Wednesday, May 22, 2024
InterviewThe rule of law: who is the Ombudsman?

The rule of law: who is the Ombudsman?

Endale Haile (PhD) spent much of his life in academia before his election to Parliament a decade ago.

He holds graduate and postgraduate degrees in Public Administration and Public Policy and Management, respectively, from Addis Ababa University. Endale served as a public relations officer and Deputy President for Debre Berhan University before his five-year tenure as a member of Parliament.

In June 2018, he was appointed the country’s Chief Ombudsman.

Endale has since dedicated his time to steering the Ethiopian Institution of the Ombudsman towards its goals of fostering high-quality, efficient, and transparent governance based on the rule of law. This commitment aligns with the institution’s democratic purpose and the imperative for good governance, especially in the context of the political transition in 2018.

 Recognizing Ethiopia’s historical challenges, including a lack of political experience, cyclical power struggles, a history of monarchical rule, and diverse administrative systems, Endale sees the nation’s current state of instability as a consequence of wars and conflicts that have persisted over time.

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In an interview with Abraham Tekle of The Reporter, Endale delved into a range of pressing issues, covering the significance of the general political situation in the country, the ongoing conflicts in the Amhara and Oromia regions, the role of the Institution of the Ombudsman in many affairs, and other more critical issues. EXCERPTS:

The Reporter: What are your most significant achievements since becoming the Chief Ombudsman of Ethiopia in 2018?

Endale Haile (PhD): The Ethiopian Institution of the Ombudsman, a key democratic entity in Ethiopia, underwent transformative changes following the 2018 political transition that saw Dr. Abiy Ahmed assume office. This shift involved substantial institutional reforms, including legal adjustments to the institutional proclamation and a restructuring of its framework.

Historically, these institutions, including the Ombudsman, were tightly controlled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Liberating the Ombudsman from such political influence stands out as a fundamental achievement, allowing these entities to operate with increased freedom and independence within the Ethiopian context.

Empowered with the responsibility to study and advocate for good governance, as well as investigate administrative abuses, the Ethiopian Ombudsman has made significant strides. Notably, the institution has fulfilled 80 percent of its operational duties, marking a notable improvement from the 43 percent recorded pre-2018.

In addition to its core responsibilities, the Ombudsman has spearheaded impactful projects, addressing challenges like displaced populations and reinforcing the rule of law. In 2022, the institution recognized and rewarded commendable practices in good governance. Noteworthy efforts extend to tackling corruption in government development projects, showcasing the institution’s commitment to reforms.

Crucially, the Ombudsman has implemented an efficient system that mitigates political interference. Previously, appointments of the first and vice presidents were politically influenced, but now, under the revised proclamation, these positions are automatically appointed, distancing themselves from party representation.

Let’s discuss the recently revised bill created to prevent harassment and abuse of citizens. Can you mention the specific areas of focus and how your institution’s role is determined?

On the international accreditation front, Ombudsman institutions are structured to operate for eleven months. This extended duration is crucial to ensure these entities enjoy institutional freedom, free from governmental influence, as their effectiveness hinges on such autonomy. Extensive efforts have been made to safeguard them against undue influences, emphasizing the importance of achieving their societal objectives. Evaluations of these institutions primarily revolve around scrutinizing their accomplishments in fulfilling their responsibilities.

Previously, assessments were limited to misdeeds committed solely by government representatives. This narrow scope meant that misconduct within private sector entities, among civil servants, and non-governmental institutions fell outside our purview. However, the new decree has expanded our mandate, allowing us to investigate and evaluate wrongdoing within private sectors. This broadens our accessibility, enabling us to address issues arising from the private sector and further fulfill our responsibilities effectively.

There have been reports of increasing administrative abuses committed by private organizations. It is alleged that your institution has not been responsive to complaints and that these abuses continue to adversely affect citizens. Can you please address these concerns?

The reform of the proclamation is driven by something fundamental – nearly half of the complaints reaching our institution originate from the private sector, a realm beyond our initially designated purview. We recognize the valid concerns raised regarding the growing instances of administrative abuses within private organizations, and we treat these matters with utmost seriousness. While the private sector holds the potential to reduce governmental influence, it also amplifies the risk of poor administrative management.

In essence, as the private sector expands, governmental involvement diminishes, accompanied by an increase in cases of mismanagement. Although such instances are typically addressed by the judiciary or labor and social affairs, our institution has positioned itself as an additional recourse for societal grievances. Despite limitations in finances and manpower, our focus remains on promptly addressing complaints, particularly those forwarded by major industrial and manufacturing entities.

The pivotal aspect here lies in the redefined mandate, empowering us to scrutinize misconduct within the private sector like never before. This significant step should be underscored. Rest assured, the Ethiopian Ombudsman is resolute in its commitment to safeguard citizens from administrative abuses and uphold the tenets of good governance. We persistently strive to enhance our efficiency and responsiveness, a commitment reinforced by the new privilege granted through the recent decree.

