21 May 2019

A Head of Summer-protests, Basra Is Still Waiting for Viable Solutions

Last Friday, the General Secretary of Threshold of The Holy Husseiniya, a Shiite religious institution, assigned a committee of 35 tribal leaders to resolve one of the enduring tribal conflicts in Basra. The news, which is quite normal for Basrawi readers, is just one example of the lack of adequate law enforcement institutions in Basra, the economic capital of Iraq that produces more than 85% of the country’s exports.

When it comes to Basra’s dysfunctional governing institutions, there are two solutions that politicians envision to overcome the problems. One group (mostly local Basra leaders) frame their solution by forming an autonomous region in the boundary of their governorate. The other group, (mostly Iraqi federal leaders) blame widespread corruption in Basra’s institutions for most of the problems. The both groups truly describe what is going on, but none of them has showed a realistic approach to handle the issues.

Mohammed Hussein
Mohammed Hussein

is policy director and political-economy analyst at ICPAR. He holds a master’s degree in specialized economic analysis: Economics of Public Policy, from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.

Regardless of whose solution is more, or less, viable, the both groups are driven by one crucial issue that is Iraq’s enduring institutional failure; basically, government and private sector failure. Institutions, in this term, mean political entities, laws, customs, and traditions that are supposed to organize individuals’ and firms’ activities. Usually, adequate institutions lead to growth and promote social and economic progress, and failed ones just hamper them.
In Basra, the institutional failures have reached to an unbearable point. It polarized Basra’s people along lines of two different choices; supporting or rejecting Basra’s regional government. The regionalist group is trying to address local people’s growing demands for services and functional institutions through establishing an autonomous region. While the other group has remained reluctant and still argues for solutions within the current political frames. The both groups’ announced goals are just attempts to get rid of the current institutional failures.
Moreover, there are also conflicting goals among regionalist people. The Basra’s political leaders are clearly seeking the current advantages, power, and government contracts they already have from the future regional government. For them, easy access to public fund is the main driver behind the region-formation campaign. While for the activists on the street, bypassing these politicians is the ultimate goal. Here, you can find so many people with different conflicting goals among those who lead Basra’s dynamics.
Iraqi Federal Government has changed its approaches towards Basra by increasing budget of service projects and hiring more people in state owned companies and institutions while it has not changed its fundamental polices and approaches. As usual, after each protest it appoints several hundred job-seekers and every year increases Basra’s share in the national budget, which has never been implemented totally. These approaches are like painkiller pills. They ease the problems today but never stopping it from coming up in the future.
Given the complexity of Basra crises, the Iraqi Government needs a comprehensive institutional reform and a realistic Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). The PDIA based strategy allows finding local solutions for local issues to facilitate a step by step process that would make leaders and low-level officials learn from what they are doing. They can also adapt to the new solutions and challenges to build new skills and capacities which makes the institutions more functional.

In searching for a Viable Solution 

When national governments are failed or incompetent, usually people look for local alternatives to address key issues like service provision and individuals’ security. In many cases, this search for local alternative ends up with civil war, genocide campaigns, and devastating poverty, but it helped resolve problems in several countries. 
In Iraq, this local alternative is not acceptable except for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which emerged after decades of rebel armed struggles and several genocide campaigns that cost hundreds of thousands civilian Kurds’ lives. 
Before Basra, provincial councils in Arab Sunni majority provinces like Salahadin and Diyala attempted to form their autonomous federal regions in 2011 and 2012, but they faced Nuri al-Maliki’s government’s harsh rejection at the time. Now, the region formation demand is quite popular in Nineveh.
Last month, the head of Basra’s Provincial Council, Sabah al-Bazooni, in a press conference, stated that his council called on PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi to accept its formal request to form Basra Region, and subsequently to convey the formal request to Iraq’s High Electoral Commission (IHEC) to proceed with a referendum by which people of the Basra decide whether to form, or not, their autonomous region.  
Of 35 provincial council members, 22 voted for the region-forming request. They want to benefit the public budget allocated to their governorate and reduce corruption and waste the federal institutions have caused, stated Bazooni.  
Getting rid of the “repulsive centralism” of the federal government of Iraq (F.G,I) is the main factor that has driven Basra people to establish their autonomous region, hoping to form more efficient and functional institutions in their regional government, according to Bazooni.
Whether the Basra’s local alternative meets expectations of its people or disappoints them (depending on various factors), the institutional failure will stay as a key issue for now and future; and for the both Basra’s local and Iraq’s Federal governments. 
Since late 2000s, Mohammed al-Tai, independent ex-MP from Basra, alongside to other regionalist politicians, have tried to gather support for his dreamed Basra Region. The regionalism campaign reached its deadlock in 2014, when ISIS war started. 
Justifying his regionalist campaign, Al-Tai argued that for any decision regarding state funded projects in Basra, approval of several federal ministries is needed. The ministries are occupied by candidates of influential blocs in the Iraqi Parliament. They have given most of public-services-contracts to companies with closed ties to their political leaders. Basra regional government will reduce the Iraqi Government’s power and privileges over the richest part of the country. Therefore, it is expected that most of the influential blocs to stand against Basra-regionalist campaign. 
Explaining the heavy bureaucratic procedures that have prevented government funded projects, Al-Tai elaborated, “If there will be a decision to build a hospital in Basra, at least four ministries get involved. The Ministry of Finance will be involved in funding, the Ministry of Health by coming up with the proposal, The Ministry of Municipalities by allocating a piece of land, and the Ministry of Oil, which has controlled most of the Basra’s lands, by giving up its land.”
 All these bureaucratic procedures might delay the project for months and years and even later political parties will need bribes to let the project to be approved. The parties’ networks are occupying all the relevant ministries, so they can have final saying in any service project.
Although the federal government has challenged the regionalist demand under the pretext of outdating term of Basra’s Provincial Council, it can’t keep rejecting the demand, which is quite legal and supported by the Iraqi Constitutional, Article 119. 
The article states, “One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum submitted in one of the following two methods: First, a request by one-third of the council members of each governorate intending to form a region. Second, a request by one-tenth of the voters in each of the governorates intending to form a region.” 
The current regionalist figures can easily provide the legal pre-conditions to form Basra Region with the new Basra Provincial Council, probably in 2020 the region-formation request would come up again, and FGI will be obliged to proceed with the formal procedures to found the region.

