A paradox has played out in Ethiopia over the last decade. While its economy has thrived, its political landscape has been overwhelmed by rampant corruption. In 2013, for example, more than 50 high profile people, including government officials and businessmen, were arrested during an anti-corruption crackdown.
As Ethiopia’s economy transformed between 2010-2015, through the expansion of services, agriculture and improvements in infrastructure, corruption became a way of life. This is predominantly because of the political dominance of a single party – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The Front is a coalition of four parties and has ruled Ethiopia since 1991.
Despite touting itself as a multiparty state, true multiparty politics have not been able to take root in the country. This is because of the ruling party’s control over security apparatus, media, electoral organs and administrative structure. “Politics of tolerance” are not entertained as opposition parties are seen as enemies, rather than political rivals.
Underlying the change needed to tackle corruption, is the need to transition from this single party state to a true multiparty system.
This will promote political choice and give democratic rights to all citizens. It will introduce a system of checks and balances that will expose abuses and reveal corrupt officials.
Corruption in action
As explained in my book, Ethiopia borrowed its development model from South Korea and Malaysia. These presume that development is managed by highly disciplined, nonpartisan, professional government functionaries.
In Ethiopia, however, government bureaucrats are recruited on meritocracy. They operate in line with their ethnic affiliation and to fulfil the whims of the dominant party.
The second is that public procurement for development projects such as highways, electrification, telecommunications, information technology and housing are not handled through tender processes.
Another major contributory factor is the state’s complicated bureaucracy. Sectors such as land administration, customs and public procurement, have become the pillars of the rent seeking political economy. Businesses are forced to pay bribes to obtain permits and licenses.
The prevalence of political corruption has had a number of consequences. It’s affected the country’s gross domestic product and rewarded unproductive employees in both the private and public sectors.
Its greatest impact, however, has been the fuelling of instability. This has led to a great deal of domestic turmoil. As a result, violent anti-government protests against domestic and foreign investments have erupted in recent months.
This violence has threatened the country’s infrastructure, foreign investment and civilians. The situation has escalated to a point that ordinary law enforcement agencies are unable to properly handle the situation. Instead, the Federal Government declared a six-month-long state of emergency, effective October 10, 2016. This has been extended by another four months.
If the Ethiopian government refuses to address these issues, the current flourishing economy will likely evaporate. The signs aren’t good. The government’s current attempts at fighting corruption are superficial and will produce marginal results.
The anti-corruption Proclamation of 2005, for example, was poorly implemented and lacked methodologies in handling corruption cases. It had limited power and its enforcers lacked skills in investigation and prosecution.
The country’s court system can’t effectively deal with corruption either. This is because the court system in Ethiopia is engulfed with injustices and corruption is deeply rooted. For example, judges are generally not assigned to the court bench as a result of their training or experience, but to fulfil the country’s ethnic quota system of ruling. They therefore make decisions in favour of their ethnic groups and purposely prolong the execution of court cases.
The way forward
Certain changes need to be made to fight corruption. Civic organisations, alternative parties and opposition groups need to be involved in political dialogue. This can start to happen through the restructuring of the federal system and a multiparty system that gives an equal playing field.
By doing this, Ethiopia will improve its electoral system and give way to proportional representation rather than only allowing the largest block of voters to be represented.
By design, Ethiopia established the political gridlock itself through the creation of ethnic and regional federalism. Communication and commercial interaction among constituents has gradually declined because regions are confined within watertight compartments. They develop apart and have little influence on each other.
The existing regional states need to be subdivided into manageable units or woredas as they’re called in Ethiopia. This would make local units more manageable. They will each have a say in selecting their own administrators, holding them to account for their decisions. Each unit could have a number of municipalities run by community elected mayors and council members.
For the judicial system at the federal level, the framework for judicial appointment and retention must be reevaluated and restructured. Judicial positions should be advertised publicly to attract a wider selection pool of higher calibre candidates. Judicial Administration Commissions must have clear standards, procedures, and rules for decision making.
These basic structural changes, and a willingness on the part of the government to allow multiparty democracy to prevail and real power devolved to the local level, will pave the way for Ethiopia to sustain its current economic growth trajectory.