The decree was modified to solve issues faced by citizens and to grant certain privileges to investigative bodies like yours. What are the new privileges granted to you under the recent decree?

The recent grant of an immunity privilege based on the new decree sparks debate, and its potential impact remains uncertain for the future. However, considering our primary role as an ombudsman institution, tasked with addressing complaints spanning various zones and regional states, we have encountered obstacles, including threats and arrests. The newfound immunity has the potential to mitigate such challenges, thereby expanding our operational scope.

Viewed as a benchmark, this privilege becomes crucial in evaluating whether similar institutions are granted the immunity necessary for effective responsibilities. This grant holds promise in minimizing political interference that might impede our efficiency. Providing immunity to our institution instills confidence in our investigative personnel during field duties, playing an indispensable role in shaping our future activities.

Considering the prevailing political influence and situations in our country, do you think such a privilege is feasible or pertinent?

This begs the question: if not now, then when? I believe something has to start today or not at all. As an institution, it is better to start now and build our capacity through the obstacles we find along the way, because building the expected democracy requires a process. Therefore, what is expected from us as an institution is to go along the path as far as possible.

Amidst concerns about the right to access information, could you elaborate on your organizational responsibility? Share instances of complaints received and your resolution strategies. Furthermore, are there specific plans in place to address these issues moving forward?

Addressing issues related to access to information is integral to our organizational reform, specifically targeting inherent problems within the institution. Prior to delving into access to information, it’s crucial to discuss the broader context of public freedom of expression, the right to assembly, and media freedom, as these directly influence the information access landscape. Respecting democratic rights inherently aligns with upholding the right to access information.

As an ombudsman institution, our mandate involves monitoring the application of the right to access information as per Proclamation 590/2000. Governmental institutions are obligated to provide information under Article 29 of the Ethiopian Constitution, where citizens have the right to access, hold, and disseminate information. Acknowledging challenges in access to information from the governmental sector, our institution strives to offer solutions in line with ongoing reforms.

When complaints arise regarding access to information, our institution, guided by the proclamation, addresses them, recognizing that the recent reform is pivotal in resolving related issues. The effectiveness of media operations hinges on access to information, underscoring the significance of both media law and the right to access information proclamation and we are trying to solve the issue in accordance with the reform mandate.

Reports indicate the formulation of a decree to protect confidential information. Could you provide insights into your institution’s role or engagement in shaping this legislation? Moreover, do you foresee any potential implications on the right to access information rights due to this development?

Certainly, we actively contribute to shaping the decree, and while the potential implications are subject to debate, they primarily revolve around national security concerns. When addressing matters of national security, the focus is on safeguarding the nation’s well-being; ensuring sensitive information is protected before dissemination through media channels. The classification of confidentiality rests with the respective institutions, as they possess the knowledge to determine what should be disclosed or kept confidential.

The Ethiopian Ombudsman Institution was established to prevent administrative abuses against citizens. In cases of identified abuses, the institution conducts investigations to provide legal remedies and address human rights violations affecting citizens. Could you elaborate on how you fulfill these responsibilities in response to the complaints submitted to your institution?

The institution actively receives complaints from citizens, addressing concerns related to administrative abuses or human rights violations. Upon receipt of a complaint, the Ombudsman Institution initiates a thorough initial assessment, actively monitoring the situation to ensure the implementation of recommended remedies. For instance, recent scrutiny involved monitoring the equitable distribution of food aid in drought-affected areas. We investigate proactive measures taken before the escalation of the drought, potential displacement, and the government’s enduring solutions to address underlying issues.

In this context, our efforts are underscored by significant contributions. Notably, our branch office in Tigray was the first to report the drought-related case and associated mortality. Additionally, field studies were conducted in Oromia and Somali regions, assessing the distribution of humanitarian aid to affected populations. Unfortunately, monitoring in the Amhara region faces challenges due to security concerns and ongoing conflicts. While obtaining detailed information is complex, collaboration with aid groups and relevant institutions offers hope for comprehensive insights in the near future.

Furthermore, a substantial number of complaints have been received concerning ongoing house demolitions in and around the capital city. Despite our institution’s dedicated efforts to address these concerns, challenges persist, and complete resolution remains elusive due to various factors. However, it is crucial for the government to take responsibility for resolving such issues, acknowledging citizens’ right to live in their country with an improved standard of living.

Consequently, we have conveyed our concerns to the House of Representatives and await their response, recognizing the limits of our mandate. In my view, the government’s policy in this matter requires immediate attention, as injustices related to house demolitions can contribute directly to conflicts or unrest in the country.

