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Behind the Façade of Corruption in Ethiopia and what the Government ought to do

IDEA viewpoint - Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Online May 13, 2013

Corruption is a very intriguing concept in theory and an elusive human conduct enmeshed in bizarre and rather subtle but toxic human activity, and it is manifested in different forms, as well as assumes different scales and scopes. To be sure, unless there is a system in place to monitor corruption or there is a political system strong enough to mitigate, if not eliminate this disease, it could pervade the larger society like a malignant cancer.

Human societies are corruptible and corruption is as old as the first systematically organized human communities. In the Book of Genesis (6:12), it is stated, [before the Great Flood] “God observed that every human in the world was corrupt.” Ancient Egyptians had enormous literary accounts on what they call Declaration of Innocence or Negative Confessions to deter moral, social, and political corruption. Ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle also deal with corruption in their respective treatises; Plato, for instance, remarks on political power in his book entitled The Republic and advises that power is good only if it is attributed to wisdom, otherwise the “imperfect humans” could be corruptible especially if the powers are not prescribed in small doses. Put otherwise, Plato logically inferred that bigger power could result in bigger corruption. In the same vein, Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, wrote an entire book on corruption entitled On Generation and Corruption.

If humans are potentially corruptible, it logically follows that this social ailment is not unique to specific countries like Ethiopia. On the contrary, it has a universal dimension. Thus, corruption prevails even in advanced countries like the United States. Incidents of the latter phenomena are abound but suffice to mention some examples that I am familiar with: the former Governor of Connecticut, John Rowland, was jailed (later under house arrest) for improper conduct and economic corruption; the former Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, was forced to resign for social corruption (prostitution scandal) and Ellen Hauer, the comptroller of New York State Realty Company admitted that she stole $1 million and she had to negotiate a 3/12 to 10 years prison terms.

The corruption in Ethiopia, thus, is not unique to that country although from this premise it should not follow that the Ethiopian corruption should be justified under any circumstance. On the contrary, the corrupt officials should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Instead of simply employing the law against corrupt citizens, however, the Ethiopian Government should first educate (informally via the media outlets) the people by focusing on the defining characteristics of corruption and furthermore by exploring and exposing the larger picture of corruption or debilitating disease behind the façade.

As indicated above, corruption could be manifested in different hues and colors. In English speaking countries it is euphemistically known as kickbacks. In Middle Eastern societies it is popularly depicted as Bakshees, and in Ethiopia as Musuna. These definitions, in turn, can assume different exploratory terms depending on the type and practice of corruption. Some corruption is small and may be practiced in gift exchanges or in dividing up stolen money from the government revenue amongst members of the bureaucracy in the ministries and/or government agencies. This has been a standard practice in Ethiopia since the days of Emperor Haile Selassie.

A great-scale corruption, on the other hand, affects the entire government apparatus and it could have a debilitating impact on the overall operations and performance of the State structures or on its component parts (the executive, legislature, and judiciary). At this stage, since corruption penetrates the highest level of government offices, it becomes a real political nightmare because the political and economic parameters of the State and its legal apparatus are effectively subverted to the extent of creating steel-born government policies and directives and subsequent paralysis of government operations. This kind of corruption is attributed to high-ranking government officials and they should be held accountable for their actions. The general public in Ethiopia is very much cognizant of the great-scale corrupt officials and proverbially depicts them as follows: Ya Asa Gi’matu Ke’chinq’latu (a fish stinks at its head) and it is a figurative speech to mean ‘if the culture of corruption is not dealt with by striking at the top officials who steal the public purse, the middle-level bureaucrats and low-ranking officials could easy get away with theft of government money.

The small and great-scale corruptions, in turn, are almost always accompanied by systemic corruption that is usually manifested in the lack of accountability and transparency. The latter two constitutional responsibilities of government officials are effectively debunked and in most instances the corrupt officials manage to cover up their criminal acts by their official capacity and abuse of power.

When the Government initiates to educate the people about corruption, it should also make introspective examination of itself and see to it if it is equipped enough to combat corruption. If the government has the necessary tools readily available to fight corruption, it should seriously consider short-term and long-term plans to overcome the deeply rooted corruption in Ethiopia. The short-term plan entails bringing corrupt officials before justice, and the long-term plan must aim at educating the people in order to change their mindset, a psychological make-up that inadvertently embraces the culture of corruption.

With respect to endemic corruption in Ethiopia and the attendant psychological makeup of Ethiopians, I have specifically mentioned how Ethiopians justify corruption in my new book entitled ETHIOPIA: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State. The Ethiopian gesture on corruption goes on as follows: Shi’shom Yal’bela Shi’shar Yi’qochewal (he who does not eat –metaphor for bribe – when appointed would regret it when demoted). It is this psyche of Ethiopians that the Ethiopian Government must combat in its long-term plan and it is this kind of cultural ethos that serve as one factor in hiding corruption behind the façade.

Another major façade that the Government of Ethiopia should seriously rethink is the patronage politics or patron-client relationship that has engulfed Ethiopian government bureaucracies at local, regional, and federal levels. At local and state levels, connections are forged via loyalty to the ruling party or via ethnic intermediary roles in order to garner personal gains. This kind of corruption is fostered in a patron-client relationship and it is in this kind of networking that the rent-seekers or the self-interested privilege seeking officials flourish.