Key Facts About Basra 

The governorate’s provincial capital city, Basra, is the only Iraqi port city and third largest city of the country.  The province contains 59 % of Iraq’s oil reserve, which is the fourth largest oil reserve in the world. It also produces more than 85% of current Iraqi exports.
Formally known as economic capital of Iraq, Basra suffers 12.2 percent of unemployment (12.0 men and 14.5 women). According to Iraq’s Central Statistical Organization’s (CSO) data, in 2014, total per capita income at market prices is 251,400 IQD ($210.63) in Basra, compared to 426,800 IQD ($357.58) in Baghdad. 

One of the neighborhoods of Basra. Photo Credit: Rebin Fatah

Several political parties, government backed militias, and heavily armed tribes have been involved in various disputes over Basra’s resources. Many of these entities have organized criminal gangs and involved in obvious criminal economic activities, from simple bribery to forced donations in ports and checkpoints. The tribes, sometimes, use advanced middle size weapons and machine guns in their armed conflicts.
As summer approaching, expected protests and uncertainty in Basra are also approaching due to dysfunctional governance and lack of drinking water and electricity. Iraqi Federal Government is not expected to address the governorate’s immediate needs given the current political instability and dare economic situation of the country.  
In response, PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi has put Hadi Amiri, head of Fath coalition and para military party Badr Organization, in charge of helping Basra’s local government to better handle the growing demands for providing the services. The step triggered wide critiques since Amri is just a political figure with no government-position. 

Bad Governance and Corruption 

Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Regime intentionally neglected Basra for more than two decades. Iran-Iraq war and first gulf war terribly damaged Basra’s environment, infrastructure, and social coherence to an unprecedented level. 
Following the 2003 regime change, the new political elite who have run the province under the banners of various Shiite Islamist parties, especially Islamic Dawa Party, constantly kept Basra neglected and impoverished as they were overwhelmed with accumulating rapid wealth, power struggle, and sectarian conflicts. Now the political landscape is more complicated as Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl Haq emerged as key rival parties to the conventional ruling parties like Islamic Da’wa Party, Sadrist Stream, Fadhila, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and The National Wisdom Movement (Hikma).
Similar to the ruling elites, Iraq’s bad management of waste water also contributed to the Basra’s environmental and economic destructions. In almost all the cities and towns of the country, disposal waste water is dumped into rivers. Swage-pipe is mixed with Tigris and Euphrates, or their tributaries, to take the waste water downstream to Basra. Therefore, the country’s 38 million population’s waste-water goes to Shatt Al-Arab, Basra. This is what explains the dangerous level of water pollution that sparked last summer’s protests in the province.
The water pollution seriously threatens lives of 2.5 million population of the province, and level of its contamination has increased by four folds in the past 10 years. “In the period between August 2018 to November 2018, up to 100,000 people were hospitalized due to water-related illnesses,” according to Environmental Justice Atlas. 

Raw sewage and untreated wastewater spewed into one of the rivers in Basra City. Photo Credit: Rebin Fatah

Local officials blame federal government institutions for the mismanagement, whispered corruption, and lack of public services. They always see “repulsive centralist federal institutions” as a reason for much of the Basra people’s grievances. While the same officials belong to the political parties and groups who have run Iraqi Federal Government since 2003. As nobody claims responsibility, Basrawi people are lost between populist blame-games.
One of the key, and legit, point anti-region campaigners have made is the fact that Basra Region would be found by the same politicians who have run the province since 2003. Therefore, they might not be able to come up with a better alternative to reduce environmental and economic damages they have caused. 
In the last years’ protests in Basra, people were asking for adequate service-provision and job opportunities. Nobody, in the regionalist, or Iraqi, campaigns, has explained how they can address the protestors’ demands. The protestors probably come back on streets again in the coming weeks, when summer-heat reaches its top and makes people terribly need drinking water and electricity.
Very few people expect any viable solution from the current Iraqi Government, but it is also not clear how the optimistic regionalist leaders are going to address the service-provision crisis.

