TPLF Inc. survives through repression and not public trust

commentary ten

Aklog Birara, PhD

“Where there is corruption, there is more poverty.”

Robert Klitgaard, one of the world’s authorities on corruption

Those of us who enjoy freedom from constant harassment, intimidation and fear need to remind ourselves each day that the Ethiopian people continue to suffer from poor, corruption-ridden and repressive governance-induced hyperinflation, hunger and malnourishment that is legendary, growing unemployment that drives thousands out of the country each month, glaring wealth and income inequality, pervasive corruption and illicit outflow of resources, dispossession and dislocation of hundreds of thousands from their homes and ancestral lands, and massive transfer of the pillars of the Ethiopian economy to foreigners and a selected few ethnic elites.

The thesis in this commentary is that TPLF Inc. has lost the trust and confidence of the Ethiopian people. There is very little evidence to show that it is ready or willing to reform itself. Nor is there any indication that the donor and diplomatic community appreciate the dangers the country faces in terms of its long-term stability and security and the welfare of its people. What could be more dangerous than the wholesale transfer of the pillars of the economy to foreigners and ethnic allies? The task to support the Ethiopian people rests with all who accept the dangers ahead and are ready, committed and willing to sacrifice time, resources and creativity now and not when things fall apart. We need to move from talk to action; and action is not overseas. It must be rooted in Ethiopia with the Ethiopian people who bear the brunt of repressive governance and economic mismanagement.

In commentary nine of this series, I showed how aid has done little to boost the capabilities of the Ethiopian people including smallholders. Close to 13 million Ethiopians depend on some form of international emergency food aid. A World Bank study last year showed that more than 5 million Ethiopians depend entirely on remittances.  Thus, at minimum, 20 percent of 90 million Ethiopians depend entirely on some form of assistance from outside. Nationally, 21 percent are chronically unemployed. It means that growth has benefitted the few; but has not produced employment for most. At minimum 41 percent of the population is not part of the development process. With per capita income of $350 and with 46 percent wishing to immigrate, it is not hard to suggest that the mythical growth propagated by TPLF Inc. is not meaningful to most Ethiopians. It will not be until and unless Ethiopians enjoy a semblance of freedom to hold their government officials accountable.

In light of this, it does not take much to conclude that the country is more dependent now than ever before in its history. The Ethiopian people have less say and power compared to foreigners who own a large chunk of the pillars of the economy. Equally unprecedented is gaping inequality, corruption and illicit outflow. All these and more are indicators of repressive and corruption-ridden governance.

Anchor the struggle in Ethiopia and embolden Ethiopians

It is the above reality that leads me to suggest again and again that the vast majority of the Ethiopian people reject TPLF Inc. It is also this that prompts me to argue that any struggle for a better future for the Ethiopian people must be anchored in and led by civil society and political groups within Ethiopia. Those of us who sit on the sidelines must be persuaded that we are losing a country and all that this implies. No amount of wealth would recompense such a loss for generations to come. TPLF Inc. is now in the business of mortgaging the entire country in the name of development. What responsible government would allow or encourage the deforestation and desecration of lands around churches and monasteries such as Waldiba in the name of development? What is happening in Waldiba, Gambella, Ogaden, Afar and others erode trust and confidence in the regime. It does not seem to care. A recent example on corruption shows that confidence and trust in TPLF Inc. and its associates is practically zero.

I should like to remind the reader that graft, bribery, mispricing, jaded procurement, embezzlement and illicit outflow are possible in the absence of oversight. Independent oversight is virtually impossible when there are no nationally-oriented opposition parties, independent civil society organizations, academics and journalists. For this reason, TPLF Inc. does anything it wishes and gets away with ‘murder.” Here is the truth. “In Ethiopia today, it is argued, all civil society organizations, opposition political parties, individuals and groups in private enterprise, and other groups are described as rent-seeking, while in contrast, EPDRDF (run by TPLF Inc.), the ruling party, is claimed to be the only one which has developmental credentials.”

This attribution of “rent-seeking” to all opponents is granted to deceive and establish grounds for harassment, intimidation and fear; and to ensure that there is no competition. Here is part of the menu of evidence that says it all. In its seminal report last year, Global Financial Integrity (GFI) lamented that “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit leakage.” The reader will recall that, in 2009 alone, Ethiopia lost “US$3.26 billion in illicit outflow, exceeding both the value of its total exports and the total development aid it received that year.” You will agree with me that it is not leaders or members of “civil society organizations, opposition political parties” academics, journalists or other persons who did this. Critics are in jail or have been forced out of the country. Opposition political parties do not have the freedom to operate in the country let alone own businesses and steal from the society.

