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PoliticsParliament – from tumultuous start to quiet recess

Parliament – from tumultuous start to quiet recess

“I have been in this house for the past two terms. Now I find it painful to listen to the same kind of report year after year, filled with the same kind of irregularities and faults, which keep on worsening; yet we hope to get improved,” MP Mulu Gebregziabher said last May following the report by the Auditor General to the House of People’s Representatives (HPR).

In a more frustrating tone, the MP pleaded with the house to take “serious” measures against government functionaries who fail to take corrective measures for wrongdoings and misappropriation of budgets as per the findings of the report as well as recommendation given by lawmakers.

There were other MPs who aired similar concerns at the same session after the audit report exposed misappropriation of budgets to the tune of billions of birr, financial irregularities as well as poor project execution in several government institutions.

This year’s Auditor General’s report of government institutions’ keeping on misusing of their budgets and ineptitude was, of course, not an isolated case, and MPs have been hearing it at least in the past two parliamentary terms. What made them, however, more disappointed and distasted this time around is that the more the legislative body fails to bring about improvements at audited institutions year to year, the more questions it would draw against the house’s power either to control or influence the executive branch. This was highlighted during the recently concluded parliamentary year.

An inauspicious start

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It was two weeks ago that the second year of the fifth parliamentary term ended its regular session for Ethiopian fiscal year 2009 (2016/17) after approving next fiscal year’s budget of 321 billion birr. During the three-month-long recess, MPs are normally expected to head to their respective communities to meet constituents while others may opt to stay here in Addis. But, unlike past parliamentary terms under the EPRDF, the just concluded parliamentary year could hardly be compared to the previous years, at least at its beginning.

This year’s regular session kicked off in the wake of widespread public protests in some parts of Oromia and Amhara as well as another inter-tribal deadly attack in Gedeo zone of southern Ethiopia. According to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the protests and clashes resulted in some 669 deaths, injuries sustained by over 1,000 protesters and security forces and arrest of tens of thousands in the three months before parliament resumed its regular sessions for fiscal year 2009. Worse, parliament’s opening was overshadowed by the tragic deaths of some 23 inmates who died following a fire that engulfed Kilinto Prison while more than 54 pilgrims were trampled to death during Irrecha (Oromo Thanksgiving ceremony) in Bishoftu. The stampede reportedly followed the firing of teargas at protesters at the opening of the ceremony in late September.

Hence, the very opening day of this year’s regular session of parliament, presided over by President Mulatu Teshome (PhD), had as its highlight a moment of silence in memory of those who perished during the Irrecha celebration.

Delivering a speech before the joint houses of parliament, the president outlined major tasks ahead as well as potential pieces of legislation to be enacted during the year. Among critical issues pinpointed in the president’s remark include the amendment of the controversial electoral law, expanding the political landscape, which is usually criticized for excluding opposition groups. Another legislative issue outlined in his remark was a new draft law on the special constitutional rights and benefits that Oromia would draw from Addis Ababa

Among the major legislative agendas that the house accomplished early on was the historic measure of declaring a state of emergency (SoE) after the Council of Ministers proposed it with a view to containing the ever-spreading protest. It was the first time ever that the incumbent government enacted a SoE decree in its 26-year tenure. The decree was originally supposed to last for a period of six months before it was extended for four months. However, the house was already in recess for three weeks by the time the extended SoE expired. Along with the SoE decree, the house established a seven-member SoE implementation inquiry board chaired by MP Tadesse Hordofa who is also the head of the house’s Higher Education Affairs Standing Committee.

Next on the house’s to-do list was approving a new cabinet nominated by the prime minister. Presenting his nominees, the PM told the house that his cabinet reshuffling was part and parcel of what his government “would do to address issues of maladministration and related critical issues” that, he said, were contributing factors for public grievances as well as widespread protests.

In an unprecedented move by the ruling party, the PM introduced some 12 new ministers and replaced six ministers from his old cabinet.

The house, which began this year’s session with some seemingly insurmountable challenges, ended its deliberations by endorsing a total of 68 draft bills.  The pieces of legislation that the MPs passed, with no inputs from a representative from an opposition party or a different voice, are comprised of partial draft bills to amend existing proclamations and some partial new legislations while more than half of them were draft bills which were presented to endorse loan agreements that the government had signed with various foreign lenders, mostly to finance industry parks, road projects, various infrastructure facilities, health care as well as mega projects the governments is undertaking.

Furthermore, as per its constitutional mandate, the house has also been allocating considerable portion of its time for hearing performance reports of various government offices while some time was also allocated (both during the regular sessions and in a meeting called by standing committees) for question-and-answer sessions when it needed to call officials to look into their respective sectors and responsibilities.

However, there were a number of sessions which could be given more weight or viewed quite differently either for inviting vigorous debates among MPs or for their clamorous reception among the public.

For instance, the commissioner of EHRC, Addisu Gebregziabher (PhD), presented reports before the house twice after undertaking separate investigations. The first one is the investigation to look into the causes of the fire accident that occurred in Kilinto Prison, resulting in the death of 23 inmates. Meanwhile, the second investigation was carried out to determine the causes and effects (deaths, injuries, arrest, breach of human rights) and find out whether security forces used excessive force while trying to control the deadly violence in Oromia and Amhara regions as well as the Gedeo zone of southern Ethiopia.

