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The anti-Corruption Crackdown: Just an episode in the long-term battle

By Simon Hailu
Tigrai Online - June 17, 2013

The fight against Corruption has become a main talking point in the past few weeks. The issue went to the top of the media and political discussions of the country following the high-profile crack down that started on 10th May.

The Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission reported the detention of more than a dozen suspects including: Melaku Fanta (Director of the Federal government's Revenues and Customs Authority), Gebrewahed Woldegiorgis (Deputy Director General), Eshetu Woldesemayat (Director of Legal Directorate of Federal Revenues and Customs Authority), Tiruneh Berta (Confiscated propriety management department head of the Federal Revenues and Customs Authority), Asemelash Woldemariam (head of various key functions at the Authority and at Bole Airport branch of Customs), Amegne Tagele (Head of Adama branch of Customs Office) and other government officers and businessmen.

The arrest continued in the following weeks with public cooperation enabling the capture of other mid-level officials of the Federal Revenues and Customs Authority, including foiling attempts to escaping into neighbor countries and to hide/destroy evidential documents.

The public was taken by surprise when the police reported what it found after searching the suspects' houses: Hundred thousands of US dollar, Euro, Pound Sterling and also several laptops, land deeds, etc. Some of them buried millions birr digging a hole under their relatives house hundreds kilometers away from Addis Ababa.

The anti-corruption crackdown attracted high public attention and it deserved to be so. Because, among other reasons, it involved a suspect with a rank of a Minister - Melaku Fenta.

Moreover, the public and the private sector have been complaining about the service-delivery and decision making process of the Federal Revenues and Customs Authority.

Many suspected the Authority was not fulfilling its duties as thoroughly as it should. Others complained that it didn't treat customers and cases equally and without favoritism.

The implementation of the crack-down should also deserves to be commended as it was implemented after careful and secret study and caught almost all the major suspects at once without giving them chance to leave the country or destroy evidences.

According to newspapers, the Deputy Director was planning to go to Thailand at the time of the arrest.

However, despite all the these commendable aspects, the crack-down should not be taken out of context. Knowingly or unknowingly, some want to present the crack-down as if the government started fight corruption for the first time. Such remarks are not only inaccurate but also misleading.

The Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission had been fighting corruption for years. In this fiscal year alone, it recovered more than 21 million Birr and other assets, including cash, buildings, land, and other properties.

According to the 10-month performance report of the Commission, 21,096,806 Birr (in cash); 1,945 square meter of land; three tusks; four buildings; 23 blackberry cell phones (worth 195, 000 Birr) and other assets were returned to the lawful owner, which is the Government.

In the stated period, 23 cases involving the above-mentioned proceeds of corruption were decided in favour of the Commission, raising its performance to a 100 per cent.

As for the restraining of alleged proceeds of corruption, the Commission caused the restraining of 128,709 square meter of land, 28 vehicles, 60 residential houses, eight business organizations, and 3,012,332.69 Birr in cash.

In the reported period, the investigation of 339 files was finalized and verdict was given on 164 files, 144 of which were decided in favour of the Commission. Out of the 409 defendants that were brought to court in the stated period, 293 of them were convicted.

Accordingly, the conviction rate of the offenders calculated in terms of the number of files convicted is 87.8 per cent.

In the previous years (until 2012), it was reported that:

The Commission managed to successfully investigate 1,900 alleged corruption offences and pressed charges against 1,545 of them. Some 1,118 of them were handed from 3 to 23 years of rigorous imprisonment and were also fined. As for the restraining of the proceeds of corruption, close to one billion Birr was returned to government coffers.

These figures do not include corruption related offenses handled by Ministry of Justice and regional anti-corruption commissions.

However, unlike the common perception, anti-corruption is not solely about taking corruption suspects to court.

Indeed, catching thieves is an important and key ant-corruption struggle.

However, the sustainable and transformative method is changing the fertile ground that nurtures corrupt practices.

Therefore, Ethiopia's anti-corruption fight is not based on random hunt for thieves rather on a preventive anti-corruption strategy that stresses on the need to create a public mobilization and institutional set-ups that prevents corrupt practices.

The first and fundamental task is public mobilization. That is creating a society that abhors and denounces corrupt activities.

As often said the main root of corruption in Ethiopia lies in the long-held view of the society that says: “one who do not enrich himself while in office will regrets it latter”.

Changing this attitude and inculcating an ethical behavior is the driving force of anti-corruption struggle.

Thus, the government invested several policy and mobilizations tools to promote ethics and to raise public awareness on the threat and consequence of corruption and the measures that should be taken to counter it.

The Government included ethics education in the curriculum of the formal education system which lays ground for an ethical generation that shuns corruption. Besides that, according to the Commission's report, several training sessions held around the country raised the awareness of some 6 million people throughout the country.

This is in addition to the frequent awareness campaigns conducted through various communication tools, inc. TV ads, mass SMS messages, newspapers, billboards, etc.

It is clear, however, that an an ethical behavior can not be maintained in the absence of sufficient legal and institutional frameworks.

Though the government has been fighting corruption since 1991, there was no sufficient framework to protect and encourage the virtous and to investigate and prosecute the wicked.

