What do Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych and Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina have in common?
Answer: All three were deeply corrupt presidents ousted by peaceful, democratic grassroots movements, despite aggressive, often violent efforts to remain in power.
Recently, leaders of those movements gathered at Washington’s U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to share their experiences — and to inspire like-minded activists in other countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe that are ruled by authoritarian regimes.
For those who couldn’t make it, the title of the Oct. 23 event says it all: “To Curb Corruption and Violence, Engage the Grassroots: Policies and Programs Can Do More in Sync with Local Movements.”
William Taylor, executive vice president at USIP, emphasized right from the start that the United States is certainly no exception when it comes to abuse of power.
“We Americans have our own problems with corruption,” said Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009 and an expert on the Middle East.
“When I was in Ukraine, I would often tell people that in any local newspaper in the United States — and in any state of the union — you can find some story about corruption,” Taylor said, rattling off a string of headlines. “Honolulu police officer arrested in continuing probe of public corruption. Former Navy comptroller sentenced for accepting illegal gratuities. Baltimore city police detective pleads guilty to racketeering. Congressional staffer pleads guilty to extensive fraud and money laundering. Former New York deputy secretary of state sentenced to 30 months in prison for perjury. So this happens all over. The question for us today is what’s the link to conflict, how can we mitigate it, how can we avoid it and how can we deal with it when it comes.”
Of course, corruption is a relative term, and the perception of corruption varies greatly from one country to the next. According to Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, Denmark and New Zealand tied for the title of cleanest country on Earth, both scoring 90 on a zero-to-100 scale. They were followed by Finland (89), Sweden (88), Switzerland (86), Norway (85), Singapore (84), the Netherlands (83) and Canada (82). The United States, with a score of 74, ranked 18th on the list — right behind Austria and just ahead of Ireland.
At the bottom of the barrel were five failed states whose awful scores should surprise no one: Yemen (14), Syria (13), North Korea (12), South Sudan (11) and Somalia (10). Sadly, two-thirds of the 176 countries and territories in the latest index fall below the midpoint, with the global average score a paltry 43 out of 100.
The issue of corruption has gained notoriety in recent years with a string of high-profile scandals, including the web of pay-to-play scandals that have rocked Brazilian politics since 2014. The so-called Operation Carwash investigations into money laundering and billions of dollars in illegal payments related to Brazil’s state-owned oil company and the construction company Odebrecht has been called the biggest corruption scandal in history. In fact, bribery and corruption at Odebrecht alone has ensnared former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, along with the presidents of Colombia and Guatemala, as well as top officials in the Dominican Republic.
But the problem is widespread and crosses borders. In South Korea, President Park Geun–hye resigned last year and now faces possible jail time after allegations she collected or demanded over $50 million in bribes from corporations and even the state spy agency. High-level corruption in South Africa that is often described as state robbery has repeatedly threatened the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Romania has been rocked by fierce protests against a government effort to erode the rule of law and lessen punishments for corruption-related offenses. Indonesia’s parliament is embroiled in a graft scandal that has revealed how entrenched corruption is at the highest levels. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made tackling corruption among high-level communist party officials a hallmark of his agenda. And Saudi Arabia made news with a massive corruption purge that arrested scores of prominent businessmen and officials and seized billions of dollars in assets.
Smaller nations are also working to address the problem of graft. Laos has launched an anti-corruption drive to recoup over $100 million in lost money. Tanzanian President John Magufuli, who says he takes home a monthly salary of $4,008, has cracked down on lavish government trips, fired unqualified civil servants and forced corporations to cough up unpaid taxes.
Corruption not only touches practically every nation in the world, it also infiltrates every level of society, whether it’s a policeman demanding a bribe at a traffic stop or a top-ranking official receiving kickbacks in a business contract. Not only does this sap the public’s faith in governments, it exacerbates inequality and poverty, feeding populist movements. It can even fuel radicalism and revolutions.
In her book “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” Carnegie senior fellow Sarah Chayes links corruption with violent extremism. She argues that social dysfunction in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan can often be traced to endemic corruption, which has soared to such levels that “governments resemble glorified criminal gangs, bent solely on their own enrichment,” she writes. This in turn, Chayes says, drives average citizens — fed up with the daily humiliation of propping up a mafia-like system — to revolution (as was the case in Egypt) or puritanical religion, often in the form of radicalism.
