Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Cleaning house vital to avert state capture

One thing on which Ethiopians from all walks of life agree is that the level of corruption in Ethiopia has assumed epidemic proportions.  A phenomenon that poses a national security risk that rivals other security threats, corruption is a bane that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) once described as “… a termite that hollows a country and labors day and night to bleed it dry.” The extent to which it has become rife was reinforced this week by the Customs Commission. In his quarterly performance report presented to Parliament, the commissioner pleaded with lawmakers to provide a political solution for a nationwide web of illicit trading that implicates regional administrations, the federal police, judicial officials, customs and intelligence officers, the military as well as private enterprises and armed groups. The costly toll that corruption entails thus needs to be tackled resolutely before it gets out of hand.

Successive Ethiopian governments have always sung their own praises about their commitment to combat corruption. The half-hearted measures they have taken in furtherance of this goal, however, have not yielded the desired outcome. In a belated nod to the imperative to combat corruption, Prime Minister Abiy established a little over a year ago a national anti-corruption committee entrusted with coordinating the government’s campaign against corruption, identifying the actors involved in the scourge, and bringing them to justice. There is no denying that resolving to fight corruption was a commendable step in the right direction. Nevertheless, questions were raised as to whether the initiative was yet another publicity stunt bound to fail as well. Chief among these was the political leadership’s commitment to suit its word to action given the fact that the members of the committee occupied senior positions in the federal government and the ruling Prosperity Party. Although the committee announced a few days ago that it had undertaken fruitful efforts during its one-year tenure,  the real or perceived absence of the impartiality of its members left many doubtful if it had the courage to do what was needed to carry out its duties had cast a shadow over its credibility.

The shocking revelations made by the Customs Commission bring to mind a subject that should alarm Ethiopians, namely state capture. The traditional Western-centric conceptualization of state capture broadly understands it as a situation where powerful individuals, institutions, companies or groups within or outside a country use corruption to shape a nation’s policies, legal environment and economy to benefit their own private interests.  From the perspective of  developing countries and nations in transition it has been defined as “a political-economic project whereby public and private actors collude in establishing clandestine networks that cluster around state institutions in order to accumulate unchecked power, subverting the constitutional state and social contract by operating outside of the realm of public accountability”. State capture generally involves the manipulation by special interest groups of laws, policies and regulations through various underhanded practices, often times to the detriment of smaller firms and groups and society in general. State capture can also take the form of an incestuous alignment of interests between specific business and political elites through nepotism and the entangled ownership of economic assets. State capture detrimentally impacts economic development, regulatory oversight, the provision of public services, quality of education and health services, infrastructure decisions, and even the environment.

Most of the defining features of state capture presently exist in Ethiopia. There are a host of potential approaches that can be adopted to address it head on.  First, it’s important to enhance the independence, transparency, and accountability of state institutions such as the judiciary, parliament, ombudsman, and anti-corruption bodies. This should be augmented by the implementation and enforcement of robust anti-corruption laws and mechanisms, including whistleblower protection, investigative journalism support, and asset recovery. Increasing governmental transparency through measures such as open data initiatives, public disclosure of officials’ assets, publication of procurement contracts, and budgetary transparency can also minimize opportunities for state capture. In addition, fostering an active civil society can empower citizens to hold public officials accountable and act as a check against state capture.  In this regard supporting independent media, enabling civil society organizations, and encouraging citizen participation in decision-making processes are essential. Finally, engaging in international cooperation to address state capture challenges can be valuable. Sharing best practices, collaborating on investigations, and ensuring international financial systems do not enable state capture can go some way towards tackling the issue.

If Ethiopians are to enjoy the dividends of peace, democracy and prosperity, it’s of the essence that the government cleans its house so that elements with sinister motives do not manage to engineer a complete state capture. This may be realized when the legislature, the executive and the judiciary carry out their respective duties in compliance with the principle of check and balance; when civil society organizations and institutions of democracy are able to operate freely; when the right of all persons to be equal before the law and to be entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law is implemented;  when the wealth and economic opportunity created by the country’s economy is equitably shared;  and when the national interest takes precedence over the narrow interest of individuals and groups.  All of us should realize that failure to make the necessary sacrifice towards this end will have dire consequences.  

 

 

 

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