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The practice of corruption in Ethiopia is not an act of individuals, it is a phenomenon which constitutes the bigger part of the nation’s institutional structure

Tsedale Lemma &Emnet Assefa

Beginning of May this year was no ordinary month for Ethiopia’s anti-graft body, the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC). For the second time in its history of a little over a decade, it rounded up senior government officials and civil servants, this time from the national revenue authority as well as private business people, into police custody and charged most with grand corruption of varying categories.

What followed next was natural: a public uproar partly because the authorities arrested were from a state institution whose ineffective bureaucracy and a towering presence made life for millions of Ethiopians unbearable, and partly because many felt the act by the anti-graft body was just a cosmetic practice of clipping the tiny wings of a widespread and deep rooted tree; not to mention the assumption by many that politicians are corrupt once they have fallen out of love and out of favor with the power that be.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the debate surrounding the arrests and charging of the officials and the business people who are accused of sleeping in one bed is shaping up to two narrow explanations: whether or not the anti-graft body will push its cases deep and wide; or whether or not its latest decision brings any result that remotely resembles a closure to the increasing rent seeking manners and sense of impunity seen amongst some senior government officials and powerful private business people.

Not an overnight affair

But this public discourse is missing out on the bigger picture of the rotten heart of corruption in Ethiopia, which, by any standard, is not an overnight making but something that has gradually become institutionalized. Nor can it be attributed solely to the few corrupt individuals with chances to embezzle millions worth of public resources but had the misfortunes of being caught.

To its credit, over the past two decades the government in Ethiopia has built its reputation not only for its curiosity but its heavy handedness to end the widespread poverty the country is known for globally. When it came to power in 1991 it had inherited nothing but a command economy, a bunch of disfigured state institutions, some of which needed a complete rebirth while most were in urgent need of reform.

Unable to achieve a meaningful result economically in the decade that followed, the government had undergone through a major policy shift beginning from the early 2000s by introducing a ‘democratic developmental state’ concept, which puts it in the steering wheel of almost everything, and which it thinks is somehow shaped after East Asian states like China and South Korea.

This major shift in policy is driven by envy of the economic successes in countries in East Asia, and Ethiopian leaders’ gradual distaste for the ideologies of a slack, free market economy (neo-liberalism as they fervently refer to it). However, although the government proclaimed to establish a meaningful relationship with the private sector and the general public in order to materialize its dream of establishing a ‘democratic developmental state’, in practice it took it only, and only, upon itself to fix the economy (assuming infinite authority to intervene in every aspect whenever it sees it fit) and reform public institutions at the same time – crafting and enforcing laws, policies and directives that govern most of its civil services (during which it gradually but effectively isolated the general public from having any say). Owing to a severe split within the party due to its policy shift, it also started to staff its civil services with party loyalists at the higher and middle level than professionals; and kept a large number of its hard working civil servants at the lower level miserably paid and constantly threatened to enroll as party members as a major incentive.  Faced with political dilemma and high levels of inflation on top, millions of civil servants simply resorted into corrupt practices to feed their families and send their kids to school. Today a decade down the line the country ended up having notorious institutions where millions worth of public resources are embezzled every day, such as the revenue office, public procurement and land administration departments and trade and trade related offices, all under the government’s tight grip.

The recent decision by Ethiopia’s anti-graft body to round up and jail individuals suspected of corruption from one of these institutions should therefore come as welcome news to the nation. It should also send a stern warning to those whose millions of worth businesses are as good as the last glass of whiskey they shared with authorities they cozy up with at posh bars in the city. But it is no way to trim down, let alone eliminate, the practice of corruption for two fundamental reasons.

First, one of the biggest misconceptions about corruption busts so grand like this is that drastic measures can bring in the much needed result in a flash. Although culprits should not go unpunished, no country in the world has been successful in punishing a systematic situation the same and usual way of using law enforcement like other crimes. The second is the culture of taking individuals under custody as the only ones to blame. Institutional corruption is not an act of individuals; it is a system that should not be confused with consequences to individuals.

Ethiopia is its own best example. Since the mid 1990s it has charged and convicted with corruption some of its politicians who were larger than life (see filler below). But the truth remains, neither those drastic measures, nor the single handed blames and a punishment on those few individuals has helped the practice of corruption to fade away.

Made-in-state antidote

No one believes the job of fixing institutions from the scratch to be an easy one, less so in barely two decades; and yet today’s Ethiopia has come far in building a semi-effective institutional bureaucracy. In the past ten years alone, the government has tried to create and recreate a competent institution tasked to reform the nation’s inept civil cervices. Two years ago, as part of this effort the government merged the then civil service agency and the ministry of capacity building to recreate what is today known as the ministry of civil service.

In a 2006 speech presented to the Africa task force comprised of leading economists and academicians in Brooks World Poverty Institute, Manchester University, UK, Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had candidly admitted, “building the institutions and sharpening the policy instruments can only be done in the process of implementing the [developmental state] paradigm which means that it takes time, and that it is, sometimes, difficult to avoid very costly mistakes.”

But after a number of decade old trials, and a relatively fresh ministry tasked to oversee changes it is now time the country’s institutions see a meaningful reform to create effective administrative capacity and efficient bureaucratic structure in the country.

