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‘Shakiness of governance’ is an irony in description, sounding insolent and provocative at the same time. It may as well be about taking a pertinent jab at a time when the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Associations ushered in a national institute of corporate governance sometime in October 2013 quickly followed by a controversial annual assembly and election.
I brooded over whether to compose a piece of commentary about the recent much maligned annual assembly of the Addis chamber. I asked myself if writing about the Chamber’s annual assembly in critical terms would be construed as being inconsiderate to the very institution that I had the privilege to serve as a Secretary General. I wondered if sentimentality should deter me from bashing the governance of our chamber. Under no circumstance have I thought about lying low and waiting to snipe during the next assembly of members. In addition to compromising credibility, the usefulness of my observations will depreciate with time.
Resolute to give it a try, I asked if there is a handy channel to direct my concerns through to the wide membership. I, therefore, opted to taking on the recent assembly by contributing an article to a newspaper. After all, newspapers are public spaces on which we have to deliberate and debate. Chambers of commerce are also public institutions that should be open to public scrutiny and critique. My best hope is actually that this account of mine will trigger further debate from members and those interested in the state of internal governance of civil societies.
At this point, I wish to declare that I tried to be as sober and dispassionate as I could in the process of evaluating facts for this write up. I note that the lengthy time that has elapsed since the assembly is a neutralizing factor, dampening an otherwise emotional tilt.
As a background, I hasten to happily reminisce that the recent chamber assembly was preceded by extensive media coverage and the ardent election campaign addressed to the electorate. For once, that seemed to lend excitement to the otherwise quiet chamber election. In the last decade, elections at the Addis Chamber, as a matter of fact, were uneventful and pretty much predictable. Candidates for the presidency position were hard to come by, necessitating the formation of a ‘search committee’ to hunt for talents and convince them to run. In the consecutive four elections since August, 2005 preceding the current one, there was no contest in three of them as there was only one candidate each time. In the 2010 election, there were two candidates vying for the office, which resulted in a landslide victory for the outgoing president.
The run up to the current election was distinctively marked by a gathering momentum of energetic campaigning and circulation of election manifestos. Not only did contestants set up election platforms and agendas, they were also seen making it known through the media, not to speak of the lobbying they had to make with individual members. There was also a debate or two on the radio between two election contestants. Such was the fervor leading up to the general assembly that many looked upon the approaching election with positive expectation, indicative partly of the high esteem in which the Addis Chamber has been generally held. I personally received genuine appreciation from many for placing the election contest in high gear and creating a platform. In fact, several a wise people even said that political elections would have been most interesting if individual contestants had taken them personally and competed on the strength of their ideas and merits.
All the same, what provokes this commentary is not as such the dramatic developments that transpired prior to the election as much as the melodrama of the general assembly which betrayed serious flaws in governance. The chamber that many believed could grow to be a model for individual businesses to emulate, failed to pass the test of governance during the general assembly and during the run up to it. The chamber, having gone through many trying times, was supposed to glow in maturity; casting a bright light over the community of businesses. Many actually had believed the Addis chamber has the requisite institutional footing to rise above individual interest and continually metamorphose into a world class institution. (As their vision confirms)
I now proceed to spelling out the specific fractures of the Chamber in the conduct of its business as far as the general assembly and election are concerned. I call them ‘fractures’ because I truly believe in the capacity of the very institution to spring back and re-affirm what is right. The major fractures are stated below.
1. The path to the Chamber election was a muddy ground, rendered so by the wanton interference of the Chamber Secretariat in election matters. Contrary to accepted norms and the strictures of good governance, the Secretariat was actively involved in the election, favoring one candidate over the other. It was seen, in an unprecedented way, lobbying members not to elect a particular candidate, throwing sludge after sludge to undermine the election of the same. In so doing, the Secretariat, which is supposed to show maximum restraint and neutrality, contravened good governance. More surprising, however, is the fact that the Board of the chamber stood by passively and effectively connived in the acts of the Secretariat. Hence, the latter unscrupulously and as if it is a call of duty, promoted a candidate or two while it staged a smear campaign against another with unbridled energy.
