Brazil’s infamous Operation Car Wash is an ongoing, massive operation to investigate allegations that government officials under Presidents Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, were systematically accepting bribes in exchange for rewarding contracts to firms at vastly inflated prices. The operation, launched in 2014, was initially viewed abroad as an example of an independent judiciary successfully identifying and rooting out corruption. However, newly uncovered evidence seems to show that the investigations and prosecutions carried out as part of the operation may have been politically motivated.
In June, The Intercept published an exposé detailing Brazilian prosecutors’ intentions to use Operation Car Wash as a means to prevent Lula and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, or PT, from returning to power in 2018. In fact, the team of prosecutors that ultimately imprisoned former President Lula were discovered to have been plotting to subvert a Supreme Court decision that would have allowed Lula an interview in the newspaper, Folha de São Paolo, and possibly swayed the election in the favour of PT.
Of course, allegations of corruption are an oft-relied-upon tool of those looking to enact revenge on political opponents. Not only do they whip up the public’s indignation, but they often provide a legal veil for political score-settling. And this is a phenomenon that is hardly limited to Brazil; over the past year alone, the Senegalese opposition’s campaign against President Macky Sall, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “anti-corruption drive” and Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga’s gutting of the judiciary have all been suspected of being powered by politically motivated corruption allegations.
On June 10, Senegal’s President Macky Sall vowed to “re-establish the truth” following allegations by the BBC that his brother, Aliou Sall, was involved in fraud related to two offshore gas blocks being developed by UK oil giant BP. With opposition politicians pouncing on the claims, the Ministry of Justice has launched an official probe into the matter to try to set the record straight.
The allegations are particularly contentious in Senegal, where the public has long held expectations that an energy boom could provide a much-needed windfall for the impoverished nation. Indeed, with two prospective hydrocarbon ventures that could be worth an estimated $1 billion in annual government revenues, these expectations are now inching closer to reality. Yet, as Sall has warned, there is a real risk that the recent corruption allegations may be an attempt by the opposition to de-stabilize the country, with a view towards taking advantage of Senegal’s newly discovered fossil fuel reserves.
Sall’s warning should be taken seriously. Former Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye, who was fired by Sall in 2013, appears in the BBC’s report as a major critic of the contract between Senegal and the Timis corporation. This, despite the fact that he prepared the document approving the contract that he now condemns. Meanwhile, former presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko is another figure loudly repeating the allegations of corruption. Sonko came third in the elections held last fall, where he won only 16% of the vote. So soon after his loss, one might see Sonko’s calls for “mass mobilization” as political opportunism rather than opposition in good faith.
While the allegations about Senegal were among the most high-profile of their kind in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia also provides an infamous example of how anti-corruption allegations can be used to conceal more underhanded plans.
In January of this year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) massive anti-corruption drive, which was launched in 2017, came to an ignominious end. Over the course of the campaign, the government had called upon 381 members of the nation’s elites to answer for corruption charges – efforts which were perceived by many international observers as a veiled power grab. Following their arrests, the majority of these individuals were locked in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton and eventually moved to prisons.
According to Robert Jordan, a former US ambassador in Riyadh, bin Salman may have “used the excuse of fighting corruption as a means of settling scores and consolidating his power.” In addition to many members of the nation’s elite, MBC, an Arabic language media group, and Saudi Binladin Group, a construction conglomerate, were also subdued and taken over by the state during the anti-corruption drive. In all, it was a shameful denouement for a prince who had been dubbed by the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman in 2017 as leader of “the most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East.”
Meanwhile, though these dealings – not to mention the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi – have earned MBS notoriety in the international community, there are plenty of other, lesser-known examples in more far-flung reaches of the world.
In Mongolia, President Khaltmaagiin Battulga rose to power in 2017 on a populist narrative that he would dismantle the secret oligarchy that was allegedly exploiting the country’s mineral wealth at the expense of regular Mongolians. However, his “reform” efforts were anything but.
In April, he shocked pro-democracy activists by proposing legislation that would essentially gut Mongolia’s judiciary and subordinate any anti-corruption bodies in the country to his office. In order to gain the support of parliament and pass his law, he revived the populist narrative by accusing his main political rival and former President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of opposing his legislation on behalf of the secret oligarchs. And despite mass anti-government protests in recent weeks, Battulga has shown no intention of budging.
Sadly, examples like these can be found in numerous countries across the world, particularly those that have not yet established robust anti-corruption institutions. For the people of Brazil, then, they serve as major warning signs. As they watch politicians rail about the allegations of Operation Car Wash, they must also be sceptical of any efforts to turn these allegations into political gain.