Suddenly, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)-led government has found itself in the middle of a chaotic period. By the party’s own admission public disapproval of the current political order has hit an all time low in the past decade or so. Public uproar, political unrest and threats and actual organized strikes appear to be on the rise. Member parties and regional state administrations are sacking top political leaders left and right. But some in the government and the public question if these move would bring structural changes, writes Asrat Seyoum.
What makes the current political avalanche unique is that it has to do with the primary job of the government; of any government for that matter—governance. It looks like the government has flunked its major course and the public has the report card.
In spite of the twelve-year double-digit economic success, recent surge of maladministration and corruption has tainted the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF’s) track record locally; in manner of speaking the ruling party’s approval rating, whatever it was in the past, has plummeted fast in the past few months. Taking the academic record analogy a step further, the huge deficit in good governance looks to be pulling down on the party’s cumulative average and it looks that only a limited window of opportunity is there to reverse this trend.
The story of the EPRDF-led developmental state is rather short; yet it is highly eventful. For one, it is one of the few states in the world where perplexities of a rosy economic prospect and tainted democratic and human rights track record has co-integrated for more than 15 years. The shorter version of this story goes like this.
In the year 2001, the party went through one of the major milestones in its history by undergoing an all-out renewal process where it has finally landed in deciding that developmental way is the only way forward. This decision entailed convincing local and international critics and partners of the need to establish an activist and growth promoting government that wields unchecked policy formulation, market distorting and resource allocating power.
As the saying goes “with great power comes great responsibility”. And, the party has to convince the world that it is up to the task; and that it has the commitment and the human resources to put this great resource allocating discretion to a good use. Shortly afterwards, the developmental government under the stewardship of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi got the wheels of one of the most stagnated economies of the East African region rolling.
Fast forward to 2016, Abay Tsehaye, a seasoned politician and director general of the Ethiopian Policy Study and Research Center (EPSRC), called upon the top political leadership of the country – congregated at the Office of the Prime Minister – to discuss growing concerns over the deficit of good governance, to revisit some of the underlying assumption in the developmental state setup, mainly the huge discretionary power that is accorded to the leaders of the public sector and the bureaucracy. Abay’s concern was the growing trend of abuse of discretionary power that is given to leaders of the government machinery. “We are being letdown by rent-seekers and corrupt political leaders in our own party; and we have to rethink the things that we take for granted and strengthen our system of checks and balances in lieu of the opaque trust system we had in place,” Abay appealed to his colleagues.
In all fairness, Abay’s paradigm discussion of strengthening checks and balances and control mechanisms stood in a stark contrast to the long-held approach of the nurturing developmental forces by successively investing on behavior altering and attitude changing training packages. Culturally, EPRDF’s silver bullet for most political problems in the party has been an intense assessment and evaluation process. And usually, this would incorporate deep self-criticism and evaluation of the party and each individual member. These self-reflections in turn are followed by another process of christening and rebirth, of either the party or the individual members.
Nevertheless, Abay’s frustration was well warranted given the recent emergence of rent-seeking attitudes among the party and the political leadership resulting in the worst record of good governance in years. “We can’t wait for behavioral changes to take effect in our leadership and bureaucracy; meanwhile, we have to strengthen our control mechanisms and limit the discretionary power,” he argued.
The forum, which was aired on the national television or at least an edited version of it, was telling as to how concerning the issue of good governance has become for the EPRDF leadership. What was commonly echoed in the good governance forum was that the issue is now a threat to the nation. According to Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, it is absolutely critical that the top leadership of the EPRDF and the government reach a consensus regarding the depth of the good governance deficit in Ethiopia.
Tagesse Chaffo, head of the Capacity Building and Good Governance Department at EPSRC, a specialized government policy think-tank, says that the good governance survey which served as source document for the discussion in the forum was commissioned for the very reason that there is lack of consensus regarding extent of governance challenge in Ethiopia. “Everybody admits that there is good governance deficit but no one is willing to shoulder the blame,” Tagesse told The Reporter in an exclusive interview. The empirical survey provided that needed break to build consensus among the leadership, according to Tagesse.
According to sources close to the matter, the survey has sent shock waves across the party machinery, and especially among those at the top of the political hierarchy. But, the phenomenon is highly surprising since the debate regarding the prudence of the politicians making up the developmental state machinery was there from the very beginning.
The chief advocate of the developmental state, the late PM, fought tooth and nail to justify an activist state as opposed to the night watchman state that the free market world supports. He argued that there will be adequate number of well-behaved politicians whose primary focus would be development and not rent-seeking to sustain and the developmental state and the great power that will be bestowed on it.
Self interest maximization being primary attribute of human behavior, a number of scholars downplayed the proposal of powerful and activist state on the grounds of nurturing another predatory and corrupt state structure, African style. Meles has placed great hope on his colleagues in a sense that they would not fail prey to the rent-seeking trap. One would say that his worst nightmare has now come true.
By the admission of the EPRDF–including the chairman and prime minister–the pressure from rent-seeking forces has now pushed into a corner whatever honest developmentalist element left in the party. “The party has to start to cleanse itself soon and this should also extend to affiliate organizations,” Tagesse says. Although he argues that he has faith in the strong developmental direction of the party, Tagesse is never in denial when it comes to the difficult terrains that party is facing to achieve this.
