Lacking Justice

I returned to Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa this summer after almost six years away. Much has changed in this beautiful country, but one thing that has kept constant is the corruption. Although Cote D’Ivoire’s civil war technically ended with a tentative peace agreement in 2007, hopes for long-lasting peace are still distant and insecure because corruption reigns supreme. Justice is out of reach for most in the country, as it is believed impossible to get a favorable decision in the justice system without significant bribery. When justice isn’t functioning, peace is fragile at best. Homes and businesses can be revoked from under the owners through forged paperwork, employment can be lost as records for job applications are delayed or denied and citizenship papers can be outright refused leaving many unable to travel around the country without costly bribes to policemen along the way or paying for false documents. The chronic failure of the judicial system to resolve disputes over land and citizenship rights has led to violence in the past and if not controlled, will likely return to violence in the future.

The 1960 Constitution entitles all Ivoirians to fair public trial. In reality, public defenders are often unavailable for many defendants and more often than not, the judiciary sides with the court president over the word of law because of the president’s control over all appointments to the court. Court is hardly a fair or just process, it’s a place where the rich win and the poor lose. Locals tell of paying hundreds of millions of CFA ($1 USD = approx. 511 CFA) in bribes for larger court cases to judges, notaries and other court workers for justice, even when fully innocent of all wrong-doing. Average Ivoirians will never see that much money—and therefore have little chance of success within the court. Others tell of heavily paying off police to escape jail time or court in the first place.

Self-employed “margouillat”, derogatorily named after a type of African lizard, work as intermediaries between citizens and justice officials. They take bribes from citizens to court workers in their pocket trying to catch favors, or sometimes merely pocket the bribes themselves without providing any real assistance. Citizens have little choice but to use intermediaries and bribery, as they know they will simply wait in the court wasting their time if they don’t work within the corruption. Insufficient salaries of court workers are often cited as the main motivation to receive bribery with one time bribes larger than one’s entire yearly paycheck a definite incentive.

Cote D’Ivoire signed the UN Anti-corruption Convention in 2003, and has since made efforts to increase some high court official’s salaries in an attempt to reduce corruption. Without ratification of the Convention however, little more will be done. Any anti-corruption initiatives must deal with both the court workers and the public at large; a massive task mostly outside the scope of small NGOs and groups. For now, locals are reliant on paying hard-working fixers with good contacts to receive any semblance of real justice.