The secretariat of any membership organization, with all its material, financial and human capacity, is in a position to abuse its power if it so desires and if a proper oversight system is not in place. In this case, the chamber Secretariat put all its weight behind the election and steered the process using the funds of members. In effect, it meant that the Secretariat of the Addis Chamber which ought to, in normal business, receive oversight from the Board of Directors, turned the table around and appointed its own ‘bosses’.
For this fracture to be repaired in the future, I recommend that top managers in the Addis Chamber sooner than later agree to and sign an Ethics Code which contains elements of good behavior in elections and corresponding sanctions. To draw an enduring lesson, however, a launch of auditing of the practice of the Secretariat in the weeks preceding the election, particularly financial outlays, would be most reassuring.
2. The report of the Board and the ensuing discussion at the general assembly had serious limitations. The Board, through its President, extolled the work done in the last year. One puts it on record that nowhere is mentioned a single weakness or unfulfilled plan of the chamber. It was all through a string of exalted phrase after phrase. Moreover, right from the outset, a deafening applause from some quarters of the hall greeted the verbal report of the President with the motive, which one senses, of pre-empting a critical discussion. The illustrious Haile G. Silassie actually seized upon the occasion to gently discourage this state of affairs by saying ‘let us stop clapping as that smacks of cheap support or – Yetifozo sira in Amharic.
The report was also notable for missing out on major concerns of the chamber. It devoted very limited space to policy advocacy and member satisfaction; two salient areas for annual deliberation. It almost wholly focused on ‘projects’ and ‘capacity building’ as a means and an end as opposed to advocacy and membership services.
I would say that the President’s introductory words that went as ‘we are sitting in front of you today prideful and satisfied’ set the stage and must have given a go ahead signal to the ‘supporters’ to begin shooting praises. Praises were not in short supply at any rate. The President, who also chaired the meeting, had no appetite to open up the floor for a genuine discourse, and answer questions. Besides, he clearly wanted the discussion to revolve around the future head quarter building of the chamber. Over all, the discussion about the report by participants lasted only thirty minutes and the report went through unscathed. The discourse was not worthy of the kind of gathering the Chamber meeting is intended for as it was very low on quality and lacking in rigor.
In the future, as recommended in my election manifesto, the Addis Chamber needs to introduce an independent audit committee directly elected from members and by members in the same way that a Board is elected. This committee will serve as a genuine check and balance device by submitting a report on the salient aspects of the Chamber in an objective and sober fashion. In the absence of such a mechanism, a chamber or any civic association for that matter, will not be able to adequately evaluate performance in such a brief meeting such as the one called by our Chamber once in a year. Besides, where responsibility exists, accountability must reside.
3. The manner in which the people at the podium distributed opportunities to speak was clearly discriminatory. The stage was well set to give the chance to some and to decline it to others. Some people had all the privilege to talk at length with no time limit. At the same time, many in the audience were denied of the same opportunity as they were apparently suspected of being ‘plotters’ or ‘destabilizing agents’. I remember of one member who was waiting for a long time to speak but was never allowed to. Out of desperation, he approached the podium to whisper to the chair person, which this time was the chair of the election credentials committee. He was aggressively waved away by a committee member, sitting beside the chair person, for everyone to watch. Actually, this same person on the podium later blurted out thunderously, exhorting everyone, in a silly way, to be mindful of precious time being ‘wasted’ and use it instead to eradicate poverty.
The process for being allowed to speak was highly selective and for this reason rendered the discourse undemocratic. I, for one, was almost denied the chance even when I was the major subject of the report presented by the credentials committee. I insisted strongly and appealed to the audience for support and made a point by rising to my feet that I would persist to call for the chance.
To conclude, the whole discourse and handling of the meeting was a carefully rehearsed play out of a leadership that so jealously wanted to keep the assembly under their full control.
4. The election of a President and to some extent of the Board was flawed to such a degree that a repeat election must be the cry of all invested in fairness and good corporate governance. At this assembly, the credential committee, handpicked by the Board as it were, presented a shaky report which was full of porous arguments. The manner in which the reasoning was made, particularly about the way presidential candidates were screened, revealed duplicity and double standards. The report went to great lengths to argue that one of the candidates (myself) did not meet a specific criterion which was ownership of a business. Scores of people in the audience raised their hands apparently to challenge the argument and argued that I should not be dropped as a candidate. Particularly, the roundabout and tortuously legalistic approach followed by the committee embittered many in the audience and elicited a spasm of reaction. A couple of speakers based their indignation on the fact that the outcome was to reduce the number of contenders, which the chamber previously had a hard time finding.
