Jordan's PM to launch anti-corruption offensive

Jordan is launching an aggressive campaign against corruption after a number of high-profile cases recently made headlines.

AMMAN // Jordan is launching an aggressive campaign against corruption after a number of high-profile cases recently made headlines, as officials worry the negative publicity may tarnish the country's reputation and scare off foreign investors. Samir Rifai, the newly appointed prime minister, said recently that combating corruption is a government priority. "It is the state's first enemy: it weakens public confidence in government institutions and contradicts equal opportunity and justice, in addition to its disastrous impact on the reputation of the country's economy and investment environment," he told Petra News Agency.

The exposure of the cases were highlighted when Mr Rifai made his first official visits as prime minister to the country's Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the Audit Bureau last month, a clear sign that his government is bent on combating corruption. The ACC, a government body set up four years ago to fight financial and administrative corruption, is investigating a case of embezzlement of US$1.6 million (Dh5.9m) from the ministry of agriculture. One suspect was detained last month while another is at large in Egypt. Jordan has asked Interpol and the Egyptian authorities to find and extradite him.

Another case the commission is looking into involves the embezzlement of $31,000 from a government-run co-operative. The greater Amman municipality discovered last month that one of its employees, an accountant at the central vegetable market, the main produce wholesale centre in Amman, stole $106,000. So it referred the case to the ACC. "He took a two-week annual leave last October, but hasn't returned to his job since," one official at the Amman municipality said. "When we went over the accounts to check if the money he collected was deposited, it was not accounted for. He took the money and fled to Egypt," he said.

A high-profile case the ACC is currently investigating involves the selection of a strategic partner for a $1.7 billion expansion project at the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Co. Because only one partner was deemed eligible for the expansion, questions have been raised regarding the tendering process. A ministerial committee set up last month to examine the procedures undertaken to select the partner suspended the expansion plan temporarily. But last week, it recommended the appointment of an expert to revisit the terms of the project and the financial status of the refinery to ensure the integrity of the tendering process.

Faced Khietan, an editor at Arab AlYawm, an independent newspaper, wrote this month of the need for the ACC to deal "with files still in its drawers in order to put an end to the unsacred marriage between authority and money". Some analysts believe the new drive against corruption is merely a popularity stunt to secure the government enough public goodwill to push through such potentially unpopular measures as imposing taxes on basic food items to shore up its stagnant economy, which is burdened with a $14bn debt and a $1.38bn budget deficit, the worst since 1989.

"The new government is fully aware that it needs a rapid success story that will increase its popularity among the public," said Batir Wardam, a columnist at Addustour in Amman. "Jordan's economic performance is facing tough times. The government may resort to unpopular decisions and increase commodity prices. At the same time, it is unlikely that the political environment would be modernised and if it will, it is going to be cosmetic. Therefore the government can rely on combating corruption as a tool for legitimacy."

Efforts in recent years included the passing of anti-corruption, financial disclosure, money-laundering and ombudsman laws, but none could eradicate or even reduce the problem. Jordan's ranking on Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, slipped two places last year from 47 in 2008 to 49 in 2009. Its perceived corruption ranking on the Corruption Perceptions Index regressed to 5 in 2009 from 5.1. A recent poll conducted by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan showed only 48 per cent of "opinion leaders" - analysts, professors, intellectuals - trust that their government can fight all forms of corruption.

Mohammad Masri, the researcher at the centre who conducted the poll, said: "There is a huge difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. People need to see concrete results otherwise it will backfire on the government." Others, however, were more optimistic. "We are satisfied that the new government is concentrating its efforts on fighting corruption, and we like to see it continue in this path," said Mamdouh Abbadi, a former parliamentarian and head of the Jordanian Chapter of Transparency International.

"We would like to see cases referred to court, ones that involve fat cats. There are laws in place but they need a political will, and now the country is moving on the right track."