COTE D'IVOIRE: The inescapable injustice of justice
People register to appear before a mobile court in Bouake, Côte d'Ivoire, 17 August 2006. The people hoped to receive documents proving Ivorian citizenship ahead of elections
ABIDJAN, 12 July 2007 (IRIN) - For a week Mariame Kone has walked the corridors of the Ivorian justice ministry trying to get a copy of records she needs for a job application. The deadline is approaching and she is losing hope she will receive the papers in time. Kone and others awaiting documents or decisions know that not much happens in the halls of justice unless money changes hands.
“No two ways about it,” said one of the ‘margouillat’, self-employed agents who act as intermediaries passing money between citizens and justice officials. “People who just stand around waiting are wasting their time. They know they must slip something under the table in order to see any action on their documents.”
Another ‘margouillat,’ Ali Toure, told IRIN: “We haven’t the slightest notion of the law, but each of us has his magistrate who covers for him. When a citizen comes with a problem, we take it to our guy.”
The UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire (ONUCI) said in a June report that corruption is so widespread in the Ivorian justice system that “people have come to believe, even though fortunately it’s not always the case, that it is impossible to get a favourable decision without handing over money.” The report said bribes are also given in the form of sexual favours.
ONUCI said whether one is a magistrate or lawyer, those moving up the ranks of the legal profession are confronted with corruption straight away. “The only options are either participate in the corruption machine – at varying degrees depending on one’s morality, even reluctantly – or quit the profession altogether if one does not want to be compromised.”
ONUCI’s ‘Rule of Law’ unit, in collaboration with the ministry of justice and human rights, interviewed judges, magistrates, court registrars, and other legal professionals, as well as representatives of NGOs and professional associations. “Everyone we spoke with admitted the magnitude of corruption in the justice system,” the report said.Ingrained
An Ivorian lawyer, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because he feared for his job and life if his name was used, said: “The business of corruption [in this domain] is so ingrained that not a single court case is processed without bribes.”
“Every part of the justice system is implicated because of the meagre financial, human and material resources available to us.”
ONUCI’s Francoise Simard, head of the rule of law unit, told reporters last month corruption in the justice system takes several forms – namely plaintiffs or defendants paying bribes or justice officials being swayed by familial, tribal or social ties. “There is also pressure on justices by their superiors, and we also see cases of sexual favours solicited in exchange for decisions.”
‘Margouillat’ Toure said the business of corruption in the justice system has become more profitable during the country’s civil unrest, which has seen the number of ‘unofficial’ checkpoints explode throughout the country.
Northerners, who have long charged that identity papers they apply for never materialise, often play the bribe game just to get by, Toure said. “Northerners don’t hesitate to come and spend a huge amount of money to get false documents, which judges will provide.” Recommendations
ONUCI recommended a commission against corruption in the judiciary be formed. The report also called for a stricter, more formal, system for handling cases, and a campaign be launched to educate citizens about various forms of corruption in the justice system.
However a justice ministry advisor who also did not want to be named, because he was speaking without authorisation, said tackling corruption requires “dedication”.
“We must transform the morals of Ivorian society,” he said. “If there are people who are taking bribes, there are also people giving bribes. If we want to put a stop to this, it will require the total commitment of each and every one of us.”
However, the lawyer who said he feared for his life if he talked publicly about corruption said it is salaries not morals that must be boosted. “Just imagine – there are some in the justice sector who earn 250,000 CFA francs (US$ 525) per month,” he said. “With all the living expenses, what can you do? It’s only natural that when someone proposes 5 million CFA francs (US$10,000) to wring something out of the justice system, a person’s not going to hesitate.”
ONUCI in its report said Cote d’Ivoire allocates just 2 percent of its annual budget to the justice system, which it concluded is “totally insufficient to cover the basic needs and provide quality judicial services and independent justice.”