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Political Independence Doesn't Pay:
Basra's Beleaguered Governor Under Fire

Waheed Ghanim
Basra's governor got the job as an independent who promised to improve the province in many ways. He's fought corruption and tried to improve services. But now critics are calling for his resignation.
30.07.2015  |  Basra
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As they have done with the pictures of his predecessors, the protestors in Iraq's southern Basra province were so angry they publicly ripped up pictures of the current governor, Majid al-Nasrawi.

In Iraq, Basra is well known as one of the most corrupt provinces; although the province is a relatively wealthy one – it has oil, agriculture and shipping – a large percentage of the locals and local government services remain poor. The poverty level in Iraq sits at around 22 percent but recent estimates suggest that it’s higher in Basra, indicating that just over a third of the population there live in poverty.

Part of al-Nasrawi's electoral platform included promises to remedy these problems, investigate corruption and provide better services, via a number of infrastructure projects.

However, as the small demonstration by civil society activists in Basra, who ripped up al-Nasrawi's pictures, showed, nothing much has happened. In fact, the demonstrators said, there had been a deterioration in services and an increase in corruption. Surrounded by a disproportionate number of security forces, they demanded the governor's resignation.

To counter these kinds of criticisms, al-Nasrawi held a special session at the provincial council in order to explain exactly what he had achieved, in terms of projects and to present the council’s expenditures in a transparent way.

But it didn't seem to help. The criticism that came after that meeting indicated the level of political antipathy inside the council itself, which has also had a major effect on the council's – and the governor's - ability to achieve any goals.

“That session of the council was a violation of standard procedure,” complained Ahmad al-Sulaiti, a senior politician on the council and the chairman of the provincial committee for financial supervision. “The council itself is supposed to review the governor's work. To do this after only six months of the fiscal year goes against procedure.”

Al-Nasrawi spent money on projects that were not a priority, critics said. “The governor has spent around IQD2 billion [around US$1.5 million],” al-Sulaiti argued. “But there were no tangible results. Additionally the provincial council was not informed as to how the money was spent.”

On the other side of the argument, al-Nasrawi was backed by members of the coalition that had voted for him as governor. It was pointed out that he had inherited the province's problems at a particularly bad time for the country.

Senior council member, Amin Wahab, said that the current provincial leadership had inherited infrastructure projects from the last budget; the governor only took office after the projects were already budgeted for and contracted out. “So we were only able to follow up on those projects,” Wahab explained. “In 2014 there was no budget approved because of the security crisis [caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State]. It would be a legal violation if the governor started coming up with new bids for projects when there was no budget approved yet.”

In fact, as Wahab pointed out, the council had focused on power production to cope with the extremely hot Iraqi summer. “In terms of electricity, Basra is now the leading province,” Wahab said. “People are enjoying 20 hours of uninterrupted energy supply here.”

Local political activist, Abbas al-Jurani, also attended the special meeting. He says the governor dutifully answered all the questions that his critics asked him. “But after the meeting ended, the governor's opponents started to contest what he had said. They said that the governor had not convinced them with his answers,” al-Jurani notes. “But they didn't discuss any of that him during the session.”

Al-Jurani says that the local government has been headed by a number of different leaders and parties over the past few years but that none had been able to resolve Basra's problems, which were caused by years of negligence and three different sets of violent conflict. That was due to mismanagement, corruption and partisan political quotas, al-Jurani argued. Even if a new governor was appointed tomorrow, they still wouldn’t be able to resolve those issues because of the distrust between different political parties in Basra and because of politicians' own self-interest. If local people protest, the political parties simply use it as an excuse to start accusing and insulting one another – no consideration is given to the legitimate demands of the protestors, al-Jurani says. “And the intensity of the backbiting increases every time there are upcoming elections,” al-Jurani concludes.

Despite the protestors' calls for the governor's removal and general political ill will in Basra, it seems unlikely that al-Nasrawi will be forced to step down. “The protestors are trying to change the political map and destabilize the country,” Wahab told NIQASH. “But that won't happen because the most senior political leaders in the country want to retain the balance of power at this time and keep Iraq as stable as possible.”

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