It’s a never ending story: every year the local government in the state of Ninawa approves a series of development projects in the area. Every year, the locals hear about all the projects planned to improve local infrastructure.
Yet every year, nothing seems to happen. Of around 2,000 projects planned around the region, apparently only around 500 are actually going forward. And to many in the state of Ninawa – inhabitants number just over 3 million - it feels as though local infrastructure must be about to collapse.
Meanwhile the politicians squabble. Two satellite television stations in Ninawa regularly broadcast the council’s sessions. And every time, the issue of the unfinished, or unstarted, projects comes up, there are heated debates in the council’s chamber – but never any real results.
Recently a special council session was held so that local politicians could discuss the hold up in the various projects. The local government’s planning committee was represented by politician Mohammed al-Bayati, who confirmed that, of 2135 past projects listed in the development budget as approved between 2007 and 2011, only 508 were underway.
Al-Bayati came up with several reasons for the delay. “Some companies tend to contract other companies to do the job,” he noted. “Some engineers supervising the jobs are not adequately qualified. And politics play a major role too, especially in the disputed areas,” he explained, referring to sensitive areas in the state that are claimed by both the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the federal Iraqi government in Baghdad.
There were other reasons too, al-Bayati admitted, but he was not willing to elaborate further on these.
However one Ninawa economist, who did not want to be identified for security reasons, was willing to go further. The main delay in Ninawa’s projects, he told NIQASH, were blackmail, extortion and threats issued by unnamed gun men against the companies and the contractors.
“This is an issue that has been widely discussed over the past few years by the local government. But up until now, nothing has been done about it and no progress has been made – despite campaigns launched by the local police and armed forces against these gangs,” he explained.
“The gangs receive a percentage of the projects’ total value in return for providing protection to employees working on the sites. In fact, some of the projects’ owners were forced to abandon their work because they refused to accept being blackmailed. Other contractors opted to sub-contract the job to other companies. But this has led to poor results as there’s a lack of supervision or quality control,”
In fact, the economist continued, the blackmailers have even taken over the actual work on some of the jobs.
Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, was willing to be more explicit about this issue. “Most of those who are trying to intimidate officials claim that they have contacts with Al-Qaeda or other armed groups. In fact they usually have contacts with both armed [extremist] groups and the local security forces.”
“Most of them are double agents,” al-Nujaifi said. “They use the security apparatus as a cover to achieve other goals, or they use the two to make more profits."
Al-Nujaifi said that, over the past few years, he himself had come under pressure from security officials but that he had refused to cooperate. He had discovered these things around three years ago when he became Ninawa’s governor and that he had been trying to deal with everything in a calm and efficient manner. And he hadn’t asked for assistance from federal authorities in Baghdad because he believed that many of the people there were more interested in political game playing in the capital than finding real solutions to problems in distant Ninawa.
The recent change in senior leadership of local security forces had had some positive effects, al-Nujaifi said. Ninawa’s commander of operations, the head of the army’s second division and the head of the police’s third division had all changed.
"This new leadership has focused on professionalism and distanced itself from politics,” al-Nujaifi said. “However there are still some practices inherited from the past, such as blackmail.”
Al-Nujaifi said there were also other reasons for the delay in the various projects, including bureaucratic, where one political body approved a project and then another rejected it; this led to a lot of back and forth negotiations.
Meanwhile the head of Ninawa’s planning committee, politician Issam al-Ayed suggested that special investigating committees be formed, with members drawn from various relevant bodies along with experts, to look into why no progress was being made. Then, al-Ayed suggested, the companies and contractors who were not performing properly could be blacklisted.
Meanwhile political opponent of Ninawa’s governor came up with other reasons as to why nothing was getting done in the state. These include local politicians Nawaf Turki al-Faisal and Abdul-Rahim al-Shammari, who accused al-Nujaifi of swapping approved projects with unapproved ones and of giving more work to companies or contractors who had yet to fulfil previous obligations.
The two politicians, who have been responsible for work in agriculture and in security in Ninawa, said in a variety of media interviews that they thought there was favouritism at work. The Ninawa council gave almost half of the project work out to “trusted firms”. Al-Faisal and al-Shammari said this was one of the main reasons for the delay in projects in Ninawa.
Ask around the local populace and you will hear similar stories. They claim favouritism of a different kind is happening, where unnecessary projects are targeting the home towns of local councillors, rather than places where work is really needed.
One of Ninawa’s civil society organisations, the Liberation Association, has been monitoring the council’s performance. Of the 152 decisions issued by Ninawa’s council over the past six months, more than half have nothing to do with improving citizens’ lives, Abdul Aziz al-Jarba, the head of the association, said.
During its terms so far, the council had held 15 meetings of the 26 planned, al-Jarba told NIQASH.
“According to a survey of locals in the state, there are a number of priorities for services and basic needs,” al-Jarba continued. “Issues that really need to be addressed include water shortages, problems with roads and transportation and the unemployment situation. But hardly any progress or decisions have been made around these.”