When South Sudan and Eritrea declared independence in 2011 and 1993 respectively, both states were engulfed in corruption, political infighting and in the severe case of South Sudan, a bloody civil war claiming thousands of lives. Clearly independence in a volatile region rife with violence and economic instability will ultimately lead to bloodshed and corruption on a grand scale. The autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, which is ruled by and under the authority of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), is immersed in an area filled with brutal civil wars, unrestricted terrorism, inept politicians, chauvinism and unrepentant corruption. Already, there has been a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan after its first election in 1991 between the two main parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Why therefore would one want to increase the instability in a region which is already littered with internal turmoil and bitter fighting between numerous factions? As Woodrow Wilson argued, all peoples have the right to autonomous development just as the Kurdish people have a right to self-determination, but is the price worth paying? The price of bankruptcy, corruption, poverty and infighting. Before a state is declared independent it must have three fundamentals, a working democracy free from nepotism and corruption, a diverse economy with the ability to sustain itself, and an experienced and working military. The KRG does not cover this list and therefore it would be folly to suggest it could sustain itself. There is a time for independence; that time is not now.
It is often necessary for economies to be diverse in order to be sustainable yet alone thrive. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is almost entirely funded by its petroleum industry which amounts to 80% of its total revenues, pumping oil through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Pipeline. The pipeline leads from the Ceyhan port in Turkey to the disputed region of Kirkuk. Several issues arise here, firstly it is clear that the Kurdish economy is nowhere near diverse, it is instead fixated on the exportation of oil and petroleum products leading to an unhealthy reliance on natural resources. Oil prices are incredibly volatile in today’s climate, fluctuating from $50 per barrel to as low as $20 (USD) in the space of a few months. When a state is so engrossed into one revenue stream, a drop in the price of that natural resource can have seriously damaging ripple effects. Furthermore Kirkuk is, in effect, the Jerusalem of Oil in Iraq, its fields are rich with the natural resource and it just so happens to be a severely disputed region among the Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs. Such a claim by the Kurds to take Kirkuk would be met with substantial opposition leading to souring of relations with the state’s neighbours and possibly even result in violence. This petro-state is already faltering with negative growth rates, it is $22.4bn (USD) in debt which is almost four times the annual revenue, near bankruptcy, unemployment is on the rise and the economy is suffering from deflationary pressure. This is not the economy of a state Woodrow Wilson would encourage to be declared independent.
Frankly however the economy is least of the Kurdish people’s worries. What is most worrying is the scale of corruption that tarnishes the democratic scene. There is a serious problem when two families, the Barzanis and Talabanis, dominate the political system as well as business. Sirwan Barzani owns Korek, the main cell phone company in the Kurdish region and the prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, owns Rudaw, the main news organisation. They are both coincidentally the nephews of the president, Masoud Barzani whose son also happens to be the intelligence chief. It all stinks of Putin-esque corruption.
In fact the two main parties, the KDP and the PUK, enjoy a monopoly over the armed forces, intelligence services, big business, public sector employment, investment and salaries. The problem that arises with this is a fundamentally weak governance structure full of nepotism, patronage and clientelism. Almost a quarter of civil servants are hired through familial connections and a large part of the hiring process into the ministries of the KRG are based on party affiliation and tribal or family connections. This weak governance leads to a politically inept atmosphere were those chosen to rule the KRI are chosen based on bloodline rather than skill. A movement away from meritocracy is of no help in the Kurdish people’s plight for independence.
What’s worse is that despite selling 1.3 million barrels of oil per day, 20% of Iraq’s oil[i], the Kurdish Regional Government have refused to pay the salaries of its 1.4 million employees for nearly 2 years[ii]. Shamefully this includes the leading force against ISIS, the Peshmerga, who are not only refused salaries but also medical treatment, often needing to go from door to door in search of medical professionals. All of this occurs while deep in the shadows the feudal Barzani and Talabani families amass immense amounts of wealth, several billion dollars’ worth, as they expand their monopoly over the oil industries and maintain their kleptocratic system of governance.
There also seems to be systematic looting from the public coffers of the KRI. Lawmakers Soran Omar and Ali Hama Salih have both claimed to be in possession of incriminating evidence (which they vow to release) which shows billions of dollars being stolen from public funds and simply disappearing. Most notably they claim the funds were taken by regional officials. Salih stated that “Up to $40 billion [was taken] from the Peshmerga forces, seven billion from the Board of Environment and Education Ministry, four billion from the Women’s Council and Independent Commission for Human Rights. This is as well as $61 billion and $1.5 million (USD) from Hiwa Hospital, which is for people with cancer.”[iii] I doubt a state that habitually loots from its own funds would do very well independently.
There seems to be a compulsive disorder deep rooted within the KRG causing the officials, especially the notorious Ministry for Natural Resources[iv], to repeatedly take money from public funds. You would only expect these actions to occur in Putin’s Kremlin however it seems his wretched ways are spreading like some kind of 21st century teenage trend across the middle east and finding its way into the so-called ‘beacon of democracy’, that is the Kurdish Regional Government.
And in good old Trumpish fashion, there seems to be some kind of irrational fear of the press in the KRI. A bit like former President Barack Obama, the Iraqi constitution looks good on the outside but at the end of the day, it has no substance and appears to be just for show. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that although the constitution (which the KRI is bound by) guarantees freedom of press, they seem to have no problem in gunning down journalists who are investigating corruption in the KRG[v]. Moreover these journalists also face routine harassment, violence, threats and even destruction of property. Following anti-corruption protests in 2011, in which one protestor was gunned down, it is alleged that journalists covering the events were harassed, detained and had their property damaged[vi]. In 2008 the KRG passed a law which allowed for journalists to be fined for creating ‘instability’ or ‘spreading fear’. The latter of those phrases is remarkable, the vast manner of deeds that can be put under the umbrella of ‘spreading fear’ speaks volumes about the anti-media nature of the KRG. In fact in 2010 the leading Kurdish Democratic Party filed a $1bn defamation suit for an article which claimed it had been profiting from illegal oil smuggling. That as well as the continued bribing of journalists and media organisations not only deters journalists from reporting but also undermines their independence and leads to a veil of ignorance being drawn across the public.
In Iraqi Kurdistan it’s about who you know, not what you know. If Daddy is good friends with Mr Barzani down the road then you’re all set for life, if not, then don’t expect your salary to arrive in the post any time soon. Nepotism and corruption is commonplace in this kleptocracy, such an independent state wouldn’t last a year and what’s more is that all the corrupt dealings of the KRG would be under such international scrutiny, the Kurdish name would be tarnished for decades and I wouldn’t wish that for my people. One day we will have our own independent state, however for now let’s focus on developing a vibrant economy and getting rid of the deep rooted corruption.