Taxi drivers, business owners, street vendors and shopkeepers are exasperated by the daily harassment and shakedowns they face at the hands of police, customs and municipal authorities. Even children are being forced to bribe their teachers to come to class. In this special report, Gul Rahim Niazman examines the predicament and ire of locals in Kunduz.
Two ltanker drivers rest in the shade of their vehicle near Mazar-e Sharif. Drivers are often held up for hours 'negotiating' tariffs with officials. (Photo Rohullah Rahimi - Main: Fazl Rahman Muzhary)
At the customs office in Imam Sahib District, Wazir is arguing with police and municipal clerks. The 65-year-old is refusing to pay a single afghani more than the tariff he is required to pay by law to transport his cargo.
The livestock owner bought 20 bags of straw from Zangal village, about 15 kilometres from Imam Sahib, and he needs to take the straw to Kunduz City to feed his animals. But Wazir, who has been making the same journey for years, faces a difficult choice: pay the bribes the officials want from him and ensure his family are fed, or face the wrath of those he resists.
“If I pay 250 afghanis at each security checkpoint for the straw on my truck, it'll exceed the amount I paid for the entire load,” he protests, thumping his fist angrily into one of the bags perched beside him.
Enough is enough. Wazir has taken a stand. “I will not pay the tiniest bribe now. When I get to Kunduz City, I will complain to the police and municipal officials,” says the farmer, one of millions of ordinary Afghans who are bullied and intimidated on a daily basis by corrupt officials.
Yet his principled stand could be stonewalled by an establishment that insists it follows correct procedures with due diigence. Police chiefs deny any wrongdoing by their officers, and the head of the provincial Transport Department, Sayed Jawad Jalali, said his subordinates only make a formal charge for cargo vehicles, depending on the types of roads they use and whether they in turn levy fees from their clients.
For example, if a truck carries oil and charges 50,000 afghanis, it will have to pay a 5 per cent tariff if transporting on paved roads, and 4 per cent for unpaved roads, says Jalali. “But other than that we don’t levy any other types of taxes.”
There are about 2,000 small scooters and taxicabs in Kunduz city. For 100 afghanis, the traffic police allows drivers of both to park in areas where they are not supposed to and solicit passengers.
It has become a local business model: The drivers pay so they can get as many passengers as possible in as little time. Many drivers will often give away as much as 20 per cent of a 10 dollar daily income to ensure they can get access to different parts of the city.
Those who refuse to pay backhanders can get physically backhanded themselves. Ghulam Sakhi, a local cab driver, says his kids have gone hungry since he stopped paying bribes to the traffic police. “The other day a traffic policeman slapped me,” says the irate cabbie, who can no longer access the premium parking spots in the city.
“The other day a traffic policeman slapped me." Ghulak Sakhi, Kunduz cabbie.
Denials are emphatic. General Abdul Karim Langari, head of the Kunduz traffic police, rejects all the allegations made by the cab and scooter drivers. “If someone was asked for money by the traffic police, please show me proof and I will punish them,” says the general.
Meanwhile, transport chief Jalali said that citizens don’t cooperate with his organization to clamp down on corruption or excess charges by transport companies.
Not an easy job: a police officer directs traffic in Kabul. (Photo: Basir Seerat)
“For example a passenger car should charge 530 afghanis (6 dollars) for a Kunduz-Kabul taxi fare, but I have heard that they charge 1,500 afghanis (17 dollars). I have been to bus stations several times to control the fares, but the passengers don’t cooperate with us .... When I ask passengers how much they pay, they tell me ‘it is none of your business. It is my money and I will spend it as I want’”, he added.
Nevertheless, the traffic department in Kunduz has designated specific areas and stations for scooters to stop and take passengers, ostensibly to regulate business. But most drivers evade the regulations, and wayward police are said to ask for 100 afghanis from each offending driver instead of handing out tickets, creating a system of informal licensing. The government loses revenue and the system becomes its own worst enemy.
Despite ongoing pressure from international donors on the Afghan government to fight corruption, Transparency International’s Corruptions Perception Index ranks Afghanistan as the fourth most corrupt country in the world.
Rickshaw drivers often face a tough ride at the hands of traffic police. (Photo: Mohammad Yasir Sharifi)
In Kunduz, corrupt practices seem to be endemic throughout government departments. Local courts, the police and attorneys have been accused of refusing to operate without palm grease: small business owners say they are being forced to close because of hefty kickbacks demanded on a daily basis.
In the wider picture of local policing, Sayed Sarwar Husseini, spokesman for the provincial force, stresses that "the national police never take money from the people." Errant officers will be referred to the judiciary in the event of specific complaints, he added.
Yet it is clear that a culture of graft pervades the city. Across Kunduz, the traffic police chase wheelbarrow-towing fruit and vegetable sellers; police smash their scales, or throw away their fruits and vegetables. Such naked aggression usually forces street sellers to allocate a portion of their earnings to give to the corrupt police officers and municipal clerks bribes, a sort of informal tax.
Naser Ahmed, a 27-year-old from Badakhshan Province who came to Kunduz looking for work, sells fruit and veg out of a wheelbarrow. He says he makes about 1,000 afghanis (20 dollas) a day, of which only 300 is profit by the time he has paid back both credits from wholesalers and the inevitable and constant 100-afghanis 'taxes' handed to various officials.
Ahmed knew his business was vulnerable when he got into it: fruits can go unsold and go off the next day in smothering conditions. But that isn’t what has caused grey hairs to sprout on the young man’s beard. “It's constant bothering from the police."
“The constant bothering from the police is making my hair go grey.” Naser, 27-year-old street vendor.
Shopkeepers have also started complaining about municipal clerks extracting extortionate “cleaning” fees in what appears to be a lose-lose situation for small business owners. If shopkeepers refuse to pay above the legal tax, the clerks report the shopkeepers’ capital as higher than what it is, ensuring the shopkeeper will lose out in the long term by paying more tax at the end of the year.
“If we do not pay, the municipal clerks make many excuses and charge way more,” Zia ur Rahman, a sandal store owner at the footwear market, told Afghanistan Today.
The mayor of Kunduz City, Najibullah Omarkhil, claims that he started tackling and eliminating corruption right after he took office. Tellingly, in Kunduz Province, the former director of Public Works is the only government official who has been prosecuted (for selling two hectares of public land) - and after spending a limited time in prison, he was recently released.
Yet while the mayor claims he is doing his best to clean up the rot, some of the excesses suggest matters are deteriorating, not improving.
At schools in Kunduz, students are often given an abrupt and early introduction to the corruption culture. Teachers pressure them to bring money to pay for blackboards, water coolers, cleaning materials, window curtains etc. If they don't, they face physical punishment.
Sar Biland, a fifth grade student at Seh-Dark elementary school, says a few days ago his teacher announced that every child must bring 20 afghanis or face the consequences.
“I forgot to bring the money, and the teacher hit me,” says nine-year-old, stuck betwwen a rock and a hard place. “I cannot ask for money at home; my family would suspect why the teacher asks for money every day.”