A big Jordanian flag flutters in front of Amman's Jabal al-Qala district on June 8, 2018. (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Promises and Pitfalls of Jordan’s Anti-Corruption Legal Framework

The founder of the General Intelligence Directorate in Jordan once claimed that the state’s founders dedicated 90 percent of their energies to state-building and a mere 10 percent to their personal affairs, as per Ali Mahafza, a historian and former university president. Today, the opposite is the case, with wasta, a form of nepotism whereby personal connections bring about undue favors and advantages, becoming widespread and corruption distorting “our view of life,” as the interview with Mahafza concluded.

Many Jordanians would agree with his views. In 2018, 89 percent perceived corruption as being present to a large or medium extent in state institutions, and less than half believed the government was working to crack down on corruption. As of late 2021, the figures have not budged much, with 55 and 32 percent believing that corruption exists in state institutions to a great and medium extent respectively.

Yet, over the past decade-and-a-half, an extensive anti-corruption legislative framework has been developed in the country, including the establishment of an independent state institution tasked with combating corruption. This analysis will review the existing anti-corruption legislative framework and the promising achievements accomplished, while highlighting how structural socioeconomic and political factors impede systemic anti-corruption efforts.

Background to the anti-corruption legislative framework

By the mid-2000s, King Abdullah II’s reign had proven to be disappointing to the people of Jordan on the socioeconomic front, with poverty and unemployment remaining pressing issues successive governments failed to alleviate, while political life had stultified. In 2003, the International Crisis Group reported that “the [Jordanian] regime’s Achilles heel [was] the feeble bond of trust between most citizens and the state.”

But in 2005, when Jordan ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, a change seemingly loomed on the horizon. King Abdullah acknowledged that Jordan had “endured several periods of disorder and failure,” and appointed a reform-leaning prime minister whose government was tasked with implementing “a new mechanism that ensures more transparency, justice and integrity in the fight against corruption.” This mechanism would be a body that coordinates efforts to confront “anyone who is corrupt.”

However, the November 2005 terrorist attacks in Amman led to the reformist government’s dissolution. The succeeding government, headed by a retired general with seemingly little appetite for change, did nonetheless abide by the king’s directive regarding the establishment of an Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). In November 2006, the Anti-Corruption Commission Law was published in the Official Gazette.

The anti-corruption commission and its track record

Since 2006, the ACC has seen ebbs and flows. The legal framework governing it has changed substantially throughout the years, while its ability to meaningfully fight corruption has fluctuated.

As per its law, the ACC is an independent state institution that prepares and implements anti-corruption policies in coordination with relevant institutions, and uncovers all forms of corruption in the public and private sectors. This entails the stipulations of the Economic Crimes Law (such as forgeries and thefts committed in the stock market), several provisions of the Penal Code (such as breaching public trust and dereliction of duties), as well as any act compromising public funds, including soliciting bribes, embezzling funds, forging documents, abuse of functions, wasta, and favoritism.

Although not a judicial body, the ACC has investigatory powers such as freezing assets, imposing travel bans, and interrogating suspects. Its findings and conclusions are referred to relevant judicial authorities, including a public prosecutor assigned to work in the ACC, who then issues verdicts.

The ACC’s 2010 annual report stipulates that out of 1,026 cases examined that year, only 87 were referred to the public prosecutor attached to the commission, while 713 cases were dismissed due to lack of evidence. The following year, as demonstrations swelled throughout the kingdom with demands for meaningful socioeconomic changes and an end to corruption, the ACC was described as “largely ineffective over the years” with “no real teeth.”

Among King Abdullah’s responses to the unrest was the establishment of a Royal National Integrity Committee in December 2012 tasked with “reviewing the laws and studying the situation of monitoring agencies” in order to strengthen anti-corruption efforts and integrity in the state. A little less than a year later, the committee issued a National Integrity Charter. But despite the charter and an amendment to the ACC law in 2014 giving the commission additional time to investigate complaints, as well as powers to protect whistleblowers, investigate money laundering and illicit enrichment, the ACC complained about its inadequate budget and staff shortages.

In May 2016, the ACC law was replaced with a whole new law: the ACC was merged with the Ombudsman Bureau, a state institution established in 2008 to address citizens’ grievances with state institutions, and the Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission (IACC) was born, replacing both the ACC and the Ombudsman Bureau. The definition of corruption was expanded to include additional crimes, such as the failure to disclose investments or assets that could lead to conflicts of interests and personal enrichment, and some loopholes present in the original ACC law were addressed. The 2016 law imposed a fine and a prison sentence on whoever failed or refused to comply with the IACC’s demands. The IACC president now also had the authority to request from any state institution—be it administrative staff in the state, or law enforcement, and judicial authorities—to delegate officers or employees to assist the IACC in its investigative work. The IACC law provides exonerations to individuals who engaged in corruption but became whistleblowers, and it also establishes an account at the Central Bank where funds recovered through settlements are to be placed and eventually returned to the rightful owners.

