Rising anger against a decision to change the route of a vital electricity supply line in Afghanistan is becoming more and more visible — both inside and outside the country.
Before the global Anti Corruption Summit in London earlier this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron was famously caught on camera telling the Queen that leaders of two 'fantastically corrupt' countries were attending the summit, namely Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Afghan president Ashraf Ghani came anyway, saying he had no hard feelings about Cameron's corruption remark because 'the first part of addressing a problem begins with acknowledgment'.
When hundreds of Afghan-British protesters demonstrated in front of the Summit venue, they gave Western audiences an insight into what Afghans think is a highly visible manifestation of that problem; Ghani's decision to change the route of TUTAP (Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) electricity project, a multi-million dollar project funded by the Asian Development Bank. It had been slated to go through central provinces of Bamyan and Wardak, which are dominated by ethnic Hazaras, but the planned route has been switched to the northern provinces, passing from Pul-e-Khumri through Salang to Kabul.
The protesters accuse Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, of discriminating against non-Pashtuns, particularly Hazaras. They point out German consultancy firm Fichtner's recommendation for the Bamyan route because, among other reasons, it would 'further generation by coal fired power plants along the route' and 'secure power supply of Kabul and south Afghanistan'.
The Bamyan-Wardak route is also judged to be less exposed to natural disasters. The central provinces believe the government's decision to change the route is due largely discrimination, especially as there is already a transmission line passing through Salang. This has deepened the sense of deprivation among the residents of central Afghanistan, who believe Kabul has intentionally kept development projects away from their provinces. [fold]
Demonstrations have been held in various provinces to protest the route change, including the 'Million March' in Kabul last week, in which tens of thousands of people took part. But the protests have not been limited to Afghanistan, as seen by the demonstration by British-Afghans, mostly with roots in central Afghanistan.
The demonstrations followed Ahsraf Ghani around London. At one event organised by Royal United Services Institute, at least four protesters where expelled by Ghani's bodyguards after they confronted Ghani about the TUTAP project (see video).
'You are a liar. You lied to people of Afghanistan. And now you lie to the world.' Shouted Ahad Bahaduri from the audience while Ghani was speaking about his achievements. 'Listen to him but don't trust him' Bahaduri continued as he was forcefully removed from the event. 'One of Ghani's guards followed me outside to actually beat me but he was intercepted by a British security personnel in plain dress. The Afghan guard threatened me to death (in Dari). I am worried about my relatives back in Afghanistan now.' Ahad told me when interviewed by phone.
'Sit down like a dog, you idiot,' yelled President Ghani's chief security officer General Akhtar Mohammad Ibrahimi at protester Jafar Atai as he questioned the decision to reroute the TUTAP transmission line. 'He hates Hazaras', shouts the activist while pointing towards the President.
'At this point Ghani's personal guards rushed towards me. I asked them to let me talk. But they grabbed my tie, covered my mouth, pressed my neck, pulled me down and beat me up.' Jafar told me from London.
'We just wanted to raise our concerns about the change in TUTAP route. We had no intention of disruption or insulting the president. It was Ghani's guards who caused the heckling through abuse and violence.' Jafar explained. He had bruises on his face and has filed a complaint against the attackers to Metropolitan Police in London.
Siamak Harawi of Afghan Embassy in London told BBC Persian the activists were there to disrupt the President's speech and it was the actions that followed which led to physical clashes.
However, it appears there was never a physical threat to the president so there was no reason for his bodyguards to physically attack the demonstrators. One can't help thinking that if an ethnic Brit had been assaulted in the same way as Jafar Atai, it would have become a diplomatic incident.
After the massive demonstrations in Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani suspended implementation of the cabinet decision about the rerouting of the transmission line and ordered formation of a commission to come up with new suggestions. The commission handed over its findings to the president who issued a new decree saying that a 220kW transmission line will be extended to Bamyan, which is claimed to be enough for the entire central province.
The demonstrations, however, will continue, says parliamentarian Ahmad Behzad, unless the Government implements the original master plan. 'It is hilarious that the government had earlier claimed the Salang route was a few millions cheaper. But now it says it will invest manifolds for a separate transmission line for Bamyan. It is nothing but a conspiracy,' Behzad claims.
A huge demonstration is already planned for today, 27 May, in Kabul.