Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Transparency! Transparency! Transparency!

The abrupt loss of Ethiopia’s stake in the Port of Berbera in Somaliland, an autonomous region in northern Somalia which broke away and declared independence from Somalia in 1991, yet again raises a slew of issues that need to be addressed by the government. In March 2018 Ethiopia signed an agreement with Dubai-based port operator DP World and the Somaliland Port Authority to purchase a 19 percent share in the Port of Berbera and invest in infrastructure to develop the Berbera Corridor as another trade gateway. DP World was slated to hold a 51 percent stake in the project and Somaliland the remaining 30 percent. The reason the deal fell through was Ethiopia’s inability to fulfill some of the conditions required to complete it by the deadline set out in the agreement. Since no official explanation has been provided as to what conditions the Ethiopian government did not meet and the reasons thereof, speculations abound that political factors are to account for its decision to abandon the project. Only time will tell what the true cause is.

From negotiations to dotting the line on the agreement to the circumstances that led to Ethiopia’s failure to honor the deal, the mystery shrouding the entire process is emblematic of the opacity of the government. Generally speaking the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has a comparatively better record than his predecessors in regards to displaying transparency. Transparency is and should be the guiding principle to which the government needs to adhere to. The situation on the ground in Ethiopia, however, still leaves a lot to be desired. Consequently, the state of the flow of information in the government’s custody is woeful to say the least.  Withholding information and whitewashing events which do not hold up the government in good light has become an ingrained habit. Rumors and intrigue are lent more credence than the truth due to the lack and/or distortion of information. This is one of the distinctive features of an opaque government.

It’s a rule of thumb that with the exception of legally protected information or matters concerning national security a government must demonstrate transparency in everything it does. In fact the Ethiopian constitution explicitly stipulates that the conduct of affairs of government shall be transparent. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government’s woeful performance in terms of translating this commandment into action has left the public’s expression of grievance in response to bad governance and endemic corruption unanswered. What infuriates the public even more is the fact that officials mired to their neck in these misdeeds are reassigned to other posts without offering convincing justifications. And it’s unclear if the few who are indicted on criminal charges will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law or just get a slap on the wrist. All this has disillusioned the public and eroded its confidence in the government. The relationship between the government and the people cannot be anchored in mutual trust when secrecy is the former’s default mode.

A government which claims to have been voted into office by an overwhelming margin has a solemn obligation to avail credible and up-to-date information to citizens in compliance with its duty to abide by the principles of transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, the fact that it keeps coming up short in discharging this responsibility has meant that by and large the public has no choice but to consume unreliable or false information peddled by social media and utterly biased mainstream media based overseas. Providing timely information on matters of public interest is paramount to enabling the government garner public support in executing the weighty tasks entrusted to it, including ensuring law and order, bringing the debilitating inflation down to tolerable levels, and arresting the alarming spread of corruption. If the government is genuinely committed to creating a durable bond between it and the people it’s imperative that it keep them abreast of important developments impacting their livelihood.    

The speculations swirling over Ethiopia’s forfeiture of its stake in the Port of Berbera underscore the government’s obligation to uphold the principle of transparency in everything it does. The sad state of transparency is a major factor to blame for many of the ills besetting Ethiopian society: bad governance, poverty, rampant corruption and encroachment of fundamental rights and freedoms to name a few. Citizens have the right to know anything affecting the affairs of them and the nation. If Ethiopians’ long-held aspiration for peace, democracy, rule of law and prosperity is to be realized it’s incumbent on the government to make every effort to ensure the prevalence of transparency. Whatever stands in the attainment of these ideals is bound to have grim consequences for everyone. 

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