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The worst enemy threatening Ethiopia’s otherwise well-built looking ruling party comes from within

 Tesfalem Waldyes and Tsedale Lemma

 

In mid April 2012, Bahir Dar, a lakeside city 578 km north of Addis Ababa and the capital of the Amhara regional state, has comfortably hosted the Tana High Level Security Forum in Africa, the first of its kind international conference attended by a few former and serving African head of states including Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo. Nearly a year later, it hosted the 9th Congress of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a league of four regional and ethnic based parties that make up Ethiopia’s ruling government. More than 2,500 people including Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, members of the military, veterans of the armed struggle and senior politicians (who were all speeding through the city with identical, tinted Toyota Land Cruisers), foreign delegates of sister parties and representatives of civil society organizations have swamped the city for four consecutive days from 23rd – 26th March.

Neither the Tana Forum, nor the fifth Congress

Needless to say, the gathering of the 9th Congress has nothing to do with that of the Tana High Level Security Forum in Africa, nor is it similar to EPRDF’s own 5th congress, held in the same city in September 2004 and was dubbed “Emerta Congress” (Leap Forward congress), a boring assembly that was only busy looking into the progresses made in the second Five Year Plan for Peace, Development and Democracy, an agenda endorsed by the ruling party during the “Renewal Congress”, its 4th Congress in August 2001, held in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Unlike any of the party’s eight preceding congresses, however, this one was held in the glaring physical absence of its chief, the late Meles Zenawi, who died in August 2012; although his towering shadow was unavoidably present: the congress’s elusive motto reads “With the thoughts of Meles, stronger organization and development forces for the renaissance.”

Eight months after the unexpected death of the late Meles, “they have not properly recovered from the deep shock. They are still talking about continuing his legacy,” says a close party observer, who requested to remain anonymous, and was interviewed by this magazine. “It is too early for any change,” he said. He was right. After the short-lived euphoria of a change in the wake of Meles’s death, many Ethiopians were not expecting a bolt from the blue during or after this particular Congress. They were right, too. The Congress did not bring a major change in terms of policy shift, and little,  if not nothing, happened in the sphere of the much talked about leadership succession plans.

 The rotten heart of corruption and rent seeking  

 As of late, the party has ceased to excite even some of its own devoted supporters. Despite its rhetoric of succession that began during the 8th Congress held in September 2010 in the city of Adama, 100 kms South of Addis Ababa, majority of the faces remain (disturbingly) pretty much similar; since the death of the party’s chief Meles Zenawi, senior officials appear content enough to vow to “continue his legacy,” but many Ethiopians believe they have lost contact with his leading political philosophy of the ever confusing “revolutionary democracy”; nor is it clear if they want to take the country through the economic path of a developmental state, an economic model fervently, but indistinctly, promoted by the late PM; and political bickering has consumed much of what has happened inside the party since his death.

In what appears to be a sober and rare look at inward though, the 9th Congress was the closest senior party officials have come to in publicly admitting the party’s worst enemy of its survival: corruption and the political economy of rent seeking. Lately the word rent-seeking has become a buzz word in Ethiopia’s political arena, but for many ordinary citizens, who know nothing to so little about its complex nature that their ever distant politicians accuse of each other, the term itself is unclear, if not strange. The late Meles himself had repeatedly argued that if the country was to overcome the challenges facing its new infatuation with democratic developmental paradigm, the key would be to transform its political economy from that of pervasive rent-seeking to one that is conducive to value-creation.

Addisu Legesse, second from left, is back again

But the opposite is what is happening. The ever ballooning Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray, (EFFORT), an organization of several companies dealing from tour and travel to export and mining, and led by the all too powerful widow of Meles, Azeb Mesfin, and its dodgy business conduct has long been setting a precedent of public loath and resentment; businesses are as good as the last bribes they shell out – a January 2013 World Bank survey, which measured the level of corruption in Ethiopia, revealed a disturbing upward trend of corruption in the country; a similar national survey conducted by the Addis Ababa University and Kilimanjaro International Trading Plc, a private business, also said that corrupt practices were increasing in alarming rates; and a 2012 corruption index by Transparency International placed Ethiopia 113th out of 176 countries. In the backdrop of this is the country’s decade old anti corruption body, which has gradually reduced its role into chasing after small time corrupt police officers and customs officials.

The country’s report card on democratic practices and good governance do not look any better, either. Messy administrative malfunction that only a corrupt route can handle best has become its trademark; inconsistent and endless regulations and directives are intimidating what is left of the private business and far from a country of political decency, the culture of using the law to fix political problems has become an ordinary practice.

 Braving the beast

Most of the senior members of the ruling party, who secured a chance to talk during the 9th Congress, blamed all the wrongs within their party on their fellow members’ love affair with political economy of rent-seeking. But no one was individually held accountable. The 133 pages of a report presented at the Congress claims the party has achieved a progressive leap forward in fighting corruption and rent-seeking especially in the rural parts of the country. However, it admitted, albeit mildly, that land administration, taxation, and management of government expenditures remain the main sources of rent-seeking.

