Wednesday, January 18, 2023

How Accountable are public officials?

Article 12 of the constitution of Ethiopia explicitly sets out principles governing the conduct and accountability of the government. Accordingly, it stipulates that the conduct of affairs of government shall be transparent. It also lays down that any public official or an elected representative is accountable for any failure in official duties and that in case of loss of confidence the people may recall an elected representative. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. Any law, customary practice or a decision of an organ of state or a public official which contravenes this Constitution is of no effect. When it comes to practice though the scope of the accountability of government officials lacks clarity despite these unambiguous provisions. Let’s discuss a few illustrative examples.

Transparency and accountability have no place in the majority of government institutions and are values that they just pay lip service to. Although the powers and responsibilities of each and every executive organ of the government and their respective heads are enumerated in their establishment proclamations and the rights and duties of public servants are provided for by different laws, regulations and directives, the number of agencies which are at the whim of individuals far outnumber those that are governed in accordance with the law. Consequently, bad governance and maladministration have become rife all over the country. The government has acknowledged that these challenges indeed do exist and constitute a grave threat to the nation.

The problem besetting many a governmental institution begins with their public relations units. Most of the managers and staff of PR departments conceal rather than disclose information, turn a blind eye to mismanagement rather than seek alternatives fostering good governance, have practically no idea what is going on in their institutions and by and large are not fit for the position they hold. Generally speaking, they are adept at the very antithesis of their mission—promoting transparency and the reputation of their institutions. The actions of such incompetent communications managers not only deprive the government of credibility, but have also led to the ascendancy of unprincipled characters and the proliferation of corruption.

Self-serving elements which have infiltrated all levels of government are actively working against transparency and accountability slowly eroding the sense of public service of hardworking employees. The mushrooming of corrupt forces is to blame primarily for the diminishing of the spirit of public service within the government bureaucracy. While the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) and the government have declared that they have embarked on a “deep renewal”, unscrupulous individuals within their ranks are robbing the country blind. For instance, some 30 suspects implicated in the theft of 5-million-birr-worth reinforcement bars intended for the construction of government-subsidized condominium buildings in Addis Ababa were arrested recently and placed under investigation. Important questions have been raised in connection with the probe though. Does it extend to the management of the enterprise which is the victim of the alleged crime? Doesn’t non-performance of one’s obligations entail liability or does the extent of accountability differ from person to person? The law must be upheld.

Speaking of accountability, how are public funds and assets protected? It is persons at the helm of the mandated institutions who should be held ultimately responsible for misappropriation of public properties or other acts which harm the national interest. Resigning from one’s post for failure in official duties, a practice that is slowly beginning to take root in Africa as well, unfortunately has not become a norm in Ethiopia. A nation cannot be arbitrarily governed. In addition to the check-and-balance role the legislature, the executive and the judiciary play while carrying out their respective functions, the media is duty-bound to act as a watchdog and inform the public of any lapse in this regard. Sadly those who have a vested interest in the prevalence of arbitrary rule deride the media’s role with a view to undermine transparency and accountability. Furthering criminality is a patent violation of the constitution and threatens public security and stability.

There is no overstating the paramount importance of ensuring that the government upholds transparency and accountability in performing its duties. Any official found wanting in carrying out the tasks entrusted to him needs to be held answerable. No officer or top-level management member responsible for failure to execute their obligations ought to be spared from being dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. Officials incapable of living up to the responsibility handed to them should refrain from using the PR department as an attack dog and be bound by the principles of transparency and accountability. Burying information or hushing up scandals that the public is entitled to know about is a glaring instance of mismanagement. The leadership of any public institution should bear ultimate responsibility for the non-fulfillment of the objectives and plans of the institution or the occurrence of any event that harms the interest of the public and the nation. This is the principle embodied in Article 12 of the constitution. Going against it clearly amounts to the commission of a crime. Therefore, the scope of accountability of government officials must be ascertained in no uncertain terms.

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