Independent oversight is the bane of corrupt networks everywhere. Without it, they can inflict incalculable damage. In Afghanistan in 2011, the governor of the central bank had to flee for his life after asking foreign counterparts to freeze the assets of well-connected Afghans suspected of looting the country’s biggest financial institution. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales managed in 2018 to shutter a respected special-investigations body, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, whose efforts had uncovered an extensive customs-fraud and campaign-financing scheme that included drug traffickers, businessmen, and the country’s political leaders. President Donald Trump’s recent removal of Glenn Fine, chosen by fellow inspectors general to head the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, is of a piece with such examples. Patterns of corruption flash more insistently each day, like the blinking of an engine-malfunction light.
In a dozen systemically corrupt countries I’ve lived in or studied, sophisticated networks have infiltrated or essentially replaced the government. These webs cross institutional, even sectoral, boundaries. As in Guatemala, they may include outright criminals. They link politicians, judges, and other officials with top businessmen. Sometimes members switch positions—what we in the U.S. call the revolving door. Or they may wear more than one hat, serving strategic government functions while also running businesses. Often built around a core of close family members, such as former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his brothers, or Azerbaijan’s ruling couple and their children, these structures include classmates, colleagues, fellow fighters in the last civil war, or partners in opportunistic business ventures. In Nigeria, according to a former housekeeper for the oil company Total, whom I interviewed in 2015, politicians who hurled insults at each other by day met by night to discuss divvying up oil rights.