Unlike the report presented at the Congress, however, party veterans have composed their courage to openly talk about the potential danger threatening the future of the party.  Addisu Legesse, former deputy prime minister who was among the first ones to go during the party’s first wave of succession in 2010, talked of  issues “too big to disregard,” and of those people who sign contracts, collect taxes, award tenders worth millions and have the authority to decide on land issues as are the ones too tempted to rent-seeking. Sebhat Nega, one of the seven founders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the four member parties that make up the ruling EPRDF, and the most powerful of all, warned participants not to be tricked by reports that claim the state of corruption in Ethiopia is improving and boldly criticized his fellow politicians for thinking corruption as mere “perception.” A veteran party member since the armed struggle, Sebhat is also among those who left the party in 2010.

But admitting to faults of corruption and bad governance is not something entirely new in the history of the party’s 20+ years of existence. The late Meles had, more than once, come to publicly admit its existence within the system he devotedly built (once austerely warning to “cut off” the hands of those knee-deep in corruption). It didn’t work.

 Change is not ‘gonna come’

Despite their candid admittance of the prevalence of corruption and opportunistic practices within the party, there are two looming concerns, which are related to one another, that senior party officials preferred to evade during the Congress. It is also why change will not come around that easy. The first is party officials’ utter failure in implementing the party’s own to-do-list of a meaningful succession plan. Seyoum Mesfin, foreign minister for 20 years and now the country’s ambassador to China, has resigned from the Central Committee of TPLF and requested party officials to come up with a clear and uniform pattern of succession plans workable for the party. His message rings a louder bell amongst the four member parties whose separate understanding and implementation of the succession plan continued to confuse the public.

The highest organ of the EPRDF is its Executive Committee members followed by members of the Council. Both are guided by the party’s revered principle of having 36 and 180 members respectively who are equally represented from the Central Committees of the four member organizations – nine and 45 members respectively from each organization. During their separate organizational congresses held in the respective capitals of their regional states shortly before the general Congress, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the most troubled party by infighting,  has puffed up the number of its Executive Committee members from 65 to 80; the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM), the youngest of all and from which Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn hails, each has 65 members of their own Central Committee. Most of the elected officials have retained their years-long positions. Only the TPLF, the party of the late Meles, maintained the number of its Central Committee to the traditional 45, 11 of whom new comers. The succession plan started in 2010 is expected to come to an end in 2015, a year when the 10th Congress is expected to take place along with a general election. But other than Abay Woldu, Chairman of the TPLF after replacing the late Meles, none of the parties have so far managed to change their senior movers and shakers, least their chairmen and deputies, and out of the 36 Executive Committee members, less than half are new comers.

The second is the presumed lack of trust between veteran party members, who by in large remained dominating the politics, and the younger breeds. Evidently, although two decades of labor by senior party officials to produce a new breed of politicians has formed its own results, the former pose as if they have no reliance on and trust for the later.

Off from the scene of the Congress in Bahir Dar, an upcoming election for 138 seats for the Addis Ababa city council and its ensuing drama is a case in point. Eight members of senior party officials, who are also members of the national parliament, including Meles’s widow Azeb Mesfin, have resigned from their membership in parliament to contest in the election, which would have brought an entire army of a new generation of EPRDFites into the City Council. A senior official within the party told this magazine that the rationale behind the decision was to add to the city council “competent and experienced personnel”. The opposition bloc, feeble as they are, have boycotted the election, guaranteeing a clean sweep by the ruling EPRDF of all the 138 seats. For many Ethiopians, the interpretation is different: the veterans do not want to entrust the country, much less Addis Ababa, a nucleus of opposition and defiance against the ruling party, onto the hands of the new generation of revolutionary democrats, even if they are their own making and die-hard loyalists.

In 1992, a year after the current government came to power, the city of Bahir Dar was a city that has a handful of cars roaming its streets; today traffic jam is one of its growing problems. Luxurious lakeside resorts and hotels made the city one of the top tourist destinations in the country and the city is a lot cleaner today than it was barely two decades ago. Come April, Bahir Dar is bracing itself to host the 2nd Tana High Level Security Forum in Africa. The same people who have gathered in the city’s newly built convention center in the last week of March this year are those who oversaw this dramatic transformation of not only Bahir Dar but also the country torn by civil wars and successive state failures. To give credit where it is due, they brought an end to those civil wars, and established a stable regime while helping the country emerge as one of the fastest growing economies in the continent. But, as a western diplomat who closely followed the Congress eloquently put it, “real peace, real development and a stable government is not just the absence of civil wars, hunger and stability; it is the presence of leaders who believe they are not irreplaceable and are capable enough to preserve and hand over the stable country they have built with so much scarifies to the next generation.” For now, that seems way off, regrettably.

 ED’s note: in the print edition of Addis Standard magazine, we have erroneously mentioned Addisu Legesse, a retired ANDM senior official, as was “brought back” by his party. This was not true. Sorry.   

Photo: Fortune

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