Sunday, July 21, 2024
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Corruption vs. extortion

Hence, extortion is a political problem and while corruption is legal. Extortion is an evidence of power imbalance, emergence of a ruling class, and a result of fear of authorities, writes Yared Haile-Meskel.

Leaders of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) have declared corruption (“rent-seeking”) as its biggest challenge and blamed corruption to be one of the causes of the uprisings in most part of Oromia and the Amhara regional states.  Whether corruption is the cause of the uprising is debatable, but for sure, extortion, which is not yet on the agenda, could be the main cause discontent.

Both corruption and extortion have many elements in common but they are different.  Both are criminal offenses and both involve the exchange of money, property, or services, but the manner in which the exchange occurs and the impacts on the society are different.

Extortion targets the powerless and defenceless sector of the society while corruption is a main concern of the business people who are playing by the rulebook.  The last nine months protests were driven mainly by the youth, and poor peasants and hence corruption is unlikely to be the reason for rage.

In this article, an attempt will be made to highlight why corruption (rent-seeking) is a junior problem compared to extortion which is widely practiced.    

Extortion can only be solved by decision of empowering citizens against authorities, but corruption is simply a legal matter that can be reduced through proper investigative and legal actions.

Since rent-seeking (corruption) and extortion are different, the EPRDF recent resolution to root-out corruption cannot be successful. That means this country will remain prone to another round of protests with serious consequences to the ruling party and the people, unless the ruling party takes extortion as a major problem and deal with it. That is why it is important to define the two terms clearly.

Corruption is widely defined as” the misuse of public power (by an elected politician or appointed civil servant) for private gain”.

Bruce Buchan and Lisa Hill, in their 2014 book entitled “An Intellectual History of Political Corruption” state that corruption is a phenomenon, “consisting in payments illegally made to a public agent with the goal of obtaining a benefit or avoiding a cost”.  From this definition one can easily spot corruption has two elements; those are, benefits or avoiding costs, and consent.  It has a mutual consent to benefit the paying and receiving party.

To show with example, without condoning the practice, if a driver is caught talking on a mobile phone while driving, the traffic police officer has two options. First, if the police officer  is an upright citizen he will give a penalty ticket for the driver or he could advise the driver about the risks of talking on the mobile phone to let him go. The main aim of the law is to protect the driver himself from accident.

The second option is an opportunity for rent-seeking. The police officer is fully aware of the bureaucratic system that made penalty paying processes very difficult and time consuming. If the driver is caught out of Addis Ababa the driver has to drive back and pay 500 birr penalty. As the result of the government’s cumbersome bureaucracy the traffic police ends up being a solution provider.

So the officer steps into the car and talks to the driver and walks away with 50 or 100 birr note. This is a win-win situation for both parties. The driver saved 400 birr plus avoids the hardship in paying the penalty, and the officer walks away with 100 birr.

As a result of this rent-seeing transaction, the driver is not going to be mad to consider starting a revolution or contemplate walking to Libya to pick a boat to Italy in search of freedom. 

Living the moral and legal dimension out, both have acquired economic benefits and there is nothing to be angry about and throw stones. The police officer and the driver depart with guilt but with economic benefits. This is a good example of corruption.   

The government can solve this kind of problems by simplifying the penalty paying procedures to remove the traffic police from a position providing better solution to that of his government. Similarly, in all corruption cases there will be consents and benefits to both parties. 

Extortion is entirely different and very damaging.

Extortion is defined as “the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats”.

Extortion is a result of power imbalance. It is like putting a gun on someone’s child and demanding money. In the same analogy, extortion only happens when there is a power imbalance between the service provider and receiver, between rulers and ruled, between government and citizens. 

This is how extortion happens. The authority is making a clear or subtitle threat towards the extorted person, threatening to perform a certain action that will harm the extorted person unless the extorted person gives the authority whatever the authority requests.

Alexandra A. Wrage, in her book “Bribery and Extortion” state, “Officials…do not ask for money outright. Instead, they stage a scene in which the company representatives…will know what is expected of them. They introduce a threat before they propose an expensive solution—or they offer the solution first and threaten only after the initial suggestion proves unsuccessful”.

