By Maimire Mennasemay
Corruption is rampant in Ethiopia. For years, PM. Abiy Ahmed has been using legislative and administrative measures to bring it under control. But to no avail. The Prime Minister’s measures against corruption reflect the conventional conception that sees corruption as abuse of public office for private gain. This conception considers corruption as an act of the individual who deviates from the parameters of public duty and responsibility. This individualistic vision is psychological and moralizing. It assumes that a person is corrupt because he calculates that the benefits of corruption outweigh the costs. Fighting corruption would then be affecting the cost benefit calculation of the corrupt person through punishment such that being corrupt becomes more costly than beneficial.
Given however the specificity of the Ethiopian political system, the individualistic approach could lead to more corruption. That is, the PM’s effort to immunize Ethiopian society against corruption could lead, as we will see shortly, to reactions where the individual-focused anti-corruption campaign itself produces more corruption. This kind of self-undermining reaction to one’s corrective measures is a phenomenon that philosophers have discussed as “autoimmunity.” The term refers to the “strange behavior” where “a society in quasi-suicidal fashion,” immunizes itself “against its ‘own’ immunity” and engages in a self-undermining process, though its intent is to reduce a perceived harm. An example of “autoimmunity” is a democratic state that fights terrorism by introducing security measures that boomerang on the democratic system itself and undermine it, transforming it into a state that is authoritarian in substance and democratic only in form. The emergence of such “autoimmunity” is always related to a particular context.
Could the PM’s campaign against corruption generate an “autoimmunity” that boomerangs on his anti-corruption campaign and undermines it, leading to wider and greater corruption and generating an existential threat to the welfare of Ethiopians? Yes, it could. Let me explain.
To see the possibility of “autoimmunity” in Ethiopia, one must take the peculiar Ethiopian context into account. Ethiopia is the only country in the world that has constitutionalized ethnicity. The 1995 Ethiopian Constitution bestows sovereignty on ethnic groups and not on the Ethiopian people (article 8). It gives each ethnic group “an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession” (article 39).The upshot is that the Constitution gives primacy to ethnic identity over national identity, to ethnic space over national space, to ethnic time over national time, and to ethnic narcissism over civic values. It disavows Ethiopians as ethnicity-transcending citizens and (mis)recognizes them as primarily ethnic beings. It determines self-identity in opposition to the one who is situated as the ethnic other. The primacy of ethnic identity subverts public duty and responsibility, because these appear to be non-beneficial from the ethnic perspective, which is the perspective generated by the 1995 Constitution, particularly by arts. 8 and 39.
The spatial, temporal, and constitutional primacy of ethnicity over Ethiopian identity establishes the primacy of ethnic interests and ethnic solidarity over civic interests and civic solidarity. Thus, the Constitution replaces, to appropriate the terms of the great philosopher of the Enlightenment, “public reason” with “private reason.” And the form and content of “private reason” under the 1995 Constitution is “ethnic reason.” Ethnic reason renders impossible to speak democratically about democracy, for we are trapped into talking ethnically about democracy, corrupting democracy before we even start discussing it. It makes it difficult to tackle corruption without being cast as an enemy of the ethnicity of the person accused of corruption. The voice of ethnic reason can never be the voice of public reason, nor the voice of public conscience, nor the voice of democracy. Under the 1995 Constitution, corruption becomes “rational” in terms of ethnic reason. The Constitution enables corruption to become institutional, making ethnic nepotism the institutional form of ethnic solidarity: an implication that flows from arts. 8 and 39.
The 1995 Constitution generates then institutional corruption: a systemic corruption that exploits legitimate institutional channels and practices. It is crucial to note that the individuals engaged in corruption often act in “their institutional roles” and may not even have the corrupt motives that characterize individuals who consciously participate in acts of corruption. They may not even see themselves as participating in corruption. This does not mean that individuals cannot be held responsible. They can and must.
However, given that the 1995 Constitution has made ethnic identity (art.8) and solidarity (art.39) the foundation of interpersonal and interethnic relations, it insidiously institutes and legitimates ethnic nepotism in all its forms and in all Ethiopian institutions. This implies that to be effective the focus of the struggle against corruption must shift from only punishing corrupt individuals to eliminating the framework that makes institutional and individual corruption possible. The framework that needs to be eliminated is then the 1995 Constitution.
