5 August 2017

Ethiopia: Not Too Soon for Cynical Bird's-Eye View

editorial

The idiom that one rotten apple spoils the barrell was given a reality check in an experiment undertaken by sociologist and physician Nicholas A. Christakis. The purpose was to discover how long a person could remain incorruptible against the powerful pull of unethical (not necessarily illegal) acts.

Lo and behold, all it took was a single bad apple to corrupt the whole bucket. Selfless participants became covetous in an effort to protect their own interests against that one bad people. Animal spirits flared up, and each experimental group mutated into a dog-eat-dog society.

The experiment carried out in a few hours proved that it takes a nation to make society altruistic, but few individuals to sow mistrust and greed.

In an effort to prove the above experiment wrong, the Revolutionary Democrats have been soaking the government with personalities whose main aim is either the perpetuity of the party or the well-oiled functionality of the nation. The rationale behind the strategy seems to be that even if there are few situated high above whose loyalties are to party instead of country, the many down below could single-handedly uphold democracy as long as they remain honourable.

So as to make sure civil servants and low-level political appointees stay virtuous, several theoretically polished policies and reforms have been proposed and, in some cases, implemented. State-run media outlets stimulate the process by publicizing half-baked measures to indelible problems to the point of hysteria. Questioning the legitimacy of these reforms becomes a kind of sacrilege until at least the party abandons the reforms altogether.

Sometimes these reforms come in the form of purges. Senior city and federal officials suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of a prison bar every half a decade or so. The charges are usually related to misappropriation of public funds.

A recent, highly promulgated enquiry, into hundreds of millions of Birr that are unaccounted for, has nabbed some 50 officials and individuals. But Ethiopians, it seems, are used to the ruling party's chicanery. The only detail surprising about the incident was the fact that, in a country where many are under the poverty line, so few have the responsibility to look after such hefty chunks of taxpayer's money. If government reports are to be believed, a little over four dozen individuals misappropriated close to 1pc of the entire tax revenue collected by the state.

The narrative as plotted by the Revolutionary Democrats has become a cliche. It is suspect whether or not they notice the disparity between the stories their own platforms weave and the perception the public holds of the unfolding political drama.

The government's actions over the past two decades suggest an irrevocable, inalienable torpor that is lending itself to leadership at every level. A culture has apparently been established long ago - one that incentivizes a belligerent leadership attitude. But the problems, as observed, do not suggest an intransigent administrative malfeasance borne out of utter ill-will, but a lack of a positive attitude, which, piece by piece, has ended up producing the same effect.

A more precise way of approaching the issue is perhaps to look at political parties as associations who function in much the same manner corporations do. Both entities are bound by their members, to their members and for their members.

This does not mean every party is self-serving, but, in most cases, members are expected to exhibit inexorable party loyalty. It is also conventional for every affiliate to have the same calling, as well as a similar approach to how activities are pursued. Gradually, a culture develops.

In the case of the Revolutionary Democrats, the similarities a party has to corporations is especially stark. Enough time has passed for members of the party to start to operate in a fashion, not necessarily analogous with legal propriety, but in line to a convention set by the very few that initially commanded real authority. This is how a society that adheres to the same rules and traditions, hence culture, operates, and this is how the ruling party tribalizes new recruits.

The fact that there are very weak opposition parties, either by design (as a result of media censorship and other unconstitutional improprieties) or essence (as observed in political groups whose line of attack devolves into sectarianism), has further inflamed the issue. The lack of challenge in ideology has, to the long serving members of the party at least, enforced the unacceptable belief that they exist above country, beyond the rule of law, to serve party.

Thus, it makes complete sense that the Revolutionary Democrats demand great loyalty from central figures in the upper echelons of power to party, while they expect public servants and private employees to adhere to the rule of law.

Subordinates, though, are failing the party and its ambitions for perpetuity. The party may be able to exist if few are corrupt, or plain negligent. But when even low-level officials skim off the top, and the economy starts to suffer, traces of poor governance are harder to hide.

The ideology that few in the party should remain immune to the rule of law is pervasive and has started to affect members that are barely affiliated. Low-level officials want a piece of the pie - more like the forbidden fruit - just as much as their hierarchical elders do.

And why not? If daddy and mommy can stay out late, why should the children adhere to a curfew?

Christakis has suggested a solution. Later in the experiment, the participants were given the chance to choose their own groups. The ensuing order resulted in a setup where the greedy participants are segregated, and those who wanted nothing more than their own share could coexist. Asserting that, at times, it is better to decamp, than stay the course.

Similarly, there is absolutely nothing wrong in believing that democracy, or any sense of accountability, could not come from the Revolutionary Democrats. It is probably too late. Reforms and purges are mere soap-opera to a nation starved of objective facts. The culture that has been created, organized and embraced has become too structural and fundamental a foundation of the party's ideology, it is doubtful if, either in the sense of social or political science, holier-than-thou reforms or purges could be effective solutions.

Or if the party could ever outlive the conduct. The only possible solution may be for the country to move on, much the same way the participants in the experiment did, to a party with a more refined managerial culture.

Ethiopia

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