Thus far, the four regions that the good governance survey had incorporated had started to takes steps towards this most talked about “self cleansing” process. Tagesse says one of the boldly put conclusions of the good governance survey was about the need to ensure accountability among the leadership and bureaucracy. “We clearly stated that self-criticisms and repentance is not enough; there need to be accountability and answering to the actions that one has taken,” he explained. We have then worked with agencies and regional state structure which we have surveyed and asked them to prepare detail plan to address the problem. “As reported in various media outlets, regions states have and leading parties in these state have already started assigning accountability and cleansing the bureaucracy,” Tagesse said.
According to sources, the Amhara Regional State, which was rocked by intense political turmoil last month, has sacked some 2,500 mid-level political leaders followed by the Tigray Regional State which also let go some 1,500 and the Addis Ababa City Administration parting ways with 600 city officials. The reports also indicate that measures include suspension, complete dismissal and even a series of legal actions.
This came after the official announcement of the federal government about the launch of a good governance movement, campaign solely focused on ensuring accountability for deficit in governance at various levels. However, the overall approach to this problem was just as debatable as the problem itself.
In fact, the attack strategy was widely discussed at the good governance forum. Largely, there were two alternate strategies: campaigning and system overhaul. Getachew Reda, head of Government Communications Affairs Office, appeared to be worried from the outset that the survey and its recommendations have not clearly decoupled the issues which are largely systemic from those which are anecdotal observations.
“We should be careful not got into a wild goose chase; first it would be wise to identify our systemic flaws and fix them,” he said. Nevertheless, Abay and a few others were of the view that this time around campaign and grass-root movements would be appropriate to tackle the good governance problem. “The problem is far more deep-rooted,” Abay says with a long pause. And that it cannot be uprooted by campaigning or by firing few people here and there.
In fact, the public and scholars alike argue that the recent moves of removing some officials amount to nothing but “putting out the fire” as it has an effect which could not resonate further than few months. Gebru Asrat, founder of Arena-Tigray for Democracy and Sovereignty and ex-TPLF central committee member and president of the Tigray Regional State, is of the same view. He says that making personnel changes is less likely to put a dent into the deep-root good governance problem since there will always be another one waiting in line to do their share of the damage.
Judging by their argument at the good governance forum, both the PM and Bereket Simon, advisor minister to the PM, are adamant about the need to kick-start the response to the problem by designing a county-wide campaign and movement. For one, Bereket argues that given the advanced nature of the problem short-term response is of utmost importance both to sweep clean the governmental structure of rent-seekers and provide an impetus that is needed to get the public on board with the fight against lack of good governance.
Tagesse, on his part, argues that one of primary recommendations of the survey was about increasing the participation of the public in the policymaking process. “We have underscored that the modality of public participation should be real not just pseudo system where we will be using the public just to endorse the laws and policies that we drafted,” he said. This has to stop and a formalized system should be put in place to solicit feedback from the public, he explains. “Currently, we have conducting a study to put a concrete system where public participation would be enhanced; it will be ready in less than three months,” Tagesse told The Reporter.
Taking the land administration system as a specific example Abay argues that it is rather the government’s own rules and procedures that have left the door open for all kinds of abuse and for the emergence of deep-rooted patronage and clientelelistic networks. Although Abay recognizes the fact that those in the government’s own structure are the ones who are working with rent-seekers, he says the source of the problem rests not on individuals but on the system itself.
For instance, is it not our crippled system which could not ensure transparent and adequate supply of land for investment that is making us vulnerable to rent-seekers, he asks. According to his logic, the unjustifiable scarcity of land created by the system is contributing to the distortion of prices and by extension opening the door for rent-seeking.
Abay is of the view that basic assumption of the government when it comes to placing its trust on the bureaucracy has to be revisited. Such assumptions as “well-sanitized” and “well-studied” political cadres are immune to temptation of rent-seeking would not work as the economy starts to become more complex. Tagesse also agrees that some of the measures taken should be institutionalized since the challenge would only get tougher as the economy grows in the futures.
“Nowhere in world is trust the rule of the game,” Abay argues. In fact, the standard rule is that ‘nothing should be left at the discretion of the bureaucrat or civil servant’. But in Ethiopia we work with trust and it is time things start changing, according to his argument.
Nevertheless, with control and tight checks and balances, the leading question that is emerging is how the government would act on the outcomes of the checks and balances system. This is especially concerning when it comes to political loyalty and support that most government officials had. The question remains if an effective checks and balances system would be able to remove those government officials who have unflinching political backing in their parties.
This brings the discussion to the merit of considering political loyalty when appointing government officials and servicemen in the public sector.
The assignment of officials in various parts of the country is also another observation that prompted the survey team to recommend a strong consideration to merit while assigning officials posts. This is perhaps one of the areas where the EPRDF has been severely criticized for almost two decades now. The host of bureaucratic jobs in Ethiopia still goes to party loyalists as the party openly defends its policy of attaching greater importance to political loyalty while conducting government business. According to Tagesse, who coordinated the survey, merit has to start carrying much larger weight although he argues political loyalty should still be considered.
There are political personalities like Lidetu Ayalew, former president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), who argues that the EPRDF will likely lose the battle against lack of good governance and corruption judging by the approach that is pursued by the party. According to Lidetu, the issue of good governance is not a mere economic and public service delivery issue; rather it is about accommodating diversity of opinion and by extension about democratic rights. But, the party has still not located the source of the problem and result would most likely be suboptimal, he opines.