Most flagrant about this aspect of the meeting is that the credential committee was unabashed in its attempt to hijack the power of the general assembly and force the meeting to sprint directly to the election without voting being made on the report. With the premeditated support of members of the leadership, the mandate of the general assembly was run over and the election directly ushered in. All protests against disallowing voting on whether the particular candidate (myself) would be disqualified were wantonly disregarded. A committee that was established, following the bylaw of the chamber, merely to facilitate the election in order to save precious time during the assembly, assumed undue power.
Such was the state of the election from the start, encumbered with the heavy interference of the Secretariat which worked hand in glove with some members of the credential committee that one wonders if it has not left an enduring stain on our chamber. To restore credibility, the ninth annual assembly should be re-run and the election held again within a period of time. I suggest that this takes place within three months. After all, the issue of implementing the correct quorum which some members mention time and again could well be taken up together with a fresh election.
5. The ninth assembly will be remembered for the low turnout of members from the trading and industrial community. Only 152 members from this category attended the assembly. This defeated the prediction of even the most cynic. On the other hand, the participation of the members of the sectoral associations was very significant, which was about seven hundred forty strong. Even though questions surrounding the manner in which both categories of members would take part in a general assembly still remain unanswered, I am for now concerned with the genuineness of the representation. There are sufficient indications that many from the ranks of the sectoral associations are not real members. Many in the chamber system, including myself, question if all participants were paying ‘members’.
The leadership in the sectoral associations, for a fact, have never made its list of members known to the mother chamber. The stark implication of this is that non-paying ‘members’ from the sectoral associations are in relative terms enjoying heftier rights than their contribution would warrant. They have become a mighty force, wielding power that goes beyond what is fair and commensurate to their contribution. Worse though was that people who are not actually in ‘business’ paraded themselves in a long file to a meeting of business people and had an overwhelming influence on the outcome including through distasteful tactics such as booing and distractive clapping.
A major precondition for a synergistic working of the different segments of the business community rests on the over hauling of the existing chamber proclamation. Short of that, the manner in which future assemblies would be constituted should follow the spirit and letter of the law as set out in the proclamation. Besides, the sectoral associations should send an authentic list of their members to the mother chamber with evidence of membership dues as settled by the same.
6. To add salt to the wound, the Chamber leadership indulged in a blatant act of stripping a veteran member organization, which is an insurance company, of the right to name a proxy for the attendance of the assembly. The company, in no uncertain terms, was enjoined by way of a letter from sending its prominent and founding member to the meeting. The proxy, who also happens to be a long time president of the same chamber, was barred from joining the meeting both by a written instrument and physically at the gate of the meeting hall. This horrendous act created an unpleasant sight at the gate with a throng of people escorting the barred gentle man in a bid to convince the gate keeper (unenviable assignment) to allow him in.
The chamber board had taken this unprecedented measure with a total disregard for the law, general fairness and morality. Hence, it cast a negative shadow on the particular meeting and the good name of the chamber. In all fairness, irrespective of whether the perpetrating leadership continues to operate or not, the chamber as an institution owes an apology to the gentle man and his company. That will only reflect very positively on a new leadership as being ready to take matters in stride as a civilized group.
To prove the points set out above, I cite that over 300 participants of the general assembly referred to above vacated the meeting hall without casting their ballot cards. This amply demonstrates that many members protested, in a practical way, the undemocratic way in which this particular general assembly and election were run.
To conclude, the Addis Chamber, if it is to win the heart of its members and stakeholders, must demonstrate the highest regard for good corporate practices within itself. Nowhere is this more in demand than during general assemblies and elections. To preach about the virtues of good corporate governance would only be a staring hypocrisy when actually the ground in this regard is slippery or rugged. Nor would chambers be entitled to level criticisms about flaws in the way governments carry out their tasks, when they have not come to grips with the right way of conducting their own business. DEMOCRACY and GOOD GOVERNANCE, whether in a country or an institution, or a family for that matter, are not luxuries but the ultimate touchstones for credibility, hence acceptability.
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