By Addissu Admas
Corruption in government is not of course unique to Ethiopia. Virtually every known state present or past has suffered and continues to suffer from it. The temptation to corrupt and to be corrupted is as human as any one human trait. The question is not whether it exists or not in a country, but to what extent it exists, and to what degree it affects the day to day governance.
It is safe to say that corruption is more entrenched where a system of accountability is weak, and sparse where it is strong. More democratically advanced nations with strong judiciary are less affected by it, and they offer the least occasion for corruption to take root. And conversely, it usually finds fertile grounds in more authoritarian states.
Like in most other countries, corruption has existed in Ethiopia as long as Ethiopia has been a state; which is to say for a very long time. There is a common saying in Amharic that somehow indirectly suggests that corruption did not only exist historically, but was a rather highly tolerated behavior. The saying goes Sishom yalbella, Sishar yekochewal [translation: One who fails to enrich oneself when promoted, regrets it when demoted]. Thus to this day in Ethiopia, power and position have been perceived as opportunities not to serve and leave a legacy of some kind, but an occasion to benefit oneself, family and friends.
What is unusual about the corruption under the Woyane regime is its breadth, depth, and nature. Indeed, if there is one characteristic that will forever define this moribund regime’s tenure it will be its unprecedented level of corruption and thievery. Ethiopians are being told now, to their profound astonishment, of corrupt practices they could have never fathomed or thought was possible in their country. For all practical considerations, Ethiopia has lived in essence under a kleptocracy the likes of which not even other African nations, notorious for their corruption, have experienced.
How did we come to this level of corruption and thievery? The tendency of most social scientists is to blame poverty as the primary cause for a country’s corruption in government. Their simple and straightforward explanation is that since poor nations cannot afford to pay decent wages to government employees at every level, bribery, kickbacks, payoffs, or any form of venality, is considered not only inevitable, but a kind of accepted practice to supplement the meager incomes of civil servants. But more often than not, it goes well beyond this. For many in fact, it appears to be an alternative mode of enriching themselves.
When we examine closely the kind of corruption pervasive under the Woyane regime, it is precisely this tendency that is most prevalent: the history of the TPLF is a history of how a diehard Marxist/Leninist/Maoist party (or whatever they believed it to be), forged by discipline and ideological indoctrination turned into an organization of depredation, criminality and corruption. How may we otherwise describe the inexplicable rise from utter poverty to unheard of wealth of many of its members (and their relations) whose sole income has been supposedly their government salaries? It is a fact that from the time the TPLF entered Addis Ababa, it was not only dedicated to consolidate its political power, but was perhaps even more determined to enrich itself by boldly and unashamedly using the state apparatus to its financial advantage. Rather than regulating the market, it became its principal player; rendering impossible the emergence of a fair competitive economy in the process. This has been sustained by a system of patronage which was profoundly tainted by tribalism and nepotism.
It is ironic that a party forged by an ideology of internationalism and solidarity created the most clannish government Ethiopia has ever known. The recent accusation of tribalism levelled against Dr. Abiy by the President of Tigray is rather an admission of guilt. The fact that Dr. Abiy’s government has indicted more Tigrean officials than officials from other ethnic groups is simply because the proportion of Tigreans in position of power, and thus of responsibility, exceeds by far the number of officials from other ethnic groups. Nobody has heard him complain that members of his ethnic group have occupied not only the most coveted positions in government, but also the lesser positions in overwhelming number for a very long time. If the TPLF wants to reform and reconstitute itself, and present itself as a legitimate party, it must first of all rid itself of its corrupt elements, and stop “ethnicising” and attempting to undermine the PM’s campaign against corruption.
There is no simple remedy to end corruption and thievery in government in Ethiopia. The overwhelming opinion is that a cultural transformation must occur before a fairly honest and efficient state machinery can be put in place. There is no doubt that as long as we wallow in poverty there cannot be real change in Ethiopia: the temptations poverty engenders are too powerful to resist. But one step that even our poor nation can take is to pay better our civil servants by reducing their number. Government work should no longer serve as a place where excess labor force gets unloaded. Like any well-managed firm, the government should not employ more workers than it strictly requires. Taxpayers money should never be considered free money one can dispose at whim; it must be managed as if it is personal money. A well-trained and well compensated civil service can not only provide great service to citizens, but can be a major factor for the smooth working of the economy, and in return produce more revenue for the state.
An additional way to discourage corruption and venality in government is to attach heavy sanctions to positions of power and responsibility. In other words, civil servants should be held to the highest ethical and legal standards. Should they choose to behave inappropriately they should not only lose their jobs, be must be liable to criminal proceedings.
One of the ironies in Ethiopia is that there has been a ministry of corruption for quite some time. One wonders what it has so far achieved, and how many high officials have been indicted through its efforts over the course of its existence? If the judiciary had worked as it should have there would have been no need for it. What Ethiopia needs is really a code of civil service that would govern the entire Ethiopian bureaucracy. A code that is impervious to the vagaries of government or regime change.
From the perspective of culture, there are a few points to consider. First of all, we must stop perceiving government employment as a means to gain power, privilege and wealth. And instead we must come to realize that working for the government is a way of serving the people and the nation as a whole. Secondly, the government should stop seeing its role as a controller, which is a fascistic and totalitarian perspective, and begin to perceive its function as a regulator, which is democratic. When government tries to become the chief controller, people will inevitably try to bypass its control by corrupting its functionaries. On the other hand, when a government limits itself to regulating the economic activities of the state, corruption is vastly reduced because there are usually legitimate ways to achieve one’s goals.
Thirdly there must prevail the awareness that taxes are not tributes to be paid to officials as in feudal systems, but are meant to finance the government and its institutions. Much of the reluctance of Ethiopians to pay taxes stems from two facts. One is that they are excessive, and people would rather resort to bribing tax collectors than pay what the government stipulates. The consequence being a tax evasion on a vast scale. The other, which is closely associated with the first one, is that Ethiopians do not see the reason why they should pay such high rate of taxes when they hardly receive any reliable or efficient public service. They feel that they are merely supporting an army of indigent paper-pushers. Paying taxes should not be seen as a patriotic duty only, as it has been so far, it must be seen as part and parcel of our social contract. And that is, the benefit should be mutual, it should not go only one way. The government must administer the taxpayers’ money with perhaps even greater care a private citizen puts in one’s finances.
There is no question that Dr. Abiy government’s endeavor to rid the state of its most corrupt officials is not going to be easy nor short lasting. Instead of politicizing and “ethnicizing” his way of going about the business of bringing to justice the corrupt individuals, we are better off joining him in his righteous effort. This means being active participants in reporting corrupt officials or corrupt practices to the appropriate officials. It also means that we must discourage all forms of corruption by refusing to bribe government employee for services we are rightfully owed. The fact is that there will never be a prosperous and peaceable Ethiopia if corruption and thievery continue to govern our everyday life.
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