On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor from Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in front of the local governor’s office in an ultimate attempt to denounce corruption and injustice in the country. This act of despair triggered what would become known as the Arab Spring. Eight years later, despite the government’s sustained efforts, corruption remains rampant.
In 2010, Tunisia was ranked 59th out of 178 countries. A year later, it had dropped to 73rd, a position it has maintained since then. The trend has been the same in other North African countries. Morocco is ranked 81st, Algeria 112th, Egypt 117th and Libya 172nd.
In mid-2017, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed declared a ‘war on corruption’, leading to the arrests and asset freezes of various businesspeople, politicians, journalists, police and customs officers. They were charged with corruption and/or other criminal activities, including smuggling and money laundering. Among these, the case of prominent businessman Chafik Jarraya highlights the connections that exist between business, politics and criminal groups, and how corruption among officials is fuelling these connections.
Jarraya allegedly built his fortune on smuggling, which also involved members of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s family. After the January 2011 revolution, Jarraya funded several political parties, while maintaining relations with criminal and even terrorist groups in Tunisia and Libya, according to the authorities. His alleged links to arms deals that were struck with a leading figure in Libya’s post-revolutionary militias led to his arrest based on the 1978 State of Emergency law for ‘undermining the integrity of the state’.
In the same period, the rare testimony of a member of Ben Ali’s family, Imed Trabelsi, was released as part of the transitional justice process in Tunisia. The testimony revealed widespread corruption within the customs administration to allow large-scale smuggling operations through bribes. This shed light on how corruption created opportunities for the illegal smuggling of alcohol and copper.
To ordinary citizens trying to obtain a public service they are entitled to, being expected to bribe an official is an inconvenience and unacceptable. But to a trafficker or criminal aiming to bypass the law, the chance to bribe an official is an opportunity. According to the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, corruption is a direct and major cause of the economic and political instability in North Africa. This situation is not unique to Tunisia (nor indeed the region).
In Algeria, the seizure of over 700kg of cocaine in May 2018 exposed the alleged involvement of government officials in a trafficking scheme of unprecedented scale. After an initial round of arrests directed at the owner of the containers and the ship’s crew, members of the judiciary were dismissed for suspicions of corruption linked to the seizure. The head of national security was turfed out and five army generals were arrested on corruption charges connected to the same case. As highlighted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an increase in the use of the North African route by cocaine traffickers could generate more corruption in the region.
In Morocco, the ‘baksheesh’ (‘bribe’) system also underpins the drug economy and corruption networks. The northern region of the Rif is a known hub for the production and export of most of the world’s cannabis, but faces few repercussions from authorities. Various arrests in 2018 exposed the involvement of actors from the Moroccan armed forces and law enforcement agencies in drug trafficking.
Media rarely report on corruption cases in Libya, where it almost feels like a secondary problem in a country riven by clashes between government forces, militias and terrorist groups. In 2017, however, an investigation by Al Jazeera revealed how corrupt Libyan coastguards tasked with preventing illegal departures by sea worked closely with the traffickers, returning dinghies that washed ashore to militias and handing over migrants.
Countries in North Africa must raise public awareness about the consequences of corruption and how it facilitates and enables some of the most dangerous types of organised crime, including drug trafficking. Realising that corruption and bribery not only affect people’s finances but also their very safety and security could help foster engagement to confront corruption in all its forms, and create momentum for strong political commitments and measures to end it.
Jihane Ben Yahia, ENACT Regional organised crime observatory coordinator – North Africa, ISS