The late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi had addressed the problem of rent seeking in his major thesis in 2007 that I have reviewed and critiqued. I have also addressed the same issue in my new book, in which I have argued, “Incidentally, Meles Zenawi has been emphatic on the problem of ethnic-based political patronage through much of the body of the text of his work. However, like most African nations Ethiopia suffers from political patronage and unmistakably from ethnic-based politics. It is for this apparent reason, therefore, that I suggested … the PM of Ethiopia need to clean up his mess before he ventures on the grand agenda of the developmental state.”

Political patronage is the façade behind the many forms of corruption that I have discussed above. The current rent-seeking officials in the Ethiopian bureaucracy are not necessarily the deliberate making of the EPRDF, but they are certainly its byproducts. Under the rubric of loyal cadre-cum-public servant, thus, they have craftily manipulated their role and status in the government and immersed themselves in great as well as systemic corruptions.

The corrupt rent-seeking officials have neither contrition nor remorse in stealing money from the public purse, and by their toxic activity they have ensued cultural fragmentation and they could best be defined as predatory officials. The late PM Meles had discussed the predatory state in the context of Africa and it is this kind of state that could create havoc to the developmental state that the EPRDF has embraced for quite sometime now.

If indeed the EPRDF is going to fight the predators within its ranks and within the larger Ethiopian society, it should deal with the corruption behind the façade that I have discussed above. It should seriously address the bigger picture in the canvas. The present measure taken by the Ethiopian Federal Anti-Corruption Commission and the National Security Agency is commendable but it is probably going to solve the problem of the petty scale corruption in the short run and not achieve the long-term plan to completely uproot corruption.

It is not going to be easy to fight corruption in all its facets and dimensions and the government alone cannot accomplish this task. The Ethiopian people should be involved at a grand scale in the struggle to drastically minimize or eliminate the culture of kleptocracy. This is not going to be easy either because Musuna and/or Gubo (corruption and/or bribe) are inherently Ethiopian characteristics. This does not, of course, mean that all Ethiopians (as stated in the Book of Genesis cited above) are corrupt. What it means is, in one form or another, corruption has affected Ethiopians at all levels.

Some examples of corruption in Ethiopia are the following: In traditional Ethiopian communities, it was customary for Ethiopian plaintiffs or defendants to offer live chicken, goats, or sheep to presiding judges in order to win their case; during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, it was virtually impossible for people to get municipal services without surreptitiously handing over Gubo to the low-paid local officials. By the same token, during the same period if police traffic stops motorists for apparent traffic violations, the drivers instantly used to envelop 5 Ethiopian Birr in their driving licenses and hand it over to the police officer. The latter knows well what is encased in the driving license and let the driver go without issuing any ticket. This culture still continues: In 2012, a relative of mine was visiting Ethiopia and in his sojourn from Addis Ababa to Hawassa along with his friends, a highway patrol officer stops their car and threatened them that he would take away their driving licenses unless they pay 400 Ethiopian Birr. They negotiated for 300 Birr but he adamantly refused and they had no choice but to pay the requested amount. This is a very good example of highway robbery.

One other example I was told in 1999 when I was visiting Addis Ababa is what friends told me how they managed to bribe the local officials in the Piazza area. They said they had a major problem in getting through the officials in order to get public services and the officials were impenetrable without Gubo and they decided in a meeting to “give” whatever they could so that they get services in return.

There are many other areas where corruption reigns. Some of these are the municipal governments, the many institutions including universities and non-profit organizations that get aid from donors; the Ethiopian postal service where it is customary to open envelops suspected of carrying money. These days, Ethiopians in the Diaspora send money via Western Union and the postal workers know it but they still commit postal fraud. They either open envelopes and then return it to the sender or write, “we found it damaged” and deliver it to the addressee.

In modern Ethiopian history, the Ethiopian people encountered the worst of all corruptions during the Derg military regime where military officers became managers of nationalized enterprises and companies and squandered the finances of these companies without any accountability whatsoever. The Derg officials committed the highest form of grand theft in Ethiopian history and there was no system in place to bring them before justice, because they acted as the government and the state at the same time and the Ethiopian people knew very well of the scale of corruption of the Derg officials in spite of their attempt to cover it up with socialist sloganeering. It would have been completely impossible to sue the Derg officials in the absence of judicial proceedings and the only solution was to do away with the entire system of the Derg as has been done in 1991.

Apart from the Derg-type kleptocracy, the other examples of small-scale corruption can be dealt with easily but it is not going to be easy to combat the large-scale and systemic corruptions. However, if the Government exhibits resolve and commitment through to the end, with the help of the people the mission could be accomplished.

Thus, beyond institutional pretensions and a shadowy existence of government officials, the Commission and the Security Agency entrusted to monitor corruption should be reinforced by militias that patrol respective communities and by undercover agents that could help trap corrupt officials. This would be part of the short-term plan.

In the long-term plan, the Government is ought to uphold the agenda of the developmental state whose objective is to transform Ethiopia and create opportunities for Ethiopians. If indeed the developmental state is going to overcome the problems of poverty and unemployment and produce a sizable middle class, then we could say with confidence that we have begun to undercut corruption and eventually uproot this endemic societal illness. If this goal is not achieved, however, the promise of the developmental state will be sabotaged and the country could encounter the same fate Nigeria countenanced. Nigeria is one of the potential leaders of the African continent because it is blessed with resources and technical know-how but it is also bedeviled by unparalleled corruption that has forestalled Nigeria’s prominent role in Africa. Ethiopia, thus, must learn from its own homegrown corruption and from the negative encounter of Nigeria.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2013

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