We recently learned of a request for a peaceful demonstration advocating to “stop the war.” While the intention behind the march is to break free from the cycle our country finds itself in, there’s a question about the effectiveness of peaceful demonstration in achieving this goal. Can a peaceful demonstration truly lead us out of the cycle we are entrenched in as a nation?

It seems prudent to address this issue by distinguishing between different historical periods. While I’m not a historian, my reading on Ethiopian history reveals a predominant focus on war, particularly in the modern era extending from 1855 to 1974. Post-1974 marks the onset of contemporary Ethiopian history. Throughout these periods, spanning from 1855 to the present day, the country has experienced numerous civil wars.

Including the internal war between the lords of the Imperial regime, the contemporary history of Ethiopia during the reign of Dergue regime from 1974 to May 1991, ruled by Mengistu Hailemariam, was characterized by the 17-years’ war between the TPLF and EPLF with the central government, which was also the worst war in Ethiopian history and caused millions of deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced citizens from the Tigray region and Eritrea. During the EPRDF regime, there was the Ethio-Eritrean war.

The recent two-year-long conflict in Tigray and ongoing disputes in Oromia and Amhara mirror a cyclic pattern of violence deeply ingrained in the country’s history. From my perspective, two defining factors contribute to this cycle: power struggles and a lack of democratic practices. Ethiopia’s political inexperience and its history of monarchical rule, often marked by wars and conflicts, have fueled the current instability. Therefore, fostering a robust democratic system emerges as the ideal choice for the well-being of the country.

What are your thoughts on the current military operations in Amhara and other regions? How do you envision a resolution to the ongoing war?

The prevailing dire conditions in both regions demand a separate examination. In Oromia, delving into the background is crucial. The entry of armed forces into the country is subjective, and my understanding suggests that the previous action was misguided without a formal agreement. Addressing armed forces with diverse ideologies requires proactive steps, assessing their capabilities falls under the government’s purview.

Oromia grapples with persistent tensions rooted in politics and miscalculations, causing unbearable suffering for civilians. Unfulfilled promises to armed groups contribute to the ongoing conflict. Despite this, a peaceful resolution is paramount. Government-led negotiations must continue, learning from recent failed talks in Tanzania. I strongly urge the federal government to initiate further negotiations to alleviate the plight of Oromia’s civilians.

Regarding the Amhara region, my stance aligns – peaceful resolution is the government’s responsibility. Restoring the region to its status quo, withdrawing the National Defense Army to their camps, and urging those who have gone into the bush to return to their villages is essential. The region faces unbearable challenges – disconnection from the country, increasing arbitrary arrests, and escalating violence. Economic damage, akin to the Tigray war, is a severe concern, emphasizing the need for peaceful conflict resolution.

The government, holding a monopoly of power, must maintain law and order without jeopardizing the country’s existence. Preventing a Tigray-like scenario in Amhara is crucial, considering the potential for complete destruction. To achieve lasting peace, the government must address public concerns transparently. Relying on independent bodies, free from military influence, is imperative. Institutions like the Ministry of Peace should be reassessed and reorganized to effectively contribute to solving Ethiopia’s problems.

The political landscape in Ethiopia is perceived by some as increasingly constricted. Could you briefly share your perspective on the current political situation in the country?

Prior to Abiy’s ascension to power, the public’s primary demand was fundamental political reforms. Since assuming office in 2018, his administration has indeed initiated various reforms. However, it is acknowledged that mere political reform might not suffice, necessitating more radical actions to effectively address Ethiopia’s challenges.

In assessing the government’s response to public demands, it becomes crucial to determine the extent to which these concerns, predating Abiy’s leadership, have been addressed. Emphasizing the need for comprehensive political reforms, it is imperative to delve into the persistent issues, such as corruption, malpractice, and flaws in interpreting the federal system.

The realization of the federal system should underscore the sovereignty of states, aligning with Article 46/1. Acknowledging these concerns before Abiy’s tenure, the government has made progress in resolving certain problems, yet others endure, highlighting the sustained effort required for meaningful reform. Therefore, the government has to listen to the demands of the public and act accordingly.

Finally, what measures do you propose to break free from the vicious political cycle the country is currently entangled in?

The federal government is anticipating the full functionality of the Dialogue Commission, yet it’s essential to recognize that this commission primarily addresses the largest issues. However, there are immediate, fundamental concerns, such as the current inflation, that demand prompt attention. Implementing policy reforms to address the immediate needs of the general public is crucial.

Breaking free from the political vicious cycle necessitates not only fostering open dialogue and promoting transparency but also actively engaging in collaborative problem-solving. It is imperative for the government to adhere to the rule of law and simultaneously work towards instilling a robust rule of law throughout the country. This approach ensures accountability and responsiveness to the pressing issues faced by the general public.

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