Apart from minor recommendations that prison administration should have taken precautionary measures before the fire accident, the commission found the action taken by security forces to control escaping prisoners was proportionate. Meanwhile, in the second report, the commission has come with surprising findings that it determined unnecessary or disproportionate measures have been taken by security forces, particularly during the anti-riot operations that were conducted in several places of Oromia and Amhara. In his report, Addisu revealed that there were 669 deaths (606 were civilians while 63 were members of the security forces), around 918 injured people as well as tens of thousands detainees (of which most were released following rehabilitation).

It was also in the same findings that the commission reported to the house that out of the total civilians deaths, 131 of were killed by the use of excessive force while out of the total of 918 people who were injured in the three regions, 123 injuries were caused by unnecessary or disproportionate use of force. The commission then recommended that the house take action so responsible parties answer for killings and causing injuries. Similarly, there are still other responsible individuals and groups that the commission’s investigations determined for having failed to take remedial actions before the deadly protest while others, mainly foreign-based activists, were accused of fueling the protest as well as hijacking public grievance. The commission’s findings and recommendations were also fully endorsed by the house. The house then overwhelmingly passed the same resolution that has reinforced the commission’s findings and extended its call for the government measure to bring those responsible individuals, officials as well as groups before justice.

Unfortunately, the house ended its session having seen no legal action taken by the government thought it had passed resolutions four months before the recess.

This, however, was one of the biggest blows for lawmakers whose legislative power (check and balance) saw that there is nothing to out-muscle the executive body.

A pain-killer for a grave diagnosis?

The same incidents have been witnessed in the just-ended parliamentary year which also proved the constitutionally granted power the legislative body is thought to have can bring no influence against the power that the executive body wields no matter the provisions of the constitution. The incident is proved when the Office of the Auditor General presented its 2008 report that exposed billions of budget misuse, financial irregularities as well as other shortcomings both in financial regularity audit as we as in performance audit. What makes the audit report more surprising for MPs is not only about the similarities of reports that had been presented in five or six previous years with no improvements, but also the recommendations as well as resolutions that the house has been passing brought no difference.

It was because of these audit findings that MPs such as Mulu and her colleagues raise their concerns that they were being sick and tired of the audit findings despite commending Auditor General Gemechis Dubiso and his institution for their “brave” findings and ever growing commitment and efficiency.

Over the past few years, there has been a strong call both from the Auditor General as well as from lawmakers for actions against institutions who were repeatedly found guilty of financial irregularities.

However, their call seems to be falling on deaf ears, as the government remains reluctant to take corrective measures. Nor it is common to see the government taking action, which is no more than switching officials from one institution to another. It is just like continually prescribing a pain-killer for a grave diagnosis instead of finding a more effective cure.

That’s why the same cry has been echoed this year too, as MPs also told House Speaker Abadula Gemeda that the house should take stricter action against offending institutions in accordance with the duties and responsibilities vested upon it by the constitution.

“The Office of the Auditor General has really proved to be the right hand of the house,” one of the few outspoken MPs, Mulu, said in May.

Addressing the speaker, she said, “Such a reckless game has to stop.”

But she also underlined that, “We are also accountable for such continued financial irregularities.”

Another notable figure in the house, Tesfaye Daba, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Standing Committee, on his part, said, “We are tired of listening to such kind of reports, and we should take action.”

Similar findings and outstanding issues were noticed during the parliamentary year among various ministerial offices, state enterprises as well as in the justice system. These issues were treated during the parliamentary sessions either with no progress or little progress from the states they had been in the previous years.

Meanwhile, despite such outstanding issues prevailing in the house from year to year, the speaker commended the year’s performance as successful in many ways.

In a final report to the house, Abadula said that the house has performed really well in most of the areas that it was engaged in.

“With a well-coordinated monitoring supervision, it has been able to achieve the goals we have set as per GTP II,” he told MPs.

However, there were some pieces of legislation which were supposed to be tabled this years but were not realized. Among them was the country’s existing electoral law that was mentioned in the president’s remarks as he opened parliament in September. In fact, currently the ruling party is involved in working out modalities for negotiation with some 20 opposition political groups. The electoral law is expected to be one contentious issue in the future before the parties jump to regular negotiations.

But the other major legislation that was presented to the house is the draft bill to decide the constitutional benefits Oromia can draw from Addis Ababa. This draft was not approved by the house. It was referred to a standing committee that would have sufficient time at its disposal to involve various stakeholders in revisions and discussions. But the draft bill did not take long time to stir heated debate among the public the moment it was endorsed by the Council of Ministers.

One more important development, in addition to its regular tasks and duties that parliament has undertaken over the year, is the purchase and distribution of tablets to all MPs.

It was said that this is aimed at realizing information technology to assist the house’s activities with digital aids and at the same time minimizing costs related to stationery. However, most PMs have been seen having hard time working on their tablet applications despite claims that they have been given basic training.

By Yonas Abiye

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