Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Discharging duty to be fully forthcoming

The lack of accurate and timely information regarding the new offensive launched at the beginning of the week by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the conflict-ridden northern Tigray region of Ethiopia has left the Ethiopian public perplexed and suspicious. The withdrawal of the army from areas which had been under a joint control with the neighboring Amhara region has particularly stoked accusations that the federal government has abandoned Amharas in their hour of need. In response the federal government and the army have issued statements urging the people of Ethiopia to understand that both domestic and external enemies are working in unison to sow dissent and mistrust among them. They further called on them to guard against succumbing to the false information and propaganda being peddled by the TPLF junta and stand with them to defend the Ethiopia’s sovereignty and reverse the threat posed by internal and external enemies of the country.

The escalation of hostilities came on the heels of the unilateral cease-fire declared by the federal government, forcing it to declare that it may reconsider the truce and resume law enforcement operation unless the TPLF, which has been designated as a terrorist group by the House of Peoples’ Representatives, stops its bellicosity. In the meantime, the Special Forces of different regional states have joined the Amhara Special Forces following a call to arms issued by the Government of the Amhara regional state asking Amharas and Ethiopians as a whole to counter the existential threat it said is posed by TPLF. The scenes playing out in various parts the country where citizens are mobilizing to fight against the forces of TPLF could well be the harbingers of a deadly civil war that can only be averted through a political dialogue by the sides involved in the conflict.

Generally speaking it cannot be denied that the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has a relatively better record in comparison to his predecessors when it comes to displaying transparency. Transparency is and should be the guiding principle to which the government, the ruling party, opposition parties, charities and societies, educational and health facilities, the media and the public at large needs to adhere to. The situation on the ground in Ethiopia, however, still leaves a lot to be desired. Consequently, the state of information flow is woeful to say the least. It’s a norm to cover up or under-report events which do not hold up the government in good light. Rumors and intrigue are lent more credence than the truth due to the lack and distortion of information. This is one of the features of an opaque society.

It’s a universally acceptable principle that with the exception of legally protected information or matters concerning national security a government must demonstrate transparency in everything it does. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government’s inability to live up adequately to this obligation in translating this commandment into action has meant that the public’s expression of grievance in response to bad governance, miscarriage of justice and endemic corruption has been unanswered. To make matters worse reassigning public officials found to be culpable of and have actually owned up to these misdeeds to other posts without offering convincing justifications continues to be the norm. And it’s unclear if the few who are indicted on criminal charges face the full force of the law and just get a slap on the wrist. All this has disillusioned the public and eroded its trust in the government. It would be naïve to think that a healthy relationship can exist between the government and the people where the former operates in atmosphere of opacity.

Prime Minister Abiy and his administration need to abide by the constitutional dictum stipulating that the conduct of affairs of government must be transparent. Despite the modicum of progress observed in this regard since he came to power, the government’s track record still leaves much to be desired. Opacity only serves to leave a vacuum that elements with an axe to grind use to peddle lies and innuendo. Although the government has vowed to investigate and bring the manufacturers of fake news to justice, the threat is not nearly enough to stop them in their track. The surest way these elements can be starved oxygen and guard against the disinformation campaign waged by the adversaries of Ethiopia is to avail timely and accurate information to the general public.

People are increasingly becoming estranged from their own country on account of the inability to obtain timely and reliable information about the day-to-day activity of the government. The state-owned media are in particular loath to accord fair coverage to public protests or conflicts instead devoting attention to mundane matters. As a result the public is forced to look to foreign media outlets and social media to get hold of the information it seeks. It is confused by the vague and occasionally contradicting statements the government sometimes makes as in the case of the law enforcement operation in Tigray. If information pertaining to important events is not kept a secret or disseminated in a manner that is unenlightening, public resentment and distrust are bound to deepen. It’s therefore particularly incumbent on the government to discharge its duty to be fully forthcoming on matters the public has the right to know. Failure is liable to have undesirable consequences for Ethiopia and its people.

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