Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

Meles needs to let parliament be the boss

Most autocrats think, at least publicly claim to believe, they are the only ones who can lead the country to prosperity.
What worries me most about Ethiopia’s current political atmosphere is a similar rhetoric; that the ruling party needs to stay in power for a few more decades if the country is to thrive. Some even narrow it down to a particular person. You cannot imagine how many people regard Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as not only a matchless leader but also a savior of the nation,  although the Holy Books neglected to mention about his coming. Such off beam supports are partly to be blamed on a self professed inability of the ruling party senior officials to imagine a functional state without them at the helm.
The unfortunate reality of this country is that similar accounts and “Godly” support to people and parties have proved utterly inaccurate in the near past. The country did not collapse after the emperor stepped down nor did it plunge into a civil war when the brutal communist fled the country and a party from a minority group took control. Similarly it will not go poorer or slip into a civil war only because the current regime sees its demise, especially if the party did half of the things it claimed to have done over the past 20 years.
Prime Minister Meles has always claimed he kept a low profile for himself and touted group leadership, his aides reckon this as well. Once I heard him even pointing to a fact that there are very few pictures of him, even in state offices despite a norm to otherwise. Well, that has changed; hasn’t it? From ‘a leader that dared to stop the Nile’ to ‘No poverty to the future generation’, there are plenty of slogans hanged alongside his pictures across the city. But this should hardly be anybody’s worry.
The latest involvement of Ethiopian forces in Somalia sparked another round of discussions; how PM Meles treats lawmakers and “independent” institutions.
Despite some arguments to consider Ethiopian forces’ presence in Somalia as a peace keeping mission, as explained by politicians and law experts it amounted to a war and only the House of Peoples’ Representatives had the power to do so.
The latest authorization of troops into Somalia at least should have been briefed to lawmakers. If the House regular session proved too big to address, there’s a small group which is the standing committee that oversees the government’s defense and security activities. The committee does discuss even public documents in private sessions; so there was no room for information to leak if that was the concern from the executive.
When we look into the fact that the House, which authorized a war back in 2006, retired in 2010 denied information about the expense and the number of men we lost to the mission, the verity that this time the mission didn’t need the House’s OK at all isn’t surprising.
This isn’t the first time Meles undermined parliament and other institutions that are supposed to scrutinize him.
Just to mention recent examples; when the Federal Auditor General accused the government of borrowing more money than allowed by the law, Meles ridiculed the institution for making a junior accountant’s error.
Meles’ next step attacked another institution.  Though parliament’s Budget and Finance Affairs standing committee is tasked to oversee government’s spending by law, and should have investigated the dispute, Meles bypassed it and pushed the agenda out of parliament and had the house majority approve appointment of an “independent” committee chaired by his former state minister. The ramifications didn’t stop there, the PM office later sent a bill to parliament awarding accountability of the National Bank of Ethiopia to the premier. The bill, which later entered the statue books, also allowed the executive to borrow money without any restrictions. No more does the Auditor General report what the executive borrowed from the Central Bank, no more are the law makers and the public made aware of it.
The executive power has grown tremendously; in the last house for example the power to restructure executive organs was stripped from lawmakers and is bestowed to the cabinet.
As Meles takes measures to transfer power by 2015, (I hope this time it is real), I think he needs to empower independent institutions more and give back powers taken from the House and currently awarded to the PM.
Such measures include appointing reputable professionals to positions like the Human Rights Commission and Ombudsman. Some may need corrective measures to replace those already in office; some of the people in these posts are former ruling party officials that suffer from real or perceived allegiance to the ruling party. These institutions need to enjoy more funding and encouragement from the powerful executive to come after the executive itself and in turn win first the trust and later the right of the public.
Accountabilities and powers that went to the premier need to go back to the House. Amendments are also needed like in the case of the corruption watchdog which controversially is accountable to the PM, instead of the parliament.
Looking at the current makeup of parliament and also the infamous history of the three houses that never said ‘no’ to a single executive driven bill, one may ask ‘what is the use?’. My answer is future parliaments hopefully would not look like the current one though executives and leaders are likely to continue wishing for more authority unless stopped by laws and lawmakers. Curbing the influence of the too powerful executive and boosting lawmakers’ influence needs to be Meles’ last three years agenda.