Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

What Would It Really Take to Reverse Corruption

Kebour Ghenna

Today, let’s talk about corruption… at least that’s the buzz in the streets.

A creepy thing happens when a nation allows itself to be ruled by progressive kleptocrats. I say creepy because such rule is intrinsically shaky, as there is no longer any moral or political justification to bind the nation together.

The public sees the value system at the top as: maximize my personal profit by whatever means are available, i.e. complicity, corruption, monopoly and rentier rackets, and they follow suit by pursuing whatever petty frauds and rackets are within reach: tax avoidance, cheating on entrance exams, gaming the land delivery market, lying on finance and job applications, and so on.

But the scope of the rentier rackets is so large, the bottom 95% cannot possibly keep up with the expanding wealth and income of the top 1%, so a rising sense of injustice widens the already deepening fissures in the body politic.

As a result, imbalances grow until some seemingly tiny incident or disruption triggers a cascading collapse…Remember the incident which occurred when authorities tried to enlarge the city border of Addis Ababa?

Meanwhile, the government launches its customary crackdowns on corrupt officials to divert the public’s attention. As of this writing, the recent crackdown boasts the arrest of some fifty plus ‘high’ level officials and business operators. We doubt this newest move can impress the public, who still want to see big name politicians fall. We doubt this will have an impact on the fight against corruption. We doubt our government serves us well.

Like everyone else, we’ve read many books on corruption. We can say that empirically, it is not implausible to associate extreme poverty and perverse inequality to countries with high levels of corruption. Indeed, corruption is one of the most destructive barriers to economic and social development. It takes away resources from the common pool and deprives a large population of partaking in the share of the national cake. Despite the government’s bombastic campaigns, corruption continues to spread its cancerous effects in our public service and society.

Indeed, most reforms to combat corruption by the government have failed to address the deeper systemic drivers. The essential problem is that all the actions taken so were just so much hot air. The trick has been to keep launching, every now and then, new campaigns against corruption so it “won’t happen again”; but it always does… There are just too many vested interests to make progress on this matter.

If we look at EPRDF’s endowment owned companies – for years many people argued that the current connectivity between senior party officials and these companies unfairly binds the regime to business, and ultimately allows business to capture the state, reflecting a process that goes both ways: Business is often politics by other means, just as politics is frequently business by other means, interchangeably, simultaneously, and often somewhere in between.

Regardless whether this is true or not, the perception of corruption across these companies has lingered for years.

Last week a journalist asked to know the key drivers of corruption.

Well, a realistic explanation for corruption in Ethiopia is the ways in which the rules governing the economy have been distorted by power differentials and political factors. These rules – including financial support to select companies, absence of free media, insider information, opaque land acquisition policy, and lack of democracy – have been tipped to favor party officials over ordinary business operators.

If we understand these forces as the principle drivers of corruption, then we should recognize that the conventional markers of democracy – elections and elected representatives – exist as mere facades; the mechanisms of setting the course of the nation are corrupt, and the power lies outside the public’s reach.

History has shown that democratic elections don’t guarantee a clean, functional government. Rather, democracy has become the public-relations stamp of approval for corrupt governance that crashes against individual liberty while centralizing the power to enforce consent, silence critics and maintain the status quo.

So, if this government really wants to reverse corruption in Ethiopia, it has to take its fights to the next level and address the concentration of power at the top end of the EPRDF and more. For a starter it has to:

Lift all ambiguities in endowment owned companies by nationalizing most, if not all of them.

Advance transparency by encouraging exposure.

On corruption cases, put the burden of proof on the accused to show that he or she acquired his or her wealth legally. Any unexplained wealth disproportionate to known sources of income should be presumed to be from graft and therefore should be confiscated.

Help develop a society and culture that shuns corruption. Make sure Ethiopians expect and demand a clean system, where no one accepts giving or accepting “social lubricants” to get things done.

Level the playing field by eliminating the distorting influences of power and privilege. Change the rules that sustain – opaque business financing, absence of free media, insider information, confusing land acquisition policy, and lack of democracy.

Spread wealth, through interventions that directly reduce the concentration of wealth and power.

Restructure the system, to undercut corruption drivers.

Trust is slow to build, but fast to lose. Trust in this government has been deteriorating for quite some years now. The integrity of the Government, the system and the men and women in charge has been continuously questioned. Does anyone think Ethiopia’s ruling party is still capable of taking the right measures and keep the government clean?