For example, if someone asks for planning permission, it will be delayed. The authority in charge fully knows that the investor had spent money in designing a building, securing loan, hiring a contractor and mobilizing assets to start building. Any delay in planning permission is going to cost the investor in terms of cost escalation and lost earning. But the official, who is approving the design, is not in a rush to provide the service because as each day goes by it is the investor who is burning cash. Instead, the authority will subtlety let the investor know that it can delay the project indefinitely and make the investor lose money. But if he pays, the planning permission can be signed in a day and save the investor money and time.   

The investor may go up to complain to the boss of the engineer but he too may happen to be a partner in the extortion syndicate. So the big boss would complicate things by finding faults and talking about regulation, circulars and politics. At this point, the investor has no option but to surrender and raise his arms to let the authorities dip into his pocket. This is extortion, and unlike corruption there is no consent or mutual benefits. One side benefits by threatening to destroy the legal business of an investor.

This obviously makes citizens very helpless and angry. These kinds of problems cannot be solved by an anti-corruption commission, which is only focused on investigating and taking legal action, unless the government is willing to reduce the “power distance” between the citizens and the government authorities.

Another simple example of extortion is when a person goes to a government office to get some files. The person will be told that the files are not found and will be told to come back again and again for months.  Again the client may go up the decision makers’ ladder but the lady at the top will advise him to be patient till the file is found. 

This is an indication that the client has to pay to get the service. Finally, the client pays and he will be told Hallelujah! The file has been found. This is extortion – money paid for service that the client should have been getting for free.

At this point we need to ask, why citizens are paying government officials and civil servants to do their job. Some even go to extent of blaming the citizens for paying. When citizens are made powerless in the face of the government officials, for political reasons, they fear that the officials are too powerful and they can destroy their business and ambitions. They have no legal or political power to fight officials and civil servants to defend themselves from extortion. 

Getting water, getting compensation for land taken from peasants by the government, getting a compensation for a demolished house, getting a landline telephone, and getting an ID card are citizens’ rights but none of them are provided free of charge.

The government is now more of a franchise, where each office sells services to citizens.

Extortion is widely used and this can be a major cause for anger and frustration.

Hence, extortion is a political problem and while corruption is legal. Extortion is an evidence of power imbalance, emergence of a ruling class, and a result of fear of authorities.   

Corruption is everywhere. It is in China, India, Italy, Greek, the US or the UK but extortion does not exist in liberal democracies where the citizens have power over authorities.

A British authority has no power to threaten even an asylum seeker. If he tries, of course, he is the one who would end up in prison, even if he is the Prime Minster of the country.  Anyone has full right to sue the prime minster, the Chief of Staff, Chief Constable of the Police, the Secretary of the State, Chief of National Security, the local municipality officer or anyone in power or in uniform.  These people with long titles are not above the law, or above citizens. The judiciary is not an appendage of the government but an independent institution that can send government officials to prison. In our country, the judiciary is not independent and it is there to serve the interest of the executive body that is often in the business of extortion for personal gains.

In liberal democracies, if the authority is not making a decision on time with clear and transparent manner a citizen can call a lawyer, a newspaper or the opposition political party to set fire on back of the authority trying to abuse of the state power for personal gains. Who in our country can sue a police officer or even a Kebele Chairman and have a peaceful sleep?

This brings us to question why extortion is prevalent in Ethiopia and what we can do about it.  

Extortion only happens when citizens are made to fear and obey authorities for political reasons. So whoever in the government uniform, sitting behind a government desk or running the electric and water pipe is considered to be part of the government and feared. In Ethiopia citizens cannot demand service but they ask for a favour kindly.

So in Orwellian terms, “when some are more equal than the others” citizens have no choice but to obey anyone in government office.

This power imbalance has been studied by various scholars. For example, Geert Hofstede, in his book “Culture’s Consequences” provides a detailed description of cultural variations between countries such as “power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism and collectivism, masculinity and femininity and long term versus short-term orientation”.