Corruption also has the more direct effect of undercutting economic growth. For example, in 2014, a former central bank governor in Nigeria lost his job after claiming that $20 billion had been pilfered from government coffers. In a February 2016 report, The Economist claimed that this theft, while staggering, was just the tip of the iceberg. Citing studies from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the magazine said that by 2030, the size of Africa’s largest economy should triple. “Yet if Nigeria manages to reduce corruption to levels comparable to Malaysia (itself hardly above suspicion: its prime minister recently had to explain how almost $700 million had made it into his bank account), its economy could be some 37 percent bigger still. The additional gain would be worth some $534 billion (adjusted for inflation), or about as much as the economy is currently worth,” it wrote.
By enriching the privileged, corruption diverts money that might otherwise be used to pull people out of poverty or build schools and hospitals. “In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity,” said José Ugaz, chair of Transparency International.
USIP senior fellow Shaazka Beyerle agrees.
“Corruption can function as a system of abuse of power for personal, economic or political gain,” she told her audience. “It involves all kinds of complicated relationships. Most of them we’ll never know about, which is one of the reasons it’s so hard to tackle. Those who are gaining from corruption have a vested interest to perpetuate the system. So when we try to introduce reforms, all those vested interests will be fighting back, because it threatens all their gains.”
Moderated by Philippe Leroux-Martin, director of USIP’s Rule of Law, Justice and Security program, the Oct. 23 panel featured three activists: Idrissa Barry of Burkina Faso, Taras Shevchenko of Ukraine and Lucía Mendizábal of Guatemala. Here are their stories:
Burkina Faso: Idrissa Barry
Idrissa Barry is a founding member of Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen (Citizens Broom) movement. The editor-in-chief of Mutations — an investigative journal in the capital city, Ouagadougou — he helped launch the movement in response to efforts by President Blaise Compaoré to remain indefinitely as the leader of this landlocked, Colorado-size West African nation of 19 million.
“Our symbol is the broom, because you can find a broom in every house — and we wanted to sweep away bad governance,” explained Barry, speaking in French through an interpreter. “We had a president whose regime had been around for 26 years. That presidency was remarkable for its bad governance and corruption. Sometimes there was political violence and murder. And that president was trying to modify the constitution to stay in power even longer.”
Le Balai Citoyen, which was co-founded by two musicians in July 2013, eventually merged with other political movements into a unified grassroots effort to prevent Compaoré from running again.
“We, the youth of Burkina Faso, decided to request that the constitution be respected,” he explained. “To us, the most important thing is respecting the constitution, which was adopted by all the people.”
Members, who carry brooms during their protests, were a prominent part of the street uprising in October 2014 that culminated in the burning of the National Assembly and other key government buildings, as well as the headquarters of Compaoré’s ruling party. Compaoré eventually fled to Côte d’Ivoire, and an interim government was installed.
“We decided we would not be a part of that new government or congress, because we knew the situation was not yet completely stable. It was important to make sure we still have a civil society that was completely independent and available to watch over the whole process, to make sure the elections were free,” said Barry. “We were right in doing so, because later in September, there was an attempted coup by the former government’s security forces. We had to rally people again to resist that attempt. People came out with their bare hands against the security forces. A dozen people died and many people were injured, but at least we were able to save democracy in Burkina Faso.”
Since then, the country’s political situation has stabilized. In November 2015, voters elected Roch Marc Christian Kaboré president with 53.5 percent of all ballots cast.
“We got a law passed against corruption and a law allowing us free access to documents after a year of fighting to obtain that access,” Barry said. “We were also successful in getting a law in place that protects people who advocate for human rights.”
Ukraine: Taras Shevchenko
Joining USIP via Skype from his home in Kiev was Taras Shevchenko, executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law.
Shevchenko was one of thousands of young people sick and tired of the endemic corruption Ukrainians had to endure under pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had been elected president in February 2010 but was removed from power four years later following the popular Euromaidan uprising.
“Ukrainian civil society is united to combat corruption and advocate for reforms, and that happened three and a half years ago when we had our Dignity Revolution,” he said. “At that moment, when most people were protesting against corruption, against impunity, against Yanukovych, a smaller proportion of people started thinking about a positive agenda.”
