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Ezana Sehay 10/29/16

To say the EPRDF government had a bad year is an understatement. It has been overwhelmed by a cocktail of challenges – from the worst drought in half a century, to a persistent protest in some part of the country and the chaos within the party – some are even wondering if the Revolutionary Democrats have lost their Mojo. Fortunately, the government [party] believes it knows what’s ailing it and has pledged to come up with the cure.

No one is more confident about the prospects of overcoming the predicament than Prime Minister Hailemariam. That confidence is going to be tested in the coming few days; when the new session of parliament commences, during which he [PMH] is expected to lay out his plans for the year – hopefully an all-encompassing overhaul of the way the government conducts business. Equally important is who the PM chooses as members of the team [cabinet] to implement those fundamental reforms.

In Ethiopia there never was a time when cabinet ministers are chosen strictly on merit. Language, religion and ethnicity have been taken in to account from the start, latterly, [since the EPRDF assume power] joined by consideration of ethnic balance.

Friendship, flattery, grudges: these, too, have always been important factors in deciding who’s in and who’s out – as, of course, is the simple matter of party affiliation.

Since Ethiopia instituted a parliamentary democratic system, the executive branch of the government has been stacked with the country’s political elites from the coalition of the governing party [EPRDF]. This is hardly surprising since the prime minister chooses the appointees, ones odds of being picked are helped considerably if he/she is actually known to the prime minster.

But nothing can quite compare to the course the Revolutionary Democrats [RD] have embarked upon: an explicit ethnic quota. This is not an objective or a target; not a balancing of merit and other considerations. It is a fixed rule, to be adhered to come what may.

One may be of the view that this is a sort of cosmic payback, an evening of the scales for past discrimination against marginalized nationalities. The problem is that the country has to be governed in the here and now. So far as we are putting representalism before ability, we are also asking the country’s interest to take back seat.

That is what happened with the statuesque. The number of incompetent, the venal, and the merely mediocre among the current cabinet members, would fill a book. Some of them; including the one at the top posts, are ill fit to the position. What’s more, when conducting interviews, they are an embarrassment: they’re unintelligible, uninspiring, lack confidence etc… How on earth can such people represent a big country like Ethiopia in bi-lateral or multilateral negotiations?  

The EPRDF’s emphasis on representativeness is not wrong-headed, it’s simply misplaced. Such policy has shown us that government institutions bear the visible making of diversity, but have failed to produce greater diversity in the type of people deserving the position of power. 

That is obviously – this should not be said – not because some ethnic groups are less fit to govern than others. Quite the contrary: it is not the critics of quotas who asset a contradiction between fairness and hiring on merit. It is their advocates.  

The radical alternative to ethnic or regional quotas is just hiring the best people for the job. If it’s an Oromo, fine; if it’s an Amhara or Somali, fine.  If the result is a cabinet with more women than men or vice versa, fine either way.

To his credit PMH is now giving Ethiopians hope to dream of a new direction. The question is which direction do we want him to move from here: do we want a cabinet to move toward the meritocratic ideal, or away from it?

Do we want cabinet members to be chosen more for their talent and experience and less for their ethnicity, regional, party affiliation and so on, or the reverse? Is merit an attainable or even desired goal, or is the whole thing just a spoil system – in which the only objective is to make sure your group, is at the front line?

All indications are PMH is strong on endowment less on patronage – an intent that would enhance non-EPRDF intellectuals’ shot at rising to a position of power, provided he/she meets the eligibility requirements: nationalism, professionalism, and competence.

Of course, assessing merit is an imprecise art at best, and fraught with potential discrimination; it is the achievement of revolutionary EPRDFites to have forced society to acknowledge that. It is absolutely valid to insist those charged with making appointments look within themselves for unconscious bias, while looking outside their usual networks.

But casting a wider net in the search for merit – or even expanding the definition of it – is a different thing than discarding it altogether. However difficult it may be to judge merit, it’s a stretch to say it’s impossible, still less that there is no such thing (as the quotation marks that so often surround the term would seem to suggest), or else we should just choose cabinets at random. If one politician is no better than another, why hold elections?

The point is, certain institutions require the brightest minds to be at the helm. For this group (in which I would include, the cabinet), the PM should choose appointees exclusively on merit. Other institutions (like the legislative) exist to represent diversity.

Party affiliated politicians, eager for comfy cabinet seat or proximity to the PM may bring one perspective to running the country, but surely do not have a monopoly on sound ideas. We would see remarkable diversity of ideas if branches of the executive welcomed not only the power hungry, but also the people with more important things to worry about than power.

Many people would say the political affiliated ambitious are best suited to power of authority not least because they have a passionate interest in doing so. I beg to differ, while there is something to this, I would suggest that public and national service demand a rather different calculus: although politicians bring an important perspective to governing, so, too, could non-political professionals and intellectuals, perhaps more so.


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