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Holding legislature accountable

Holding legislature accountable

The recent political unrest and violent conflicts have shaken Ethiopia to its core. The political unrest in Oromia and Amhara regional states has not only claimed lives and property, but has contributed to the slowly building perception of insecurity in the country. Added to that is the recent border conflict between the Oromia and Somali regional states which has become a great source of violence and displacement for the people of the two regions. Nevertheless, what the public is asking is where their representatives are and what the parliament (the most powerful body in the country) is doing to avert this tragedy. Yonas Abiye explores the issue.

Holding legislature accountable

 

Early this week, over 20,000 innocent Americans were having a fun-filled night in Las Vegas, Nevada where they were attending a country music concert. They were basking in the world of music until all the dancing and all the excitement stopped unexpectedly and turned into a gruesome horror and a nightmare. With a well-planned operation, the 64-year old Stephen Paddock showered the crowed with bullets with the help of an automatic firearm.

In what was said to be the most shocking and bloodiest incident in recent US history, close to 60 people were killed on the spot while over 527 sustained severe injuries in the shooting spree which police later said lasted nine to eleven minutes. The news of the mass shooting has sent shockwaves across the entire world. Hence, millions in the US and elsewhere joined together in reaction to that deadly incident. Among them, were congressmen and women, senators as well as prominent politicians who did not waste any time to visit survivors at the scene of the shooting and various hospitals even before President Donald Trump made a similar call.

It is so common in most advanced countries to see politicians rush to their people whenever some problems affect citizens in particular time and place. British MPs and politicians did the same in June 14, 2017 when an inferno at Grenell Tower, a 24-storey residential building in North Kensington, London, claimed the lives of close to 80 of the residents.

Showing solidarity, paying tribute and conducting site visits is a tradition among politicians who want to stay close to their political constituencies. Beside individual show of solidarity by the politicians, legislative bodies, congresses or parliaments do not take time to delve into such issues and deliberate on prevailing urgent agenda topics, when they are faced with one. It does not matter when and how; or if legislative bodies are on recess or on their regular work schedules; if something happens that is of a national magnitude, they will talk about it.

In fact, critics see such behavior in politicians as half-hearted or pretence, arguing that it is all about securing votes.

One thing that can be said about politicians in Ethiopia, past or present, is that such show of solidarity and sympathy is not really their style. With the exception of few, most MPs in Ethiopia are not usually seen doing common courtesies or showing solidarities on the ground following major events in the country. It even takes a while for the institutions itself (House of People’s Representatives (HPR)) to deliberate on current events or issues of public concerns.

Literature has it that the true test of democracy is the extent to which Parliament can ensure that government remains answerable to the people. This is done by maintaining constant oversight (monitoring) of government’s actions.

The Parliament and its Committees have the power to summon any person or institution to give evidence or produce documents, and to report to them.

But, when it comes to burning issues such as conflict, crisis, natural or man-made disasters and so on, the Ethiopian parliamentary structure is criticized for lacking urgency and vitality. In most instances, commentators argue, such issues will not make it to the House until the executive body brings them into the fore, or until after it is very late and their urgent nature has dissipated.

When Parliament is sitting (meeting), MPs generally spend their time working in the House. This can include raising issues affecting their constituents, debating and voting on new laws and proclamations. This can be achieved either by forwarding questions to those in the executive aisle, perhaps to a government minister, on your behalf or by supporting and highlighting particular campaigns which local people feel strongly about.

In fact, it may not be fair to discredit Ethiopian lawmakers altogether. There are some cases where they showed up to sites of natural and man-made incidents. MPs also attend functions, visit schools and businesses and generally try to meet as many people as possible. This gives MPs further insight and context into issues they may discuss when they return to Arat Kilo (place where Ethiopia parliamentary building is located).

For instance, in the past two years, the Parliament has been closely following up on the drought and drought affected areas by sending MPs, who make up the parliamentary committee dedicated to the drought.

Similarly, MPs were also spotted paying tribute to citizens killed by the landfill collapse in Koshe which occurred a few months ago. They also visited the survivors and their families whereby they consoled those who lost their loved ones. As their primary duty, most MPs in Ethiopia and other countries are also members of standing committees, which take a deeper look at issues, ranging from government policies to new laws and wider topics like human rights conditions.

While on recess, MPs often hold ‘meet the voters’ programs in their constituencies, where local people can come along to discuss any matters that may concern them.

One practical case which already stirred debates among the public is the response of the parliament to recent violent clashes in various parts of the country, which has been going on for the past two or three years. In fact, regarding sudden incidents, the parliament can possibly deliberate on such issues in either of the two ways. One is directly; in this case the agenda can be raised by the House (itself) through the Speaker; while the other option is the agenda to be tabled through pertinent Standing Committees.

