KABUL — 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
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.”
A complex problem