Today’s guest post is from Haytham Karar, an independent international development consultant based in Khartoum, Sudan.
The pro-democratic revolution in Sudan has ended a long-standing autocracy. However, public sector corruption, which remains widespread, threatens Sudan’s emerging democracy. The culture of using public office for private gain remains deeply entrenched, and the line between public and private roles is not clearly drawn or widely respected. Not only do the same people cycle back and forth through the “revolving door” between public office and the private sector, but many government officials own stakes in, or are otherwise directly connected with, private companies even while serving in government. In fact, many government officials continue to operate private enterprises while in office, even though the Constitution explicitly prohibits this practice. This blurring of public and private roles, and the associated conflicts of interest that arise, have contributed to the corruption and cronyism that continue to pervade the system.
One of the tools that is supposed to help combat these problems is the asset declaration system for public officials. While an asset declaration system is not by itself sufficient, a well-designed and operational asset declaration system is a crucial element in a larger strategy for promoting integrity and anticorruption. Unfortunately, Sudan’s asset declaration system is largely ineffective and in desperate need of reform. The current framework—which was designed under the previous government and was never implemented effectively or fairly—has a number of significant problems.
For one thing, the law that establishes the regulatory framework governing asset disclosure—the 1989 Unlawful and Suspicious Enrichment Act—is vague on key points, and in particular, it fails to establish an adequate system for collection and verification of the disclosed information. Furthermore, the law is limited in scope. Although it obligates politically senior government officials and their immediate family members to disclose their assets, the law does not cover civil servants at high-risk positions, such as senior executives of state-owned enterprises and those affiliated with the Customs Authority and Taxation Chamber. And on top of those problems, Sudan’s asset declaration system is still a paper-based system, which is not only highly inefficient, but also makes the information contained in the declarations largely inaccessible to most people. As examples from other countries (including Argentina, Ukraine, and Georgia) demonstrate, an electronic filing system would significantly reduce non-compliance, facilitate verification, and improve transparency.
Addressing these deficiencies in the current system is vital, but the process through which reforms are adopted and implemented is important as well. Reformers should take steps to avert the politicization of the reform agenda, consult with potential stakeholders (including civil society organizations and relevant government agencies, including the soon-to-be-created Anti-Corruption Commission), and ensure the independence of the implementing institution, so as to guarantee the legitimacy of the overall process.
Sudan’s democratic revolution has opened a window of opportunity to advance towards a more transparent and accountable government. The transitional authority listed anticorruption on its strategic priorities. An early litmus test for how serious the government about this agenda is whether it acts swiftly to repair and strengthen the asset disclosure system. Doing so would also send a positive signal to the international community that the political leadership is turning down the legacy of three decades of kleptocracy and determined to build an open and accountable government that paves the way for a sustainable democratic rule in Sudan.