According to House’s Working Procedures and Code of Conduct, the HPR shall have four types of meetings namely Regular Sessions, Extraordinary Meetings, Special Meetings and Closed Meetings. Extraordinary Meetings shall be called where urgent affairs requiring the decision of the House arise while the House is in recess. After the extraordinary meeting is called, it will go on until the issue for which the meeting is called is resolved; this could be days or hours.

Meanwhile, Special Meetings can be called when the House is faced with overwhelming workload and arrears of issues that need immediate solution accumulate. The House may conduct Special Meetings on working days other than the days of the Regular Meeting. The Speaker or more than half of the members of the House shall determine Special Meeting to be called, according to the House’s code. “Special Meetings shall be conducted in the meeting hall of the House prepared for this purpose,” it reads.

The presentation of the agenda of the Special Meeting and other procedures of the meeting shall be in accordance with the provisions enumerated in the Regulation. However, in addition to the oversight role of the parliament, still a debate is going on whether the parliament should have more roles that stretched to the intervening inside; for instance, in the matter of regional states including right violation, tragic incidents or conflict.

Recently, the HPR organized a half-day discussion forum with stakeholders focusing on particular agenda topics and deliberated on the 15-year journey of building a democratic system. During the discussion forum held in May, 2017, House Speaker, Abadulla Gemeda, Director of Policy Research Center, Abay Tsehaye, and Government Whip and Advisor to the Prime Ministers with ministerial portfolio, Asmelash Woldeselassie, were among the senior officials who attended the discussion along with other participants most of whom invited from institutions considered as democratic institutions including the media.

As a dominant discussion agenda on the event, Abay and Zerihun Teshome (from Zami FM) raised the issue of how far the federal government could go to interfere in regional matters on certain conditions such as security and stability. They cited practical evidence from the 2015 and 2016 deadly political unrest in Oromia and Amhara regional states.

Zerihun noted that the federal government is nothing but a unified body made up of regional states. He, however, made an important distinction between the federal government being a unified body and not being a sum of the federation bodies.

Hence, in consideration to that distinction and noting that the regional states are not yet self-sufficient in capacity, Zerhun also went on to question how much room there is for federal entities like the parliament (HPR) to step in regional matters whenever there is there need. Both the parliament and the regional states could work together on serious issues like what happened with the violence in Oromia and Amhara.

So, when there is human rights violation, what specific reason could there be for the parliament preventing it from summoning regional authorities to discuss on the problem and launch an investigation directly and hold someone accountable? Zerihun queried.

Abay, who partly shares Zerihun’s view, on his part, highlighted that both regional governments (Oromia and Amhara) did little to curb the violence and stop it from escalating. Both the HPR and the Regional Councils remained silent until the federal government (executive body) started to undertake investigations by its own and present the findings back to House, Abay said, adding that it is not right for the HPR and the Regional Councils to be reserved from doing their part and, to wait for the crisis to reach its worst level.

In a reaction to both speakers, Asmelash blasted both arguments noting there is no legal procedure that allows the House to jump into regional affairs and undertake investigation directly just because it wants to do so. He, however, contradicted his assertion by citing three legal provisions that would enable the parliament to launch an investigation regarding the incidents related to human rights violation. There is neither Constitutional backing nor any other legitimate procedures for the federal parliament to deploy its members to regions to investigate, Asmelash argued. “After all, we are following the federal system,” he exclaimed. There is some specific reservation as to how and when the federal government could intervene in the region, however, Asmelash told the forum.

According to Asmelash, there are three ways by which the federal government can legitimately intervene in regional matters and among them was a direct investigation of human rights issues through the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which is expected to report its findings back to the House.

In fact, last month, PM Hailemariam Dessalegn, who met presidents of Oromia and Somali regional states along with elders from the two regions, underscored that the federal government is never prevented by any legal instrument from intervening in the regions when it is believed that there could be right violation.

The weight of public demand

However, one question in the minds of the public today is how long does it take for the parliament to consider a crisis or a conflict. For instance, it is almost a month since the deadly border conflict and mass displacement of people from both Oromia and Somali regions has started. But, the parliament is still counting down the clock until the opening of the coming parliamentary year (which is scheduled for Monday October 9, 2017).

Some critics, however, question if it should even matter for the parliament whether it is on duty or recess to deal with national crises. Should it not be convened urgently whenever there are serious crises like what had happened in Oromia, Amhara and recently on the deadly border clash between Oromia and Ethiopian Somali Region? They question.

