's new report, "Corruption: An Unrecognized Threat to International Security," examines the phenomenon and how the U.S. and other Western nations can improve their foreign policy and assistance to combat the scourge. The report grew out of a workshop and follow-on discussions with representatives from two dozen government agencies, non-government organizations and the private sector.

"Corruption is often seen as system failure, as something broken in a system, or [as] individuals who are doing bad things within a system that's fundamentally operating on behalf of the people," Chayes said.

Operating with this perspective, Western aid donors or investors sometimes view corruption as a necessary inconvenience or even ensuring stability in transitional countries because it divides spoils among competing elites.

"What this paper is saying is that corruption is the system" in certain countries, Chayes told the audience. "Governments in countries like this … are highly effective criminal organizations that are achieving their primary aim, which is the extraction of resources for personal benefit, and governing is either a means to that end, or a [platform for a corrupt] front operation."  The system works fine for the chosen beneficiaries with the right connections.

Channels of graft

Government officials and their agencies extract their revenues in a variety of ways, including directly from the citizenry through purchase of office, kickbacks or extortion, or from plundering the country's own natural resources, and often through misuse of Western donor aid. So western governments end up enabling these trends, wittingly or not, and are scorned by the local populations as a result.

The ruling elites also ensure their own impunity by hijacking the justice systems, either through controlling police or courts or through direct intimidation mechanisms.

Corruption in the legal system is particularly corrosive, USIP's Mangan said.

"The very institutions that safeguard the state and citizens against such ills are tainted by abuse of power and lack of integrity," she said. "When the justice system is corrupt, you literally don't have a place to take these matters."

Still, the past five years have shown that the elites in these societies who are benefiting from acute corruption may not hold all the control. The victims can take action too, but they might do so by using violence directly in joining insurgencies or by sparking revolutions or taking other measures that can, deliberately or not, turn into violent conflict.

Systems of corruption generally can be characterized as either more structured and vertically integrated or less-structured and more competitive, Chayes said. Different types of conflict threats emanate from each type. In some countries of the Balkans, Latin America and Africa, governments have aligned with "trans-national criminal superpowers" such as drug or weapons traffickers whose networks traverse continents.

In Libya, many clashes since the 2011 overthrow of strongman Moammar Gadhafi have been misdiagnosed as continuing skirmishes for political power and territorial control between pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces, Mangan said.

"Actually, when you dig a little bit deeper, they have a whole lot more to do with the trafficking networks and consolidation of routes and markets," she said.

Undercutting in both ways

Nigeria is home to one of the worst insurgencies on the African continent, and the government is effectively fighting three conflicts – against Boko Haram in the north, as well as separate clashes in central and southern parts of the country, USIP's Carson said. And yet corruption not only fuels those conflicts, but also erodes the fighting will and capability of Nigeria's military, the largest on the continent.

Nigeria spends a quarter of its budget on security forces, and yet evidence is rife that Nigerian military officers are stealing oil directly or colluding with oil smugglers. Corruption prevents supplies as basic as bullets and transport vehicles from reaching the front lines, as these commodities are sold to the insurgencies. Soldiers go without food and water, Carson said, as these supplies too can be diverted to enhance the profits of military leaders.

"Nowhere is the link between corruption and insecurity greater than in Nigeria today," said Carson, who now serves as a senior advisor to the president of USIP. In Mali, too, the 2012 coup was sparked in part by outrage of military officers that others were stealing money meant for them to carry out operations. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, low morale in the military is due in part to a shortage of weapons and munitions because officers were pocketing the funds.

The resulting deprivation, elevated risk and sense of injustice was cited as among the reasons a group of Nigerian soldiers in May fired at a vehicle carrying one of their commanders .

"The challenge for us is to continue to push forward and to expose these situations," Carson said.

One solution might be legislation to prohibit foreign aid for militaries found to engage in severe corruption, similarly to the way the Leahy Amendment in the U.S. bars assistance for foreign militaries found to commit human rights violations with impunity, Carson said.

Western attitudes, options

Foreign assistance also can be structured in a way to provide incentives for stemming or preventing systemic graft or to ensure that it isn't funneled through corrupted channels, Chayes said.

Chayes lived in Afghanistan for years, first as a reporter for National Public Radio covering the fall of the Taliban in 2001, then running a non-governmental organization, and later starting a local manufacturing cooperative in Kandahar. She then went on to become an adviser to the U.S. military, including the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.

Contrary to Western assumptions that Afghans accept corruption as a way of life, she said, they often bemoan what they see as a failure by Americans and other foreign donors to understand that they are underpinning a criminal organization that wields illicit power over its citizens.

Chayes said Afghans often said, "`We thought you were going to bring the rule of law to this country, and instead you brought a mafia.' "

Western donors too often deliver aid via corrupt government agencies in receiving countries, prioritizing good relations with the authorities over concerns about corruption that ultimately eviscerates the value of the aid. Corruption usually is addressed in technical training or remedial efforts, or by relying on nascent civil society organizations to do oversight or challenge graft.

"A much more comprehensive approach is needed" to fully account for issues of official corruption in foreign policy and aid efforts, Chayes said. "I just feel like the whole concept of what diplomacy is all about and what its objectives are may need to get modified in light of [these findings]."

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