Naturally that should start from revisiting the human resource departments of each institution –  re-equipping them with competent (and not party loyal) leadership at the higher level, skilled professionals at the middle level, and paying the hard-working ordinary civil servants enough to survive without resorting into petty and grand corruption alike. But most importantly, bringing the forgotten public as a useful stakeholder during the process.

But before this all happens, the ministry itself should be fit enough to administer such nationwide antidotes, which, in effect, means it needs to go through the same treatment that it wants to administer on others – cleaning up its own house first and setting a clear example for others second. 

Corrupt and  be damned

History of big corruption busts in Ethiopia

 

1995 Tamerat Layne et.al  Position: Prime Minster during the Transitional government in early 90s.  Crime: Corruption and embezzlement of public property, stashing in 18 million USD of state fund to his Swizz bank account Verdict: 18 years, released after serving 14 years
1995
Tamerat Layne et.al
Position: Prime Minster during the Transitional government in early 90s.
Crime: Corruption and embezzlement of public property, stashing in 18 million USD of state fund to his Swizz bank account
Verdict: 18 years, released after serving 14 years

Abate Kisho et.al

Position: President of the South Ethiopian Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State

Crime:  placed illegal order for the bureaus of Works and Urban Development and Natural Resource and Environmental protection to buy equipment worth of 15 million USD

Verdict: jailed for 6 years

 

2002 Siye Abreha et.al  Position: Former Minister of Defence and Chairman of the Board of Directors at Ethiopian Airlines and CEO of the powerful Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT).  Crime: embezzlement of public money and abuse of office by aiding family members obtain bank loans.   Verdict: served six years before some of the charges were dropped in 2007 and he was set free by a court
2002
Siye Abreha et.al
Position: Former Minister of Defence and Chairman of the Board of Directors at Ethiopian Airlines and CEO of the powerful Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT).
Crime: embezzlement of public money and abuse of office by aiding family members obtain bank loans.
Verdict: served six years before some of the charges were dropped in 2007 and he was set free by a court

 

2010 Tesfaye Birru(Phd) et.al  Position: Former CEO of the state giant Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation  Crime: corruption over the awarding of a contract for the installation of a mobile network, violation of the bid document in awarding a tender leading the corporation to lose 1.5 billion Br. Verdict: nine years and six months, serving prison.
2010
Tesfaye Birru(Phd) et.al
Position: Former CEO of the state giant Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation
Crime: corruption over the awarding of a contract for the installation of a mobile network, violation of the bid document in awarding a tender leading the corporation to lose 1.5 billion Br.
Verdict: nine years and six months, serving prison.

 

2011 Yaregal Aysheshem et.al  Position: Former president of Benishangul Gumze Regional State and director general of the Federal Cooperative Agency (during his arrest).  Crime: Embezzled a federal subsidy allocated for the construction of girls boarding school, teacher’s education and training centre and Assosa Technical and vocational institute, illegally acquired land in Addis Ababa and in the Benishangul Gumze region   Verdict: case pending
2011
Yaregal Aysheshem et.al
Position: Former president of Benishangul Gumze Regional State and director general of the Federal Cooperative Agency (during his arrest).
Crime: Embezzled a federal subsidy allocated for the construction of girls boarding school, teacher’s education and training centre and Assosa Technical and vocational institute, illegally acquired land in Addis Ababa and in the Benishangul Gumze region
Verdict: case pending
2013 Melaku Fenta  et.al  Position: General Director of Customs and Revenue Authority Crime: Conspiring with court to drop charges of corruption against private business people     Verdict : Case under investigation
2013
Melaku Fenta et.al
Position: General Director of Customs and Revenue Authority
Crime: Conspiring with court to drop charges of corruption against private business people
Verdict : Case under investigation
2013 Gebrewahed Woldegiorgis et.al  Position: Deputy General Director of Revenue and Customs Authority Crime: Corruption, acquiring of land illegally     Verdict: Case Under Investigation
2013
Gebrewahed Woldegiorgis et.al
Position: Deputy General Director of Revenue and Customs Authority
Crime: Corruption, acquiring of land illegally
Verdict: Case Under Investigation

Checks and balances

According to a report from Ethiopia’s decade old anti-graft body, the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission (FEACC), the Commission has recovered more than

21 million Birr and other assets that were lost to corruption in the last 10 months only. The assets recovered included cash, buildings, land, and other properties.

According to FEACC, of the confiscated assets 21,096,806 Birr (in cash), 1,945 square meter of land, three tusks, four buildings and 23 blackberry cell phones (worth 195, 000 Birr) were returned to the lawful owner, which is the Government. 

In this period FEACC has won 23 cases, including the above-mentioned ones.

As for the restraining of alleged proceeds of corruption, the Commission completed the restraining of 128,709 square meter of land, 28 vehicles, 60 residential houses, eight business organizations, and 3,012,332.69 Birr in cash.

The investigations of 339 files were finalized and verdicts were given on 164 files, 144 of which were decided in favour of the Commission. Out of the 409 defendants that were brought to court in the last ten months, 293 of them were convicted.

 And yet, Ethiopia is ranked 113 out of 176 most corrupt countries worldwide, according to Transparency International’s 2012 report

 

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