Hofstede had surveyed 50 counties in the world to come up with the above five major themes to help companies manage employees in different countries and cultural contexts.  One of the most important points he indentified was “Power Distance”.

Power Distance” is defined by Hofestead[i] as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”. In another words “subordinates, clients or the general public expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”. In Hofstede’sstudy Ethiopia is next to Arab countries that have high power distance. On global power distance index, where Saudi Arabia, Libya and other Arab countries rank with 80 points in one extreme while Australia ranks with lowest power distance of   11 points. Next to Arab countries Ethiopia scores 64 to be among the countries where the lower members of the society have no say but also accept the authority above them without question

Anyone who is in uniform, sitting behind a government desk, elected to facilitate service, armed with a stick as a security guard, or is attired in a white gown and is his holding a stethoscope automatically assumes that he has power over the client who is legitimately requesting service. This tradition of high power distance often leads to seeing the public, patients, and clients with more of contempt than respect. As a result, the current practice is an office guard can freely use his baton on clients, a clerk at a reception desk can refuse to provide service, a nurse can mishandle a mother giving birth, and a police officer can intimidate and insult an old lady in extreme distress. This culture is pervasive and is found in all walks of life and is not limited to government officials. It exists in all sectors of the society. It is in schools, hospitals, offices and even homes. This has exposed citizens to extortion.

Citizens are not empowered to question, to complain or say ‘I am a taxpayer and I deserve service’. Challenging an authority figure is not advised at all levels. As a result, extortion is quite pervasive through all stages of government and that is why the people grudgingly pay to get along but when they get a chance they will not hesitate to use violence.

The other cultural problem described in psychology studies is “role play”. Many psychologists agree that people are inherently good and have altruistic intentions, even the government officials.  However, as the Stanford prison experiment revealed people adopt the “implicit social norms associated with those roles: such as guards should be authoritarian and abuse prisoners while prisoners should become servile and take their punishment”. This role play behaviour is quite common.  In Ethiopia, a person who is equally complaining out of office hours about the same authoritarian problem displays the same authoritarian behaviour when he is in a position of authority and influence.  

All these contribute to the problem of extortion in Ethiopia.  Ethiopians have suffered a lot. They were ruled by absolute monarchs for thousands of years which was followed by a brutal military dictatorship. Even today a lot needs to improve and the people should be empowered and should be able to challenge cadres and their rulers. 

Corruption exists everywhere and it is illegal all over the world. The recent impeachment of the Brazilian president is a good example. But extortion is prevalent only in authoritarian countries. Extortion is prevalent when there is no place to appeal and get justice. It is prevalent in places where no one can write and expose wrong doings of officials on newspapers without fear of persecution by the powerful politicians and cadres.

In conclusion, extortion is a serious political problem and the main cause of frustration in the society. It is this helplessness that leads to violence when people join a mass action and feel a sense of power.­

The way out of the current impasse is it to clearly understand what corruption is and what extortion is.  Corruption can be fought through whistleblowers, if they are given legal protection, investigative journalism, anti-corruption institutions and an impartial legal system.   Extortion cannot be defeated through a legal system or slogan mongering. It can be solved by empowering the people and reducing the power of government officials over the people, by establishing an independent judiciary system and by letting people speak their mind or write without fear of persecution.  In short, it can be fought by creating a liberal democratic system, where all people are equals under the law. This requires a genuine commitment to democracy.

If the government of the day wants the public to be scared and become domesticated for political ends, it will turn out to be catastrophic.

At least, the government needs to accept these uncomfortable truths to debate and change them. Anything that does not reduce the power of the civil servants and cadres over the people cannot protect the people from extortion.  And sadly, powerless people will rise up the moment they find the opportunity for mass action, where they too feel powerful not as individuals but in members of mass actions. Making citizens powerless is a recipe for rage, revolution and mass actions.

The new cabinet need to look into the causes and effects of social problems. It needs to look into knowledge-based management, evidence-based decision-making and problem solving methods. Slogan mongering solves no problem.

Ed.’s Note: Yared Haile-Meskel is a Managing Director of YHM Consulting. Thviews expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].

Contributed by Yared Haile-Meskel


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