A decade after Nawshirwan Mustafa led a rebellion within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) over nepotism, corruption and family-based politics, the reform-oriented Gorran (Change) movement he later founded is ironically facing similar challenges.
A growing number of middle- and high-ranking officials as well as grass-roots supporters are adding their voices to the uproar within the party, accusing the two Western-educated sons of the late Mustafa of monopolizing power. They inherited the movement's financial assets following their father’s death in May 2017.
“Gorran has become a hostage of his sons because they now control the finances of the movement," an agitated senior official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "They could easily kick us out of [Gorran headquarters in Zargata] Hill if they wish because they now control everything."
If the issue persists, it could have serious negative consequences for the party in the upcoming Kurdistan region elections scheduled for September. Back in 2009, when Mustafa announced his Gorran list to run in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliamentary elections, a large number of ordinary people attracted by his reformist message took huge risks by voting for his list. Gorran secured 25 seats in the 111-seat assembly, taking everyone by surprise. The PUK retaliated in a wave of intimidation and fired hundreds of peshmerga and other civil servants suspected of voting for Gorran. Still, the movement grew to become a powerful force for change in Kurdish politics.
Following the occupation of Iraq in 2003, Mustafa grew disillusioned with the way the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) ran the Kurdish region with the millions of dollars they received from the central government. The PUK and the KDP signed an agreement in July 2007 to unify their administrations in what became known among the public as the 50-50 agreement in which the two parties divided everything in the Kurdistan region among themselves. But Mustafa maintained his integrity throughout this time. “Nawshirwan is highly regarded as a strategic thinker who has played an important role in making things happen in the PUK, with a clean reputation free from any hint of corruption,” one PUK official from then-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s camp told American diplomats back in February 2009.
By 2006, Mustafa decided to challenge the duopoly of the PUK and the KDP. To do that, he needed funds to bankroll his operation. He prepared his resignation letter from the PUK and handed it to Talabani on Dec. 3, 2006, in Baghdad, where the top officials of the PUK had gathered in Talabani’s residence in the Green Zone for a party meeting, according to a source familiar with the events. For two hours, Mustafa and Talabani had an intense discussion in the garden of the residence away from other officials.
Talabani must have been stunned when Mustafa turned around and asked for $10 million and a plot of land in Sulaimaniyah. Talabani agreed. The PUK leader later told his friends that he was not aware that his former deputy intended to set up a TV station and a political party. The city of Sulaimaniyah is dotted with hills occupied by powerful business and political figures as well as foreign powers. The Agriculture Ministry had a plot of public property land called Zargata Hill covered with pine trees in the heart of Sulaimaniyah.
From 2006 until his death in May 2017, Mustafa used the funds to set up a popular movement that gave new hope to the people of Kurdistan who were tired of the corrupt regime in the Kurdistan region. He set up Wusha Corp. to manage the assets, which included the Hill, part of a cement factory outside Sulaimaniyah, shares of a big supermarket in the city, a TV station and several other small businesses. Meanwhile, his two sons and a daughter were busy studying in American and British universities.
Mustafa passed on the ownership of the assets to his sons through the Wusha Corp. When the news of the passing of their ownership was made public earlier this year, the sons said in a statement that the assets would always be at the service of the Gorran movement. Nevertheless, some argue that in the end, he was no different from other Kurdish leaders like Talabani and Massoud Barzani. Around half a dozen mid-ranking Gorran officials have already tendered their resignations.
“In fact what he had done is far worse, because the survival of Gorran depends on the Hill, the cement factory and other financial assets,” said the senior Gorran official.
Ali Hama Saleh, a member of the Kurdistan parliament considered close to Mustafa's sons, denied on July 6 there were serious issues within the party and accused the PUK and the KDP of engaging in a conspiracy to weaken Gorran and exaggerating the problems through their media outlets. Hama Saleh stated that Gorran had no source of revenue and was “begging” and “borrowing” to fund its operation.
One serious charge against Gorran's top brass has been that the party, while criticizing the PUK in public, has received roughly $250,000 from the PUK following the May 2016 agreement between the two parties. The sum was not made public until recently and there are reports that Gorran still continues to receive cash, raising questions about how transparent the movement is with its support base.
Hoshyar Abdulah, a loyal follower of Mustafa and a member of the Iraqi parliament, did not deny that there were problems that need to be addressed. "Do not be frightened of discussing Gorran's problems, be afraid of covering them up and hiding them," he wrote on Facebook July 6.
Abdulah said the movement has internal matters like any other party and these matters must be discussed through the proper channels. "In my opinion, it is better for Gorran to cease to exist than become akin to a family-ruled [party],” Abdulah wrote, adding that Mustafa's sons have the right to operate as Gorran activists and move up the ladder but they should not monopolize power.
Abdulla Kwekha Mubarak, an influential member of Gorran and a critic of the current leadership, addressed the issue head-on July 7. He wrote on Facebook that while it is true that Mustafa took $10 million from public money and was given a public property, unlike other leaders, he used the assets to kick-start a revolution against corruption in Kurdistan. However, he went on to say that the assets “should be under the management and supervision of Gorran to serve Gorran and not under the ownership of his sons and relatives.”
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