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Some Unsaid Things Regarding Good GovernanceBy Sahle Mekonnen 11-11-15

Some Unsaid Things Regarding Good Governance

By Sahle Mekonnen 11-11-15

I watched the discussion among Ethiopian Government officials on the issue of good governance on aigaforum with mixed feelings. On one hand, here is a political party with an astounding success story beginning with armed struggle and is leading an economic transformation of a country like Ethiopia. Often, revolutions and successful armed resistances had resulted in failed states in many countries. EPRDF faced the challenges of a sleeping/dying country head-on and surprised the most skeptic observers with its innovative ideas and effective policy measures while it continues to be unjustifiably vilified by a few but vocal and hateful opposition.

On the other hand, EPRDF seems unprepared with regard to the inherent corruption and lack of good governance in the system. The papers presented at the conference looked to me compilations of what the public already knew. I have not heard much about solutions other than the raw data and descriptions of the corrupt practices. While some of the participants have touched upon some important points and the passion of the Prime Minister is encouraging, nothing was said that shows new direction and bold initiatives. Hopefully they are on the way.

Well, much has been said about good governance and I want to reflect on one or two important ones. Let’s ask ourselves, if an ordinary Ethiopian believes he/she is aggrieved by the action of a government body, what are his/her solutions? Once he/she has exhausted the chain in that administrative body, where does she/he go?

One of the parameters of a good governance is rule of law. Simply stated rule of law means the government, its officials and everyone else is under the law. And this law has to be enforced by a truly independent, morally upright and strong judiciary. Government officials have to be accountable to laws enforced by courts. In simple language, every official has to know his/her party, bribe or other influences cannot save them if they fall under the hands of the law. This is the invisible fabric of many western countries in spite of its imperfections.  Practically, EPRDF does not seem tuned to this concept. In the earlier days, EPRDF openly stated in its manifestos the ideas of rule of law and an independent judiciary were part of the bourgeoisie ideology.  Although you will not find such language in EPRDF’s literature presently, for EPRDF, political will is still the superseding and all-encompassing force to manage the country. The law is just an instrument to execute the will and supreme political voice whether this is the parliament or the Polit-Bureau. I have heard a much-admired EPRDF leader stating that one of the problems of the courts is that they ‘even dare to call Ministers to the court with a warrant’. At that time, I was confused since I believed the official should have considered that as EPRDF’s achievement.

Many EPRDF officials understood the value of rule of law, enforced by strong and independent judiciary through hard ways. Siye Abraha’s first book, as soon as he was released from prison, was about the independence of the Judiciary in Ethiopia.  Ato Siye could not have written about the judiciary before 2001 and I can only imagine the independence of the judiciary was the least of in his mind. When Siye believed the government and his party has violated his rights, his last resort was the court. In his opinion, the courts failed him and hence the importance he attached to the judiciary. The point is not whether Siye’s allegations in the book are true or not. The important truth is there are so many Ethiopians who were letdown by the legal system when they were aggrieved by the executive body or other fellow citizens. Alas! The ordinary Ethiopian has learned many times that bad judges and bad government officials are one and the same working in the same tandem.

The realty in Ethiopia is that we have very weak, timid and corrupt courts. EPRDF, for practical purposes, considers them as an extension of the executive. If you go to the states ( Kilils), the police, the prosecutors and judges hold regular meetings and they discuss cases. It is not uncommon for administrators to challenge judges regarding their judicial decisions. The idea of an ordinary Ethiopian resorting to the law whenever an executive official violates the law is far-fetched. Sometimes it is similar to the Emperor’s time when Feudal Administrators used to banish judges if the judge is not subservient to their wills.

            EPRDF has to start rebuilding the judiciary with capable judges who truly understand what to be a judge is. The fact that the average judge in Ethiopia is a fresh graduate from University or with limited experience is a testament how much the government has neglected the courts.  EPRDF has to start to submit itself to the laws as enforced by the courts. Although there are other forms of internal accountability, the fundamental one is to have a system which is checked and balanced by another independent body. This is not some ‘liberal’ (which has strangely a different meaning in Ethiopian political parlance by the way) or just ‘Western’ but a tested and time-honored principle of accountability.

The other related point is the emphasis on political ‘loyalty’ at the expense of expertise. A casual observer can see this trend in the system. It is legitimate for EPRDF or any other ruling party to consider political ‘loyalty’ as one criteria in appointing top officials.  But the people ask, why on earth, is qualification not given due regard? When this writer visited some Oromia zones in 1990’s, the average zone official’s educational background was one year teacher’s teaching certificate.  What is worse is EPRDF seems to believe anyone can be transformed to be a competent professional by undergoing training after training, often up to Master’s degree level. I have wondered whether this is also the remnant of EPRDF’s early beliefs that the intelligentsia as a class are reactionaries or some word to that effect. It is common sense that there are people who are gifted and accomplished and there are others who are not. I heard once a seasoned professor, who is a supporter of EPRDF, stating that, “EPRDF has to choose to run the country with either competent professionals at the middle level or with political cadres’. I am sure cadres play an important role for the party. But it is undeniable that without a system that attracts the best and brightest, good governance is unthinkable.

In conclusion, EPRDF has to look inward and develop the habit of questioning its untouchable ideas. I believe EPRDF has shown some level of pragmatism by showing openness to ideas whether they came from the East or West as long as long as they are useful to establish a prosperous and well-governed society. But it remains to be seen if EPRDF can further re-consider some of its approaches and presumptions.  A fervent campaign to break corruption and mismanagement may result in temporary success, but the enduring solutions will come from systematic changes. As Ato Abay Tsehaye said on the conference, it is time to question ‘assumptions and trust”.

Finally, I want to point out that this short article is only a mere opinion, not based on studies but my observations while in Ethiopia and from far.  I want to urge other experts from various fields to weigh in on these issues.


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