Since the new law was passed, the IACC has investigated substantial grand corruption cases. For instance, as per its 2018 annual report, the commission investigated cases ranging from embezzlement of fuel in a public university worth millions of Jordanian dinars, to a civil society organization misappropriating 300,000 euros obtained from the European Union to monitor the 2016 elections. In 2019, cases the IACC filed to the public prosecution had recuperated over 150 million dinars (around $211.5 million). These cases ranged from financial crimes carried out in joint-stock companies and politicians illicitly acquiring state-owned lands, to fraudulently implemented tenders and conflicts of interest at the municipal level, to name a few.

In September 2019, the law was amended to empower the IACC and fix minor loopholes. For instance, it can now request copies of suspects’ financial disclosures from the Department of Financial Disclosures based in the Ministry of Justice, as well as technical expertise or assistance with inspection from any of the state’s oversight agencies, such as the Audit Bureau. In addition, the commission’s deadline to issue a decision on an investigation has been increased from three to six months, extendable by an additional six months if necessary.

Recently, in April 2022, the IACC law was amended once again, giving individuals who engaged in corruption the right to request a conciliation should they return all of the wealth and benefits accrued illicitly or should they ask for the conciliation at the investigation’s initial stages. The IACC’s legal committee examines the request, and if approved, the commission’s board proceeds with it.

Though the IACC’s track record in recent years and its ability to protect public funds and investigate corruption cases of all sizes are to be commended, substantial caveats exist.

Limitations of the ‘rule of law’ approach

While Jordanian experts and policymakers usually claim that corruption in the kingdom is not systemic, there is a unanimous agreement that wasta—using one’s personal connections to obtain benefits and advantages—is widespread throughout the public and private sectors. Even many who condemn it often find themselves forced to engage in wasta to receive basic services or swiftly finalize governmental procedures. Rather than legislating and overseeing the executive branch, parliamentarians are widely known to prioritize wasta to their constituents and facilitating their access to services or employment opportunities.

Despite being criminalized at least since the ACC law of 2006, no convictions on wasta have taken place, and in many instances, the solicitation of a favor is not necessarily considered illegal, rendering formal legal tools ineffective.

In addition, holding to account ministers and parliamentarians suspected of engaging in corruption is a complicated process. As per Article 86 of the constitution, sitting parliamentarians and senators cannot be detained or tried during their tenures unless caught red-handed and unless a majority of parliamentarians vote on it. Ministers on the other hand enjoy procedural immunity, which makes it difficult for the public prosecution to pursue any minister accused of corruption.

Prior to the 2011 constitutional amendments, ministers could be referred to the judiciary only after a two-thirds majority of parliamentarians voted on it, as per Article 56. This effectively shielded the sitting prime minister in 2011 during the infamous “Casino scandal.” Although gambling is prohibited in Jordan, during his first tenure as prime minister in 2007, the government had signed a secret contract heavily deleterious to the Jordanian state with a company to establish a casino—ironic given that it was this same government that proposed the ACC law in 2006.

In a television interview from August 2019, a former member of the ACC board lamented how the commission had investigated several cases involving sitting ministers, but parliamentarians failed to lift the suspects’ immunity and allow the judiciary to determine the case. Since 2011, Article 56 has been amended and a simple majority is now needed to refer ministers’ procedural immunity. Yet, such instances remain extremely rare—only two are documented, both of which took place before the amendments. In addition, on some occasions, parliamentarians refused to waive immunities enjoyed by their colleagues, and refused amendments to Article 86 of the constitution which would alter the immunity they enjoy.

Limitations of anti-corruption under authoritarian neoliberalism

No matter how well crafted the IACC law is and how many powers the commission and its investigators are endowed with, the fight against corruption is sorely lacking without a free press capable of shedding light on abuses in the private and public sectors. Numerous studies have shown that an association exists between low levels of corruption on one hand, and an independent and free media landscape.

Alas, the laws governing Jordan’s media landscape “are restrictive, vague, and arbitrarily enforced,” leading to many instances of self-censorship by journalists, while mainstream outlets routinely exhibit a sycophantic veneration of the king and avoid crossing official and unofficial red lines, such as the recent Pandora Papers or Credit Suisse revelations.

The low levels of trust in the state persist and have arguably worsened as the neoliberal structure of the economy persisted in tandem with a gradually shrinking welfare state. Socioeconomic inequalities have become increasingly visible, while youth from marginalized backgrounds are ignored from royal-led youth empowerment projects to mold “active citizenship and social entrepreneurship.”

As important and commendable as its work is, the IACC is incapable of bringing about an end to this broken trust and disillusionment by itself. No matter how many petty and grand cases the IACC solves, systemic economic and political changes are needed to rebuild trust in the state and put an end to the proliferation of wasta and other forms of corruption. It remains to be seen whether the latest round of political reforms will be the seeds of sorely needed change.

 

Karim Merhej is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on corruption, socioeconomic inequality, and governance in Lebanon and Jordan