Afghan cabinet's birthing troubles

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani presented his nominees for cabinet during a ceremony in the Afghan parliament Image copyright AP
Image caption Afghan President Ashraf Ghani presented his nominees for cabinet during a ceremony in the Afghan parliament

The Afghan parliament is preparing to vote on a new cabinet amidst a heated debate over the qualification and suitability of ministerial candidates.

Afghanistan has been without government since President Ashraf Ghani and his former election rival, turned chief executive Abdullah Abdullah agreed to share power last September.

They have been locked in tortuous negotiations to agree ministerial appointments ever since, attempting to balance the country's complex regional and ethnic political interests.

But their choices of ministers were in trouble from the day they were presented to parliament for approval last Tuesday.

  • The nominee for agriculture, Yaqub Haidari, withdrew after he turned out to be on an Interpol wanted list for tax evasion and fraud; he said he was the victim of a political conspiracy
  • The candidate for finance minister, Ghulam Jilani Popal stepped aside citing personal reasons
  • The proposed minister for water and energy, Mahmoud Saikal pulled out at the last minute and was replaced by a candidate from Western Afghanistan, apparently to satisfy voters and power brokers who felt their region had been short-changed
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Afghan MPs have insisted on ministers being single passport holders only to show their loyalty to the country

Divided loyalties?

But the biggest issue has been the question of dual nationality.

Parliament has already rejected seven nominees for having dual citizenship.

The deputy speaker, Saleh Mohammad Saljoqi told the BBC they would not even be allowed to present their credentials to MPs.

"We have asked the president to present us with new names," Mr Saljoqi said.

Those disqualified include nominations for key ministries such as interior and foreign affairs and justice. One of the three women nominees, Aysultan Khairy was also rejected.

Members of parliament have argued that having a second passport could compromise a minister's integrity, allowing him to easily leave the country and evade prosecution in case of wrongdoing.

Others have argued that dual citizenship suggested a lack of loyalty.

Last month a majority of MPs voted to reject any future ministerial nominees with dual nationality.

The Afghan constitution does not explicitly bar such candidates, but it also grants parliament the authority to either approve or reject nominees with dual citizenship.

And reports suggest that there are now moves to persuade parliamentarians to take a softer line on the issue.

Some MPs won't need convincing: Farhad Azimi from northern Balkh province told the BBC there should be no discrimination.

"Afghans with foreign citizenship are committed to Afghanistan too and they are Afghans for generations and cannot be foreigners," he says.

"I would have voted Yes to these nominees."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Over three decades of conflict have left the new government with huge challenges including an intensifying Taliban insurgency

Legacy of conflict

It's far from clear how much the issue matters to the wider Afghan population.

In a phone in programme run by the BBC Afghan service, many suggested that there were more important matters.

Bashir called to say that dual citizenship was not important: "What's important is the professionalism of the nominees."

Another caller, Hashmatullah, said the issue was overplayed: "Dual citizenship must not be an issue. These people didn't go to abroad and become citizens elsewhere for pleasure.

"The country was at war and they had to emigrate. We need these people."

But others felt nationality mattered:

Mobasir Maroof said ministers needed to have only Afghan citizenship to serve the country better. Another man, Fawad Rajabi agreed: "Nominees with dual citizenship don't have commitment to people and the country."

The debate reflects the legacy of war in Afghanistan, which has lasted for over three decades and forced millions to seek refuge and new lives abroad.

It's a legacy that also throws up some very basic, practical problems.

The chaos of continuous conflict means that reliable papers and records on education, qualification or birth certificates are often missing or unreliable.

Such uncertainty was highlighted by an apparent social media smear campaign against the candidate for the higher education portfolio, another of the three women put forward for the cabinet.

Pictures circulated purporting to show an identity document suggesting Khatera Afghan was too young to take the job.

Ministers have to be at least 35 years old. Another picture though showed a document giving her age as 38.

Image copyright AP
Image caption President Ghani and chief executive Abdullah agreed a national unity government last year but took months to name a cabinet

Deal making

Another worry has been that ministerial candidates might be tempted to gain MPs' support by granting favours or even paying money.

Afghanistan suffers from widespread corruption and after previous elections there were reports of prospective ministers buying loyalty and votes.

"In the past the government itself paved the way for corruption by accepting and meeting demands of MPs," says Farhad Azimi.

But President Ghani has promised a zero-tolerance approach.

"If it is proven that a minister paid MPs, he or she will no longer be our minister from that moment," President Ghani's spokesman Nazifullah Salarzai told the BBC.

Mr Ghani himself said as much when he addressed parliament: "People are tired of corruption. If any of the ministers is suspected of corruption he or she should resign or will be prosecuted. If I make a mistake, try me."

Most observers though agree that the proposed cabinet is a significant change from the past, with mostly new faces and an emphasis on education and merit.

But some have questioned why the process ran into trouble given the time spent on hand-picking candidates, with the president personally interviewing each nominee.

Mr Ghani's spokesman said the focus was on each candidate's qualifications first, but he added: "We will be more careful in the future."

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