Negeri Lencho (PhD) is Minister of Government Communications Affairs Office (GCAO) and member of the newly put together, academia-dominated cabinet of Prime Minister Hailemairam Dessalegn. Before crossing over to the civil service sector to assume the role of chief spokesperson, Negeri had taught journalism at the country’s oldest and biggest higher learning institution—Addis Ababa University. He received his first degree in English Language and Literature from Kotebe College of Teachers Education and his MA in Media and Communication Studies from EFLU. Later on, Negeri attended a PhD program in Journalism and Mass Communication at Andhra University India, and went on to teach at AAU. Before assuming the ministerial position, Negeri was noticeably active in matters pertaining to the journalism profession, writing papers and debating ideas regarding the nascent media industry in Ethiopia; he was also a regular commentator on both the print and broadcast outlets in Ethiopia. Few months since his appointment to his current position, Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat with the chief spokesperson to discuss current affairs and some of the recent measures taken by his government. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Some 37 government officials, investors and well-connected go-betweens (brokers) were apprehended this week for corruption related charges. However, judging by some of the names in the detainees list some commentators claims that it is not a genuine crackdown on corruption; rather it is to divert the attention of the public from some of recent public uproars. How do you respond to that?
Negeri Lencho (PhD): It is true that there are a number of people who are saying these things, especially in the social media platforms. However, this is a very wrong perception. This perception emanates from groups who are working tirelessly to diminish the trust of the public on the government. They have been doing this for quite some time now. They been known to use social media outlets primarily; but really they employ any kind of media platform, whether it is electronic or print or satellite based broadcast outlets to try to destabilize the country.
However, the fact is to the contrary; the government is not taking these or any other measures to divert the public’s attentions from the real issues. Because when you look at the measures, you can see that the government took the measures based on a detailed investigation and the evidence gathered in the process, which takes a long period of time to accomplish. First of all, the latest round of arrests is mostly based on the report of the Federal Auditor General, which it had complied in the course of the past year. If we look at the current problems related with the issue of tax collection, it is a very recent matter which emerged just a week or so before.
Therefore, the detention and the recent public outcry have nothing to do with one another; and certainly the former is not designed to divert attention from current affairs. How can such sentiments convince the public since corruption is a very complicated case and requires time to prepare? The individuals who are detained currently are mostly officials who are trusted by the government to undertake the overall activities of the state and with the responsibility of mobilizing billons of birr on behalf of the government. Some of these individuals are also among the longest serving officials in the country. So how can the government detain such personalities just to divert the public’s attention; it is not a convincing argument for any one.
This is pure propaganda and an effort by some groups who could not seize governmental power via peaceful means; this is a desperate strategy to win the hearts of the public and to destabilize the country based on their baseless rumors.
But, such sentiments are reinforced by the perception that whenever there is a crack down on corrupt officials those who end up in jail are mostly midlevel officials. With a very few exceptions so far, ministers and high-ranking officials are not subject to such scrutiny. Does this mean that politicians at ministerial level are immune to corruption case? Or is it the case that it is dangerous to detain high-profile politicians? Are they untouchables?
We have to review this argument carefully. If we are saying there is no detained minister so far, then it would be false. As I have mentioned earlier, such assertions are the result of mistrust for any measures taken by the government. The other thing that we have to consider is that when we say mid-level officials some of these people are very close to the ministerial post; some are even more prominent since they are in charge of mobilizing billions of birr on behalf of the government.
So, the public should be made aware of that. On different note, if we have adequate evidence to incarcerate ministers we do just that; nobody will be set free having been involved in any corruption activities. Whether it is a minster or official of regional governments nobody is above the law. So, measures will be taken based only on the law of the country.
The State of Emergency (SoE) which was declared early this year after the stamped in Irrecha celebration and was extended for another four months will expire after one week. So, what would the government do regarding the SoE? Is it going to be extended or lifted? And, similarly what are the achievements of the SoE so far?
We have to recall the situation that led to the issuance of the State of Emergency which was the hijacking of the lawful questions of the public in some parts of the country, especially Oromia, Amhara and Southern Ethiopia, by anti peace elements. Initially, the peaceful protests and the legitimate questions of the public were not a threat to the government; however, through time these questions lost their way and started to pose a threat to the entire country. It is well known that there were other actors who were hiding behind the question of the public.
The government too admitted that it needs to reform many of its governmental activities to bring about good governance throughout the country in the ruling party’s meeting held in Mekele two years ago. The government was pioneer in this regard staging these questions even before the public. While the government was busy reforming its massive governmental systems and administrations such turmoil was nowhere to be found. Hence, the government identified its own problems even before the public decided to go out to the streets in some parts of the country; and was engaging the public to take measures.