The individual-focussed struggle against corruption in the context of the 1995 Constitution will only lead to “autoimmunity” fuelled by ethnic interests and solidarity. The individualistic approach to corruption is as futile as trying to empty Lake Tana, which is regularly replenished by rain water, with a coffee cup. Likewise, the individualistic approach to corruption in the context of the 1995 Constitution will never eradicate corruption, because the Constitution replenishes it constantly with ethnic identity-driven autoimmunity. There is no prophylaxis against the autoimmune reactions to the anti-corruption campaign that the 1955 Constitution generates. If the PM is sincere in his rejection of corruption, and I believe he is, he has to find a way of replacing the 1995 ethnicity-driven Constitution with a Constitution based on the universal and post-ethnic principle of citizenship. Only then could he systematically purge corruption. The first indispensable step in developing a prophylaxis for corruption is then the abandonment of the 1995 Constitution.
If the PM does not initiate and complete a process that leads to the creation of a Constitution expressive of a polity founded on citizenship, his individualistic struggle against corruption will show him to be, to appropriate a concept from an influential philosopher, “The Beautiful soul.” The Beautiful soul is the person who holds himself at a distance from the society he lives in as if he were not involved in its making and yet laments its sad state of affairs. At best, he tinkers with the symptoms of his society’s problems, but he does not want to dirty his hand by transforming the systemic conditions that reproduce the unjust society he lives in. Rather, he busies himself with making changes that do not change the constitutive co-ordinates of his society.
Currently, the PM limits himself to individual-focussed campaign against corruption, which means that he looks at corruption in isolation from its systemic context and considers it from a distance as if he himself is not working within the system that constitutionally creates the grounds for the bourgeoning of corruption. He reduces corruption to an arbitrary individual transgression, abstracts it from its historical context in which he himself is actively present but avoids dealing with its root cause: the 1995 Constitution. If the PM limits himself to tackling only the symptoms (the corrupt individuals) and not the system—the 1995 Constitution and its institutionalization of corruption—the PM could be seen as “The Beautiful soul.” True, the PM has introduced laudable changes since he came to power. However, these are changes that mask the anti-democratic and corruption-generating nature of the 1995 Constitution rather than changes that create the impetus for replacing it with a democratic Constitution.
To avoid the corrupt state of “The Beautiful soul” and to be consistent with his unquestionably sincere desire to get rid of corruption in Ethiopia, the PM must not reduce corruption to individual misconduct. To meet his own stated goal of eradicating corruption in Ethiopia, the PM must expose the 1995 Constitution, within which he functions as the PM, as an engine of corruption. This means that unlike “The Beautiful soul” who avoids changing the corrupt society in which he nevertheless participates in its creation, he must recognize that he is part of the context that produces corruption. He must therefore get his hand dirty, politically speaking, and take the necessary steps to propose to Ethiopians a democratic Constitution to replace the present corruption-generating Constitution. In liberating himself and Ethiopia from the 1995 Constitution, he liberates himself from the “sad state” of being “The Beautiful soul.” With a democratic Constitution as the legal and political horizon of Ethiopian life, he could successfully deal with corruption.
A Constitution based on the principle of citizenship is like a healthy immune system. It will enable Ethiopians to respond democratically and productively to the numerous changes that Ethiopia will inevitably undergo. It will enable Ethiopia to defend herself from the new and old pathogens of corruption and to respond effectively and democratically to the various challenges and threats she will encounter during the processes of economic, political and social transformations.
Corruption in Ethiopia could be effectively defanged only if the system that institutionalized it—the 1995 Constitution—is replaced with a democratic Constitution. Such a change is what Ethiopians desire—a desire beautifully rendered by a recent song: አዲስ ሰማይ (Addis Semay). Let me quote a stanza from it:
What else is አዲስ ሰማይ (Addis Semay) but a new democratic Constitution that will serve as a “New Sky” under which Ethiopians will flourish, without ethnic othering and corruption, without unfreedoms and exclusions. We all hope that the PM will heed this profound desire of Ethiopians for a “New Sky”—a new democratic Constitution.
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