The veteran traffic policeman walked to the stage, taking his place in front of a banner in Dari that said “CORRUPTION” with a red “X” through the word. After 24 years on the job, Abdul Saboor had been deemed the most honest man in Afghanistan.
He posed for photos with the interior minister. He gave interviews to local newspapers. Then he went back to the five-room home he shares with 28 people.
Saboor, 52, might be a better symbol for the sacrifices that an honest man must make in Afghanistan to follow the law. In two decades, he has received only one minor promotion. His salary, unaided by bribes, is $200 per month. His toes are black after being run over several times. His throat is perpetually sore from Kabul’s dust and pollution, but he struggles to afford medicine or hospital visits.
Afghanistan is the world’s most corrupt nation (tied with North Korea and Somalia), according to Transparency International. It’s a country where public officials have embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars, most of it foreign aid, and where petty corruption pervades daily life.
Although Western donors have funded anti-corruption programs and agencies, many Afghan institutions not only tolerate corruption but implicitly encourage it. Saboor has become a famous figure, but few Afghans are likely to follow his example.
“If they don’t take bribes, they will suffer like Saboor,” said Mohammad Shafiq Hamdam, chairman of the Anti-Corruption Network, an Afghan watchdog that joined with other civil-society groups to bestow the award last month.
To see Saboor in action in Kabul’s Sherpur traffic circle is to understand why he came to the government’s attention. While his colleagues take frequent breaks and look for ways to extort drivers, Saboor leaps in front of cars that try to charge past his stop sign and blows his whistle at those threatening to accelerate before their turn.
In a city with poor roads and more than a million cars, where traffic lights were installed and promptly ignored, Saboor is famous for both his incorruptibility and his theatrics. He’s known to thousands of Afghans as “Uncle Traffic” or “Uncle Saboor.”
He has received commendations from Taliban ministers and former presidents. International organizations have joined in, too: The United Nations, attempting to boost public confidence in the Afghan police, funded a short documentary about him last year.
His biggest fans, though, are Kabul drivers, several of whom nominated him as the country’s most honest man. Often, they slow their vehicles to greet Saboor by name.
“He’s the only honest traffic police in Afghanistan,” said Abdul Hussen Sadeq, a taxi driver.
“All the rest are like dogs,” said Hasibullah, another taxi driver, who uses only one name. “Every day they ask us for bribes. If we don’t pay, they take our licenses.”
As the government of President Hamid Karzai enters its final months, Saboor is happy to accept another superlative. But he doesn’t expect it to change a system of institutionalized corruption. Ask him how Afghanistan has changed since the Taliban, and he won’t speak about the growth of democracy.
“Now,” he says, “there are a lot more cars.”
Saboor knows as well as anyone how you make money as a traffic police officer. You accept bribes instead of giving tickets. For a price, you allow trucks to be driven in restricted areas of the city. You charge drivers to park on the street, even where parking is free and legal.
As for promotions at work, they are often purchased.
For his colleagues, these are common practices.
“We aren’t as morally strong as Saboor,” said Lt. Atta Mohammad, who works at the same roundabout. Like other police officers interviewed, Mohammad said he did not accept bribes.
Saboor sees each bribe as an ethical lapse and a reflection of the state’s frailty.
But for many Afghans, as well as foreign academics and analysts, corruption is a complex problem, rooted in the country’s social structure and aggravated by weak institutions and decades of war. The impoverished country has traditionally had strong patronage networks, which in the past paved the way for some corruption, but the practice expanded as foreign aid flooded in.
“People have no confidence in the future. They fear the return of a dark era. In order to protect themselves and their families financially, they collect bribes,” said Hamdam of the Anti-Corruption Network.
He said fear — as well as the instinct for self-preservation, sharpened by so many hard years — has eroded a once-valued moral code.
Hamdam said the problem has worsened over the past decade as “weak and corrupt leaders” ascended to power. In parts of the country, corruption has led to discontent with the central government, galvanizing support for the Taliban. Many say that the Taliban government ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001 was more transparent than the current leadership, though often horribly brutal.
With Western funds, the government created the biggest police force in Afghan history, including hundreds of officers charged with directing traffic in the biggest cities. But last fall, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an independent watchdog, found that 59 percent of Afghan police officers were extorting money at tollbooths or checkpoints.
An anti-corruption unit within the police force, created in 2012, has issued only a handful of convictions, Afghan officials said. Some police officers don’t even associate demanding bribes with corruption; rather, they consider it their right as underpaid government employees dealing with the soaring cost of living in a war economy.
The leaders and institutions that would crack down on graft often benefit from the practice themselves. In some high-profile corruption cases, such as that of national security adviser Mohammad Zia Salehi, suspects have been absolved by Karzai or other senior officials.
So, why hasn’t Saboor accepted his place in the patronage system? He points to his childhood.
His father was killed in a traffic accident — an incident that he considers an example of the need for effective traffic police. His two uncles were traffic policemen, wearing crisp uniforms and reporting to a stable job every day, even as the country imploded.
Saboor saw the way pedestrians, especially children, responded when he ran frantically across Kabul intersections, blowing his whistle to stop rule-flouting drivers or kicking his legs up and patrolling like a guard at Buckingham Palace.
“They started coming just to watch me,” he said. “The kids would scream ‘Uncle Saboor’ or ‘Uncle Traffic.’ Drivers stopped to say thank you. Everyone knew about me.”
In the early 90s, when the government learned about the ‘incorruptible’ traffic police officer, President Burhanuddin Rabbani offered Saboor a plot of land for his family as a reward. But Saboor said he ran into continuous bureaucratic delays and is still fighting to claim the land, 20 years later. He says it’s unclear whether a bribe — which he’s unwilling to offer — would have expedited the process.
When he asked superiors for a promotion, “nothing ever happened,” he said, sitting in the home he shares with his four children and about two dozen brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts. “But I still loved my job. I would never quit.”
When the Taliban seized power, its leaders, too, heard about Saboor. Ministers came by his intersection with new clothes, new turbans and a new bicycle. Despite the long list of abuses perpetrated by the Taliban, Saboor said he felt the group respected his commitment to public service. It’s more than he can say for the government that followed.
“Now the VIPs think they can break all the rules,” he said. “They drive in their armored cars wherever they want, even if they’re breaking the law.”
Saboor sometimes sees Karzai’s motorcade as it whizzes through his roundabout. He salutes the armored vehicles with tinted windows, hoping that the president might see him.
Despite everything, in Saboor’s moral code, the president still deserves his respect.