Though the government was doing its best to address the issues, some problems like the tragic death of citizens at the Irrecha Celebration in Bishoftu took place and it was a triggering point for the declaration of the SoE. Since the victims of these turmoil were to be each and every citizens of the country eventually the government has to control the situation. It was very difficult to move from place to place, to go to school and so on. Legitimate questions of the public were just and proper by their own; but groups with an agenda to destabilize the country hijacked the whole process.
Therefore, through the declaration of the SoE, the government was able to restore peace and stability in Ethiopia. It is in this regard that we have to measure its achievement. Therefore, the main success story which was attributed to the SoE is the psychological stability of the public to a point of rendering its day-to-day activities as usual and for students to focus solely on their education. According to the recent report by the secretariat of the command post, the situation now is calm and under control and the security is transferred to the normal security apparatus in these regions. Regarding whether the SoE will be extended or lifted it will be decided by the parliament.
But the parliament is now on its annual break; so will there be an emergency session to decide on the matter? Or is it going to wait for the reopening of the parliament in September?
There is no problem to call an emergency session if need be; therefore, the SoE will have to wait for the parliament to deliberate on the issue.
The recently announced tax assessment for category “C” tax payers is another issue which has created weaves in the country; especially in Addis Ababa and Oromia Regions. In this regard, many are saying that the tax assessment process is unfair and lacks transparency. So, why has the government failed to discuss the issue with stakeholders properly before announcing? What is the government doing currently to address the question of the business community?
Generally speaking, it is inappropriate to conclude that the process was not transparent from the very beginning since the pertinent bodies of the government has conducted a research on the issue for a long period of time. Previously, tax was collected in Oromia Region based on an assessment conducted nine years ago; in Addis Ababa it was based on an assessment conducted before six years. The basic thing that we need to take into consideration is the fact that the country has registered a massive development these years and therefore business too has registered growth.
Hence, it stands to reason that tax levels should also rise. However, when it is implemented some officers who are assigned to this task either because of laziness or attitudinal problems made some mistakes. In relation to transparency, of course there has to be a discussion between the business community and the government; I hope there were some in some places. In this regard, we can’t dare say it was transparent all in all. Had it been discussed thoroughly prior to its implementation, the outcome might have been different; better. Currently, the government is doing its best to address the issue. In this regard, among thousands of complaints presented by the business community, the government had accepted many of them and has already given solutions to the majority of these complaints.
This means that the assessment was not proper. But, this was not the intention of the government. We can’t sustain our growth and development based on assistance and aid from outside sources; therefore, we have to gradually increase our tax collection capacity and our tax revenue eventually. This was the sole desire of the government. Failure to apply modern technologies in tax collection is also another problem. Therefore, the government is trying to sort out the problems and fill in the gaps swiftly.
After a very long delay, recently 1200 40/60 condominium houses were finally transferred to owners. However, there were some mismatches between the initial contractual agreement and the houses delivered. For instance, four bedroom houses were built while one bed room unites were scrapped irrespective of the contractual stipulation. In this regard, who is going to be held accountable and responsible for the mismatch and don’t you think such kind of mismatches is what is eroding the trust of the public over the government?
When some officials fail to deliver on their tasks it generally destroys the goodwill of the government. The government is not accepting such mismatches; therefore, those who are responsible will be held accountable. However, what we have to bear in mind is that the government doesn’t want this to happen. This information was not disclosed to some of the official until the project has progressed far ahead. This shows that there were gaps in supervision. This should not have happen in the first place, but it is a very good lesson for the future.
Regarding the trust issue, first of all, it should be clear and known to the public that this is not done deliberately by the government; but those responsible individuals failed to comply with their responsibility and they will be held accountable for that. And there has to be a compensation scheme for the citizens who suffered due to the mismatch. The government is committed to do this.
How about the price? The initial cost of the houses has increased dramatically. When there is a failure in contractual agreement between individuals or between individuals and companies the case will be sort out in the court, but now the contract is between the government and the public so how does the public defend its contractual right? What do you say on this?
I don’t have the details concerning the increment in the price of the houses. However, in my view, the price increment has its own reasons and justifications. The question is related with time; the pricing method might not be that proper from the very beginning. Some of the items might have to be imported and since the exchange rate is not static it will increase the cost; these and other realities on the ground are responsible for the increment of the price.
But the project was planned to be complete in 18 months. The delay is from the side of the government. So, why should the homebuyers share the burden of the government?
I don’t think the delay is created deliberately; it has its own reason. In some instances, there are a gap between the demand and supply. The plan was based on the problem; the demand from the side of the public was quite high. Therefore, the government planned to address this problem with project. However, as the plans entered into implementation there might be some gaps, which will be identified through time.
By Neamin Ashenafi