24 February 2013

Ethiopia: Furthering Lip Service to Corruption Risks Nation's Future


Local politics has undergone a turbulent time since the death of its most prominent figure, Meles Zenawi.

Whereas the ruling party sailed through the troubled waters of uncertainty relatively unscathed, the opposition parties stood in the midst of it with utter indifference. The public, mourning the death of the late Prime Minister, predominantly positioned themselves alongside the EPRDFites.

To the astonishment of the world and, of course, the many 'nay' sayers, the political space remained as consolidated as it was under Meles. No significant tide arose.

The same is true also in the policy sphere. There was no major shift in attitude amongst the key players, ranging from facilitators, such as consultants, to bilateral and multilateral donors and financers. This was mainly due to the smooth transition of power put in place by the EPRDFites. They effectively contained the conflict of interests and allowed governmental undertakings to proceed smoothly.

Yet, there were some fronts that felt the uncertainty more so than others. These included the usual suspects of land administration and taxes, and new frontiers, such as foreign exchange. There were efforts by various players to hedge risks emerging from the political uncertainty, by exploiting gaps in the policy sphere, the market and the regulatory framework.

Although the risks were avoided, through the peaceful transition of power and the solid standing of the ruling party, the general risk of corruption has continued to rise at an even faster rate than previously. It is now reaching a level where corruption is simply becoming systematic.

With the EPRDFites scheduled to embark on their first general convention meeting since the death of Meles - their prime crafter and drafter of economic, social and political policy stances - the fight against shortcuts, corruption and poor public service delivery has once again taken centre stage. It has indeed become an agenda that will determine their political future and rank their level of achievement in the eyes of the electorate, which has given them the mandate to govern up until 2014.

The convention, which will be held in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara Region and a mainstay of one of the largest member parties of the ruling coalition, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), is expected to bring the rank and files of the bureaucracy under one roof. As scheduled, the convention will focus on political and organisational issues, economic and social development, as well as good governance and democracy.

The congress will be held at a time when the national economy is witnessing yet another year of strong growth, and it would be well positioned to deliberate on development. Since the Party is vested with the power to lead the nation, the discussion could bring positive externalities to the whole policy sphere.

Special emphasis will be given to the policies proposed to fight inflation, tame inequality, reduce unemployment and resolve essential commodity supply constraints.

More than that, however, there is a huge expectation as to the policy measures that may arise in the good governance and service provision frontiers. If public opinion is anything to go by, that is where the core of popular interest in the convention lies.

Indeed, good governance and quality public service delivery have been the most disputed issues during the entire 21-year reign of the EPRDFites. It has been a frontier that has, at times, even been known to put Meles on the defensive.

Partly, the problem is connected to the nature of the bureaucracy inherited by the EPRDFites. When coming to power in 1991, they took over a bureaucracy that was shattered by socialist indoctrination, momentous inefficiency, poor service culture and parochialism. It took a series of reforms to break the bureaucracy's cultural cycle, which was unfit for a capitalist system of any description.

Instilling a system that fits the statist capitalism that the Revolutionary Democrats subscribed to, however, was an equivalent challenge. With the establishment of such a bureaucracy came new challenges, ranging from poor service provision to corrupt practices. As a result, all of the subsequent reforms were aimed at solving such pertinent challenges.

Despite the reforms, however, the challenges remained. With each passing day, they continue to grow too big to be solved with quick fixes. Untamed, there is the real possibility that they may eventually become systemic.

It is the fight against such a growing tide of public disenfranchisement, driven by corrupt public servants and subpar public services, which the EPRDFites are faced with at this round of their major convention. Science, including the latest research by academics and renowned institutions, such as the World Bank (WB), stands firmly against them.

Outcomes from researchers show that both the perception and reality of corruption in Ethiopia are increasing. The presence of the practice, throughout the sectors, is also rapidly becoming evenly distributed. As if to worsen the case for the ruling Revolutionary Democrats, the researches, especially the latest study by the WB, show that the epidemic has diffused itself into the very pillars of the development, which has been achieved throughout the last two decades.

Certainly, the convening EPRDFites stand at a crossroads. They would like to build a bureaucracy that is capable of delivering development results, but too they must ensure that it is clean of corrupt practices.

It is not that they are short of declarations. It has been years since their policy radar shifted to create a society that abhors corruption.

Nevertheless, their political commitment in the fight against corruption has fallen short. Their approach lacks integration and inclusiveness, and has been unfairly lopsided towards prevention.

It seems that it is now time for them to put in place effective strategies to prevent and fight the very epidemic that continues to make the lives of citizens worse. Their convention has to help initiate the necessary momentum towards a clean bureaucracy with the mentality to serve.

There is no more urgent task besides fighting corruption, in all ways possible, and solidifying the growth momentum of the economy. Furthermore, there is no political player more responsible to do so than a ruling party with the public mandate to govern.

Furthering the lip service towards the fight against corruption with inaction will risk the future of the nation. It is indeed time for the EPRDFites to act, in order to avoid any more complacency, with regards to corruption and poor public services.

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