“What agenda is the right one for a body referred to as Peoples’ Representatives than such a bloody conflict,” a high school teacher Haregua told The Reporter while asked how she sees the HPR and its role in responding to conflict.

She indicated that the parliament should have been called for emergency discussion adding that we usually see parliamentarians rushing to their constituencies whenever they learn that their voters are in some kinds of accident.

Others, like Seyoum Teshome, a lecturer at Ambo University, went even further to assert that the parliament has not done enough in resolving the crisis that could have been even averted before resulting into causalities.

Over the past couple of years, citizens have held nationwide demonstration and stay-home protests. They did that for two reasons: one is it is because they know staging protest or strike is their constitutionally stipulated right under Article 30 and 42. The other reason is that they have fundamental questions regarding equality as well as fair utilization of resources and services, he told The Reporter, highlighting the public’s grievance that he believed had arisen from the poor response of the executive body which has failed to defend people’s right.

“However, many citizens have been killed and a great deal of property was vandalized due to the problem. The response of the security forces could also be characterized as excessive. Sadly, the entire ordeal has highlighted the parliament’s failure – for not doing its duties and responsibilities as per the constitution, Article 55,” Seyoum added.

He, however, suggests that the MPs still “should work responsibly considering their accountability is to the citizens, to constitutions and to their conscious instead of to the ruling party (EPRDF)”.

Parliament and Executive form the pillars of democracy where the former is concerned with legislation and the latter with policy designing and administration. Ethiopia being a parliamentary democracy is not restricted by the rigid separation of powers but rather the executive stands divided from the legislature. Along with this to keep a check on the actions of executive the parliament exercises control.

Comparing the parliament’s activities in exercising the power it is granted by the constitutions with the actual power the executive body wields, Befeqadu Haile, a blogger and former editor of Wiyiyit Magazine, who was one of the Zone 9 Bloggers collective, argues that the HPR is not performing as it should when it comes to discharging it responsibilities enshrined in the constitution and hence fails short of the public’s expectations.

“I don't think the parliament is working on behalf of the voters. In my view, the reason behind this is "central democracy" principle of the ruling party. The Central Committee or sometimes the Council of the EPRDF makes every decision and party members have to abide by it; this extends to MPs who are members of the party,” Befeqadu stated.

“I don't know if it can even pass a regulation to demand members to go to voters with draft laws, and consult them to get their consent. It is also good if HPR facilitates opportunities to see/learn from democratic parliamentary structures elsewhere and lecture them on how representatives meet up with their voters to get their consents on public matters,” he told The Reporter.

“I don’t think I have ever heard if any parliamentarian in Ethiopia has so far discussed any draft law with their voters before voting to pass it into law. They serve the party in a top-down order. That's partly why people are protesting which I believe is because of lack of representation in the government. The Parliament represents group of ruling elites,” according to the blogger.

The Parliament on its part, despite the prevailing weaknesses, believes that it is progressing continuously in terms of addressing the demand of the public.

Going with more Demands

Nevertheless, commentators have various points of view with regard to what should be done by a member of a parliament. Gebremedhin Birega, consumer rights and environment activist, still expects a lot from MPs. In an interview with The Reporter, he reflected, “The MPs in the House should concentrate on public demands, mainly on the interests of poor citizens, like the functionality of fiscal policies in addressing inflation; or combat corruption practically leaving aside the lip service.”

He further mentioned, “They should sincerely follow the executive and practically show that everybody would be accountable for their actions; ensure the rule of law on corrupt top officials; ensure improvements in government’s budget utilization; and differentiate between Party and Parliament membership roles”.

Similarly, from other walks of life people such as Menelik Yesera, a public servant, underscored: “One of the most important tasks of MPs should be to proving to the public that they are working as real representatives.”

“They should take their responsibilities very seriously and engage in lively debates considering the seat they occupied belongs to the people,” Menelik told The Reporter.

“If they keep voting on draft laws or passing any resolution as they are presented, for me, they are not representatives of the citizens,” he said.

“Again for me, listening to news of the passing of this law or that, with 100 percent support is becoming nonsensical. Unless the MPs become more aggressive and interactive, they can never be representatives to their voters. If they just keep voting on legislations, it is not a parliament for me nor is it worthy of the name,” he said.

In a closing remark he delivered in May, Abaddula pledged to show progress for the coming parliamentary year in terms of strengthening accountability and making sure that the people are benefiting from the country’s administration.

Well, if there is to be any improvement, we would perhaps start to see them on Monday, where the House would kickoff its third year.