In the past ten years, however, several policy tools and legislations have been taken to transform the setting.

Strengthening the role and participativeness of local administrations, mass-associations; the re-organization of social courts and municipal courts; the designing and implementation of the good governance package, the civil service reform, the decentralization, financial accountability package and the establishment of the Ombudsman are among the notable works.

An anti-corruption strategy was designed based on in-depth studies of the domestic reality and foreign experiences. Independent Anti-Corruption and Ethic Commission have been established both at federal and regional level by legislations that list their major powers and duties in a clear manner  with safeguards of political interferences on their works.

The commissions were supplemented by setting-up Ethics Liaison Units in every public agency including universities. Efforts to maximize the units' impact is being continuously undertaken, including by providing a regulation defining their role.

Similarly, several legislations have been issued to close legal loopholes that can be exploited for corruption activities.

Such as: The Codes of ethics for various public offices and enterprises, Procurement and Property Administration Proclamation, Amended Urban Lands Lease Holding Proclamation, different tax laws, the Proclamation on Prevention and Suppression of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism.

There are atleast three major legal changes, besides the aforementioned legal and institutional changes, that are worth mentioning to get a clearer picture of the fundamental preventing and enabling changes that have been undertaken in the past few years.

The Criminal Code have been amended to provide competent support for the anti-corruption struggle. The amended Criminal Code clearly defines and punishes various corruption offenses, including abuse of power, acceptance of undue advantage, maladministration, appropriation and misappropriation in the discharge of duties, traffic in official influence, taking of things of value without or with inadequate consideration, possession of unexplained property, soliciting of corrupt practices, use of impersonating authority, traffic in private influence, money laundering and aiding, and other corrupt practices.

Moreover, it included several types of corrupt activities that were missing in the previous Code. And also presents the provisions in a systematic manner, thereby minimizing the possibility of confusion and divergent interpretations between prosecutors and judges that often helped corruption suspects escape legal punishments or receive lenient sentencing.

The legislation for the disclosure and registration of assets is another milestone in the anti-corruption struggle.

It provided a legal mechanism for the registration of assets, verification of the registered information and prevention of conflict of interest, accessibility of the registered information, penalties in case of non-compliance, among others.

The disclosure and registration registration is not primarily intended to catch past corruption activities (though it also helps in that way),  rather it is more of a preventive strategy. It boosts the standing of ethical individuals, while narrowing the maneuver of corrupts.

As the registration  covers more and more people, corrupts will have difficulty hiding embezzled money let alone use it in public. So far, the Commission registered the assets of more than 50,000 elected persons, appointees and public servants.

The third key step was the provision of sufficient legal framework for whistle-blowers.

Whistleblowers are individuals who expose when an organization or its officials conduct corrupt activities and commit illegal activities.

Whistleblowers are very important in the anti-corruption struggle because high-profile corruption is conducted in a very secretive way and the offenders enjoy protections and services that makes it difficult to be caught like any ordinary offender.

For example, parliament members enjoy legal immunity. The courts and the police can not arrest them without the permission of the parliament. Thus, to detain and interrogate this kind of suspects and search their houses & offices, the law enforcement officials need to get stronger evidences. Whistle-blowers help solve the limitations.

Similarly, public agencies and officials whose conduct demands secrecy - for eg. officers tasked with investigating suspects, - can commit misconducts and get away with it, unless someone amongst them exposes the misconduct.

However, there was sufficient legal framework to encourage and protect whistle-blowers so far.

The anti-corruption struggle of the past few years demonstrated this gap and the need for a legislation and it was one of the primary reasons for the issuance of the Revised Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission establishment proclamation 433/2012.

Among the protections, privileges and safeguards provided for whistle-blowers and other witnesses of corruption crimes, by the legislation:

* physical protection of person and property, providing a secure residence including relocation, provision of self-defense weapon,

* immunity from prosecution for an offence for which whistleblowers and witnesses render information,

* producing evidence by electronic devices or any other method,

* prohibiting an accused person from reaching the protected person’s residence, work place or school before or after a final judg ment is delivered on the crime for which information is given,

* suspension or revocation of retaliatory administrative measures or taking any other compensatory measure and others(for eg. if the employer of the whistle-blower takes a retaliatory measure on him, he can petition to the Commission and have the retaliatory measure suspended or get relevant remedies.

Indeed, as indicated above the struggle was not limited to  the strategic works of laying anti-corruption attitudinal, legal and institutional foundations and environment. Corrupt officials have been persistently perused and prosecuted.

In the federal government alone, almost 1600 corruption suspects have been brought to court and more than two-third of them were handed several years prison sentence.

However, just like the anti-corruption preventive works, the investigation and prosecution was led in a systemic and result-oriented manner.

The anti-corruption studies, investigations and follow-ups were directed to sectors and institutions that are susceptible to corruption and also crucial for the national development plan.

Therefore, the strategic focus areas of the anti-Corruption struggle have been identified, for the past three years, as the land administration offices, the taxation agencies, public procurement, and the justice system.

The recent anti-corruption crackdown on the Federal Customs and Revenue Authority is, therefore, a cumulative outcome of these multifaceted systemic works conducted for several years.

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