Scandal of the 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani

By Dr. Goran Abdulla:

400-bed hospital, unfinished since mid-1990s

400-bed hospital, unfinished since the mid-1990s

The role of international actors in derailing the Kurdish transition to democracy: The case of the 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani

The scandal of the 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani is an example of the deleterious role that international actors may play in derailing the transition of a developing country to democracy. In this article, I argue that a South Korean company and the political representatives of that country in the Kurdistan region of Iraq are not helping to promote the rule of law and fight corruption.

As a consequence, South Korea can potentially undermine one of the few positive outcomes of the 2003 Iraq war, namely the Kurdistan region of the country, hailed by many as the ‘other Iraq’. The 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani will be used as a case to explore the role of international actors in general, and South Korean companies and representation in particular, in putting the Kurdistan region at risk of becoming a vulnerable democracy or even at the risk of a democratic breakdown.

The story of the 400-bed hospital began in the mid-1990s. In 1996, Iraq and the United Nations signed the Oil-for-Food Program (OFP), which is viewed by many as the largest aid program in the world at that time. While the management of the revenues of the OFP were under the control of the Iraqi government in the rest of the country, they were not in Kurdistan region which was in a state de-facto independence from Baghdad. Kurdish politicians and policy-makers demanded building a large 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani as part of the OFP.

Their argument for such an investment was the reluctance of the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein to build large hospitals in Sulaimani similar to other governorates around the country. The Iraqi government used the large revenues from oil resources in the 1970s and 1980s to build hospitals in every single governorate around the country except in Sulaimani. Kurdish politicians therefore used the opportunity of the OFP and asked for one.

Political turmoil, corruption, inefficiency and negligence by Kurdish and foreign bureaucrats, officials, businessmen…etc. resulted in, I argue, the biggest scandal of the history of the health system in Iraq, if not the region and the world. The 400-bed hospital, although the preparation for its establishment started in 1996, was never finished. Millions of dollars were (and still are) wasted.

Politicians and policy-makers in Kurdistan are not getting tired from offering no more than lip service and broken promises about the project. The latest promise is that it would be finished in May 2013. This comes after a broken promise by the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to finish it in March 2013. Several excuses are offered for the scandalous 17 years delay in the construction of the hospital. Mass graves were blamed for the delay in the excavation process initially. Graves were cited without any reference to evidence about the identities of those who were buried in them. Then the geological characteristic of the area was blamed. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) was accused of not providing enough supervision and assistance during the early phases of the project.

The main reason for the delay, however, was the shameless abuse by prominent politicians and governmental figures within the KRG of public resources dedicated to the hospital. A former Minister of Health and the Head of the Investment Committee of the KRG agreed to offer the construction of the hospital to a South Korean company (UI enc) under suspicious circumstances and without the lawful and normal tender procedures. Once those contracts were signed, the former Prime Minister of the KRG/ Sulaimani, issued secret orders to spend millions of dollars from the funds dedicated to the hospital. Millions more were spent on medical instruments that were never purchased. Evidence show that public officials, doctors and nurses affiliated with the political establishment in Kurdistan used the resources allocated to the hospital to fund lavish trips to South Korea. These were done under the excuse of organizing scientific exchanges and trainings on instruments for the hospital.

The ability of public officials at the KRG to abuse the resources allocated to the hospital was not to happen without the ‘special relationships’ between UI enc and the KRG. Photo evidence demonstrates such a special relationship. Officers of the UI enc were lucky enough to meet with the President of Iraq, the Deputy Secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the current Prime Minister. Big ceremonies were organized to sign memoranda of understandings and contracts with the Prime Minister Himself.  Large luncheons were offered to officers of the UI enc at the private homes of the former Minister of Health. These, it appears, were not only helped by the involvement of South Korean troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom of 2003, but by fact that a former Member of the US Congress was a part of the Advisory Board of UI enc.

The scandalous delay in finishing the hospital and the leakage of evidence about corruption and abuse of public resources, motivated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society activists to organize campaigns to demand finishing the hospital and exposing the corrupt behaviour of senior politicians and public figures. The Federation of Civil Society Organizations took the lead in those campaigns and established the “400 group” (the 400 refers to the number of the beds of the hospital). Since 2010, the 400 group organized petitions in which thousands of residents of the city of Sulaimani demanded the authorities to restart working on the project and expose the acts of corruption involved. The group paid visits to the Sulaimani office of the Parliament of Kurdistan and delivered those petitions. It organized demonstrations and public gatherings in front of the hospital. It also wrote a report to the Public Persecution in Kurdistan detailing all the evidence pertaining to corruption and abuse. It finally sent letters to each of the Consulate of South Korea in Erbil/Kurdistan and the US embassy in Baghdad demanding clarification about the potential involvement of a UI enc (The Korean Company) and a former Member of Congress in corruption in the region.

Despite the success of the 400 group in forcing the authorities in the KRG to restart working on the project, the group is yet to hear from the South Korean consulate or the US embassy. The Korean Consulate, in particular, failed to respond to an official letter from the Federation of Civil Society Organization and the 400 group. It failed to answer and respond to numerous phone calls and emails by members of the group. The simple questions that the 400 group demand answers to are:

  • What is the opinion of the South Korean government on the fact that a South Korean company is convicted of corruption in Kurdistan and is charged with US$22 million in compensation for not finishing the hospital?
  • Was it the fault of UI enc that the hospital was not finished on time and resources were abused, or was it politicians in the KRG who pushed the company to behave inappropriately?
  • Why did UI enc fail to appear before the court in Kurdistan and is it going to pay the penalty determined by the court?

The failure of the South Korean authorities to respond to those questions raises scepticism about their role in the 2003 Iraq war. If South Korean companies and authorities were actively involved in acts of corruption in Kurdistan or for that matter were complacent about corrupt behaviour by Kurdish politicians, then this will send the wrong message about the sincerity of arguments about advancing democracy in Kurdistan, Iraq and the wider Middle East. After all, it is the rule of law, transparency and accountability that helps democracies succeed. South Korea is not helping Kurdistan to achieve those objectives.

Dr. Goran Abdulla, a doctor from Kurdistan, is doing his PhD in International Public Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science;

Copyright © 2013

2 Responses to Scandal of the 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani
  1. Lorenzo Garcia
    April 18, 2013 | 13:46

    The root of this problem is immunity for politicians resulting in a free bar for corruption and nepotism

  2. Chittaranjan Das
    April 27, 2013 | 12:02

    Dear Dr Goran

    I read your article in kurdistan trubune on Scandal of the 400-bed hospital in Sulaimani. yes it is need quality professional to run the hospital. I am interested to work your region in iraq .I worked few years in kings college hospital,london,Uk.and few years in kabul afgnistan with USA health project as radiology (mri/ct ) manager cum interpreter ,I am a consultant mri/ct technologist cum interpreter image reader ,a substitute of radiologist .with management /quality assurance /trainig locals.
    Now in india working .can you forward my detail to the concern in your country.?

    if require i can send my CV

    deptt of radiodiagnosis
    mri/ct/interventional angio

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