Viability of the Autonomous Regions, From Kurdistan to Basra 

Following the first Gulf War in 1991, people of Basra upraised against Saddam Hussein Regime, which managed to suppress the uprising and take back all the 12 governorates that fell under control of rebel opposition groups in north and south of the country. The uprising led to forming Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), thanks to the international support, mostly the US. Basra was retaken by the Ba’ath Regime, and it has never recovered the destructions the uprising and the first Gulf-War caused. 
The KRG evolved to a point were some scholars described it as the most prosperous part of Iraq, while the rest of the country was moving from bad dictatorial regime to a dysfunctional state overtaken by a sectarian elite that ended up with ISIS-war.
Currently, it is hard to prove that the KRG is doing better than the federal government in term of service provision, functional governing institutions, and human rights records. The region’s security is relatively better, thanks to homogeneity of its people, but it is hard to see any governing institutions working better than the federal ones. 
What differentiates Basra from Kurdistan is the fact that the regionalist leaders would not want to be independent from Iraq (At this moment). They want to have a regional government that can afford better services and more adequate management of its resources. While the majority of politicians in the KRG have not hide their dream of forming an independent Kurdistan. 
Basra is not landlocked, and economically it would be better off alone than staying with Iraq. The KRG is landlocked and surrounded by hostile aggressive neighbors, and its natural resources are not enough to become a self-sufficient independent state in near future. 
Similar to Kurdistan’s separatist move, Basra regionalist leaders might face reactions from Iraqi federal leaders and some neighboring countries, especially Iran, the most effective one.
Now, Kurds are working to improve the KRG’s economy and recover the recent financial crisis from Baghdad, where Basra leaders already have a strong voice. Both Kurdish and Basrawi political leaders are divided over power and resources.
In term of human rights-records, free speech, personal liberties, the KRG and Basra are not better than Baghdad. But the KRG’s economic performance looks better than Basra and Baghdad according to Iraq’s formal statistics. 
Total per capita income at market prices is 599,200 IQD ($502.2) in Erbil, while it is 426,800 IQD ($357.58) in Baghdad and 251,400 IQD ($210.63) in Basra. These numbers are taken from Iraqi CSO’s 2014 and it is accuracy could be easily doubted, but there is no better available figures. 

How to Address the Growing Demand and Grievances?

Iraqi federal leaders have no time to waste in addressing the institutional and political problems that push some Basrawi leaders and activists towards their autonomous region. Without this kind of reform, spending public money would not improve service-provision proportionally as some federal leaders are expecting. So far, what Adil Abdul Mahdi’s cabinet has done to handle Basra’s crises by offering jobs in public sector and increasing funds for service provision is not different from what the previous cabinets did, and key issues have not been resolved. 
The federal institutions need to undergo serious institutional reforms under supervision of Iraqi Parliament, international partners like the World Bank and IMF, and some Iraqi NGOs and institutions that help bringing transparency or other counter corruption measures. The reforms should be designed in a way that strengthens governing institutions and reduce leverages of militias and political parties’ which operates like mafias. 
The needed reform should create better environment for the private sector growth. The federal government can’t create enough jobs for Basra people while population growth rate is 2.73, which is higher than 1.1 of Iran and 1.5 of Turkey. 
Such a serious reform can’t be implemented just in the way that PM Abdul-Mahdi’s plan laid out, which depends only on the human resources already working in the federal institutions. The plan needs to involve some local and international counter corruption institutions.
After the next provincial council election, the Iraqi government will not have an excuse to neglect the Basra people’s demand for creating an autonomous region under the pretext of outdated provincial council, so before running out of time the federal leaders have to address the issues that drove Basrawis to seek their own autonomous region.
Similar to Basra, Arab Sunni provinces are also suffering lack of public services, devastating level of corruption, and outlaw government backed militias. They will raise their region formation efforts soon after Basra. 
Improving horizontal accountability through parliament and judiciary would help reducing corruption in the both local and federal governments. There has to be a proper cooperation between local and federal efforts to fight the malignant corruption.
Besides, much of the federal government’s authorities can be decentralized in order to enable provincial governments to cope with the problems better. The decentralization should be in a way that decreases federal institutions’ heavy bureaucracy not create swamps for corrupt networks of political parties and militias.
This issue would not stay in the boundary of Basra. The region-formation demand is very popular in most of the Arab Sunni majority provinces such as Diyala, Salahadin, and Nineveh. Therefore, it has to be addressed in a federal level whether they meet the region-formation demand or reject it.
Nobody blames the current cabinet for the Basra’s crises, but it will be blamed for not introducing appropriate polices and plans to address them.

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