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  • Richard Bistrong

Corruption’s Impact on the Rule of Law & Security: Moving from the Vicious to the Virtuous

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

Today’s guest post is from James Cohen. James is a contributing as an independent expert on anti-corruption, international development, and security sector reform. He is based in Washington DC, and can be followed on Twitter at @JamesCohen82. His last post on Mapping Corruption (here), remains one of the most widely read posts’ on this blog.  Photo is by Lars Plougmann from London, United Kingdom – “Just say NO to corruption” found here.

No country is free from the risk of corruption, but from Ukraine to Afghanistan, from Nigeria to Iraq, the tide is turning on the acceptance of corruption as a benign issue that ‘greases the wheels of bureaucracy.’ Rather, corruption is now recognized as gravely contributing to global insecurity, manifesting in human rights violations, and even being considered a human rights violation itself. Corruption drives citizen grievance and mistrust towards the state by corroding rule of law institutions. Corruption compromises the security sector, rendering it unable to respond to threats or making it a threat itself. Finally, corruption enables rule of law spoilers – criminals, terrorists, and kleptocrats – to thrive.

Tunisia and Mali are two poignant examples of states that reached a breaking point due to the vicious cycle of their corrupt systems. The outcries of their citizens’ grievances became enmeshed with and fed regional insecurity. Governments and citizens are working towards avoiding these breaking points, striving to convert vicious cycles of corruption to a virtuous cycle of accountability and rule of law.


Citizens are generally well aware of the extent of corruption in their countries. They encounter it on a daily basis through many small and large interactions. They know to expect bureaucrats asking for a bribe to provide a government service. They see their government officials riding in fancy cars and living in grand houses though promises of aid and development are nowhere to be seen. While the public works within corrupt systems in order to make ends meet, their grievances and a sense of injustice builds.

In Tunisia, entry into the market economy was limited for much of the population under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with the ruling family exercising a heavy hand in controlling and directing much of the economy. The rigged system and the repressive authoritarianism that protected it led many frustrated Tunisians to overthrow the old regime through peaceful protest.

Although Mali and its former President, Amadou Toumani Touré, were hailed by the international community as democratic leaders in Africa, the explosive rebellion in the north and subsequent coup in 2012 demonstrated the level of grievances in marginalized populations and security personnel. Even a sizable portion of the population welcomed Touré’s exit. This was all built on years of resource mismanagement and impunity.

As official corruption at the top corrodes and captures governance institutions, corruption within law enforcement and the justice system undermines the rule of law in particular. Police become predatory, and courts become inaccessible for many citizens who cannot afford bribes to get access to justice. These two institutions are commonly perceived to be among the most corrupt around the world. As was the case in Tunisia and Mali, the state loses legitimacy as citizens see the face of the rule of law as self-serving.

Endemic corruption in both Tunisia and Mali was constructed by governments more interested in self-profit and preservation than an equitable rule of law. To their own peril, and the stability of the region, resentment over corruption was left to simmer until one young fruit vendor in Tunisia had enough of playing the game. His match set off the ramifications of corruption that are still playing out.


In addition to creating security threats by undermining governance and building grievances, corruption also compromises the security sector’s ability to address threats. The military, police, intelligence, and border guards all face corruption risks such as patronage, the sale of positions, and plundering salary and procurement funds.

Patronage and positions-for-sale enable a cycle of corruption where security leadership is primarily concerned with trading favors and paying debts for their positions. This leaves underpaid staff at the front lines without proper equipment and a leadership unprepared or unmotivated to address threats. This was the confluence of circumstances surrounding the Malian military’s collapse in 2012. Demoralized soldiers who had their equipment funds pilfered by top brass were up against well-armed and motivated rebels forcing the soldier’s retreat in frustration – mostly at their own leaders.

Mali is an example that demonstrates corruption’s ultimate end in undermining the security sector, but run of the mill corruption among police or border guards also undermines security by creating gaps in their ability to detect and stop threats. In response to attacks in Sousse and the Bardo Museum, the Tunisian government is building a series of new barricades along its border with Libya to try and stop terrorists. Despite the money going into the new system, there are various personnel risks. This could be a few border guards prone to corruption undermining the whole system, allowing terrorists to slip by with low-level smugglers.


Finally, as corruption enrages citizens and undermines state security, it allows the spoilers of the rule of law to thrive.

The Sahel and Maghreb hold pathways for smugglers moving drugs, people, and weapons from West and Central Africa to the Mediterranean. Sophisticated smuggling routes and the cover of the dessert’s open and sparsely populated terrain, still require corruption to effectively allow movement. It is in criminal and terrorist networks’ interest to corrode governance institutions and perpetuate a weak rule of law. Giving security officials and politicians a cut of the criminal profits keeps eyes turned away and even provides cover. The former Malian government played with this dangerous temptation to its own detriment, colluding with organized crime in the north of the country, who in turn worked with terrorist organizations during the 2012 insurgency.

Corruption also allows the theft of the state and impunity amongst officials that drives citizen grievances. The Ben Ali regime rigged Tunisia’s economy for his close network’s favor, stashing ill-gotten gains in overseas accounts through various opaque financial flows and shelters that Tunisians are struggling to work through today. So far almost 80 million dollars US, planes, and property have been recovered. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the Tunisian government now looks to ensure a smooth political transition by offering amnesty in exchange for stolen funds. This action has spurred new frustrations from citizens about a lack of justice.


Tunisia and Mali are just two of a number of country examples where corruption undermines the rule of law and threatens state and citizen security. While both Mali and Tunisia are taking a number of initiatives such as bolstering legislation and empowering oversight bodies, they, and many other countries, have much work to do to reign in corruption and its effect on state stability. The following are recommendations to improve governance to address corruption and its impact on fragility:

A. At an institutional level, effective and independent oversight is crucial to upholding the rule of law. This includes ensuring oversight bodies have the appropriate mandate, funding, staffing, and legal framework for carrying out their jobs. Budget transparency is a further crucial component of accountability with open data platforms as a positive trend. Security and defense budgets, however remain difficult to open. While there is a need for some secrecy, these budgets are often notoriously used for theft due to their lack of public oversight.

B. Civil society and citizens at large need be involved in oversight as well. Citizens resigned to believing not much can be done about corruption, or that only a fool will stick out their neck, find ways to work within a corrupt system until a possibly dangerous breaking point. Civil society needs to help articulate the kind of good governance and rule of law citizens want and create a ground swell to show citizens that accountable government is possible.

C. Additionally, government information needs to be accessible. While open data initiatives are progress, citizens need to be able to use that data to make change. Further, information for accountability comes from access to information laws and freedom of the press. These tools create a robust oversight system, but are often under threat due to their impact on corruption networks and authoritarian regimes.

D. At the global level, the impact of illicit financial flows on the rule of law and security are gaining traction. Governments need to continue to dismantle the tools illicit networks exploit, such as tax havens and shell companies, without harming beneficial  financial flows such as remittances.

E. Finally, tackling corruption, just like all reform processes, is political as well as technical. Challenging a deeply corrupt system will create powerful losers who commit human rights violations in order to keep that power. This should not cause avoidance due to sensitivities, but rather it implies smart and tactful approaches to addressing ‘grand corruption.’

The vicious cycle of corruption is already undergoing a global change in perception. People in other countries saw Tunisians demand something better from their government and the results of waiting to break that cycle until a dangerous point are playing themselves out. Moving to a virtuous cycle of good governance and rule of law helps avoid a worsening downward cycle of violence.

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