Shevchenko said things had deteriorated drastically since the so-called Orange Revolution of November 2004, when thousands of demonstrators occupied Kiev’s Independence Square following presidential elections tainted by massive corruption, voter intimidation and electoral fraud.
“At that time, people supported Yanukovych. After he won, people thought, ‘OK, we did our job,’” he said. “But the Euromaidan revolution in 2014 didn’t really support any candidate. Nobody was thinking about who would become the next leader of Ukraine. In fact, people are actually motivated to follow the government, monitor what they’re doing and engage in anti-corruption initiatives.”
After the 2014 revolution, Shevchenko and his fellow Euromaidan activists co-founded the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR), a coalition of 73 NGOs that develops, promotes and implements reforms. To date, it has advocated more than 100 laws. He’s also helped draft numerous legislative acts, including the Access to Public Information Law.
Despite Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and an ongoing separatist war in eastern Ukraine fueled by Kremlin propaganda, Shevchenko said the focus remains on getting rid of corrupt officials and ending impunity.
“Ukraine is still quite corrupt, but a lot has changed,” he said, explaining that the enthusiasm of public protests has been successfully channeled into institutions with rules and expertise. In many cases, civil society is now stronger as an institution than most political parties.
“We cannot expect foreign countries to come and reform our state,” he said. “We’re not waiting for donors to make reforms. We’re really thankful for their support, but we understand it’s the job of the Ukrainian people to reform their own country.”
Guatemala: Lucía Mendizábal
Founder of the #RenunciaYa (Resign Now) movement, businesswoman Lucía Mendizábal decided she was fed up with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and the country’s vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Together with half a dozen of her friends, she formed an online protest group that galvanized tens of thousands of protesters and eventually brought both leaders down — without a single violent incident.
Mendizábal’s movement took off following an April 2015 report by CICIG, a United Nations-backed anti-corruption agency, that linked Pérez Molina, Baldetti and other high-ranking politicians to an enormous corruption ring involving customs fraud, illegal kickbacks and a secret phone line called “La Linea.”
“Every time an investigation got too close to power, they had to stop it because these people were protected by law and could not be investigated,” she said. “People commit crimes but they never see a day in court.”
On April 16, 2015, Mendizábal created an event on Facebook inviting her friends to go downtown and demand Baldetti’s resignation.
“I said to myself, ‘If we get 350 people, that would be very successful,’” she recalled. “People started saying, ‘Yes, I’m coming.’ I remember that when were at 1,000, I started asking friends to join me. One friend said, ‘Let’s use the hashtag RenunciaYa’ — and that’s how we became a movement.”
But nobody in the group knew much about politics.
“I was in real estate and another worked in a bank. We didn’t quite know what to do, and we were very scared. But it started growing and growing, to the point that 10,000 people showed up on April 25. It was amazing,” said Mendizábal, adding that despite their fear, “as long as we were peaceful, there was nothing they could do.”
To further protect themselves, organizers asked the protesters not to cover their faces or wear the colors of any particular political party, and to follow the law. To their surprise, crowds grew larger and larger every day, until Baldetti actually resigned.
Energized by their success, Mendizábal and her fellow activists began demanding the resignation of Pérez Molina too. On Aug. 27, more than 100,000 people took to the streets throughout Central America’s largest country — the largest mass political protest in Guatemalan history.
The following month, CICIG unveiled recordings of phone conversations that directly linked both Pérez Molina and Baldetti to the customs scandal. Within 24 hours, the president had resigned; the next day he was put in prison.
“I believe the State Department, through [then U.S. ambassador] Todd Robinson had a big role in this,” Mendizábal said in answer to a question from The Washington Diplomat on how influential the United States was in ending the crisis. “At some point, we felt the American government was behind Pérez Molina, but then something happened, and the government realized it didn’t want anything to do with him. I have no proof of this, but I believe they had a big role in convincing him to resign as well.”
For her efforts, Mendizábal was included in CNN’s list of nine women who changed the world in 2015 — alongside such luminaries as former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Yet Mendizábal herself warns that much remains to be done back home. And for that, she said, Guatemala will need help from groups like USIP.
“In Guatemala, the whole system is corrupt,” she said. “We have corruption in the courts, in Congress, in the presidency and in the lower ranks of bureaucracy, because it’s not always the higher ranks that are corrupt. We need to change the law — and it’s not easy for us to press for that if we don’t have organized civil society or international aid helping us.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.