Top leaders and supporters of TPLF Inc. do not like people with integrity. Anyone who speaks the truth against the system is an enemy of the party and state and goes to jail if not worse. Truth and patriotism, justice and freedom and other indicators of good governance are inimical to TPLF Inc. As a result, it puts the argument upside down and accuses opponents of “rent-seeking.” The greatest “rent-seekers” are those who run the merged state—ethnicity, party and government. It is they who have perfected political capture and made it an instrument in the accumulation of incomes and wealth nationally. Governance is a business; and businesses will do anything and everything to thwart competition. At least, in the business world, there is some form of regulation and ethic that guides and governs them. In the case of TPLF Inc. there is nothing that contests it. Any contest or any telling of the truth will land you in jail unless you flee for your life. This cannot go on.

In “A Climate of Corruption: Ethiopian edition,” Janice Winter of Investigative Journalism captured mistrust and lack of confidence in the Meles Government when she said this. “Conveniently for Meles, no independent institutions in Ethiopia exists, to check the veracity” of anything, including “of government high growth rates” or corruption or gross human rights violations including killings and rapes. She continues to suggest that, “Indeed, the average growth for Meles’ entire 20 year rule is less than 5 percent (below the African average of 6 percent.” Ordinary Ethiopians know this better than Diaspora tourists who see glitz and accept it as structural change in the economy. Each and every day, Ethiopians live with “hyperinflation, widespread unemployment, a stagnant private sector and corruption.” Here is one critical point that I would like the reader to take. One of the casualties in Ethiopia today is the truth. Top officials of TPLF Inc. fabricate untruth like General Motors fabricates cars. The high growth phenomenon is part of the untruth factory; as is the fabrication that anyone who dissents is a terrorist. In 2005, the regime stole the election after it lost decisively and explained to the world that it had won. By any definition, fraudulent electoral outcomes emanate from corruption and lies.

Security, police and defense forces are deployed in parts of the country where there is potential dissent and threat with little or no differentiation. The Anuak killed or massacred in Gambella, Somali girls and women raped, indigenous people forced from their ancestral homes in the Lower Omo Valley, Tigreans kept numb and silent in Mekele and elsewhere, Amhara speaking residents in the Southern part of the country forced to leave their homes and property and Christian churches razed to the ground, Oromo students harassed, jailed and killed for seeking fair treatment and justice---these and more violations are justified by TPLF Inc. in the name of peace, security and the constitution. For almost 21 years, it has gone uncontested in pitying one group against another; in assaulting one group in isolation from the other and so on. The rest of us watch an untruthful group do this day after day. My question is simple. Don’t you find these as elements of justifiable cause for principled unity and action in unison? I do. These actions by TPLF Inc. erode public confidence and trust in their government and its officials at any level and in any region.

On Yekatit 1, 2004 Ethiopian calendar, Shiferaw Shigute, President of Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP), was accused of corruption and embezzlement. This is not surprising as such occurrences from urban and rural land sales and leases, permits and trade are routine. What is stunning is what he said. He admitted that he and Azeb, Meles Zenawi’s spouse and one of the wealthiest persons in Ethiopia today, colluded and stole millions of dollars in illegal trade of coffee, Ethiopia’s main export. Mispricing of coffee and illegal trafficking and trade in coffee and other commodities are among the major sources of illicit outflow. Meles Zenawi was forced to reverse the decision against Shiferaw. Family comes first; and not justice or the rule of law. The law and constitution are manipulated to serve an unjust and corrupt system.

In a similar vein, Mr. Omet Obang, Regional President, Gambella, was accused of ‘murders and massacres’ of his own people. He said, “If I go to jail for crimes against humanity, Meles Zenawi should to. It is he who gave me weapons and orders.” Obang did not go to jail and Meles remains in power. This is how the system works; and how corrupt it is.

Reports of endemic corruption and recurring illicit outflow of funds and other resources by UNDP, Transparency International and most prominently, GFI prompted global outrage and concern among donors and diplomats in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government was forced to hire an outside firm to conduct investigations of corruption. The country’s so-called Anti-Corruption Commission that has absolutely no teeth hired a Tanzanian firm, Kilimanjaro International to investigate corruption, a cancer that has infected the entire system. The firm was financed by the World Bank and cost almost half a million dollars. The firm interviewed and surveyed 6,500 persons and institutions. To the dismay of TPLF Inc. officials but not to Ethiopian society, the investigation concluded that five of 27 government institutions are the most corrupt across the entire country.

I should like the reader to remember that all state institutions cannot be alike. They play different roles. Some possess authority and power that allow them access to resources; and others not. Some have direct effect on the day to day lives of people and others do not. The five most corrupt institutions of government identified are the following:

  1. Courts. In a country bound by laws and not political allegiance, courts adjudicate matters fairly, justly, impartially and with the highest level of integrity. The institutions that adjudicate the law and regulatory system are, themselves, soiled in corrupt practices. Officials have been reduced to rationalizing and defending a tainted system that cannot be saved without radical reform. Impartiality and justice are only dreams in Ethiopia today.
  1. Police. In countries where institutions are de-politicized and de-ethnicized, public service and security are fundamental and observed by police. This is not the case in Ethiopia today. The police serve as instruments of harassment, intimidation and fear. They do what they are told regardless of innocence. 
  1. Customs. Licenses, import and export permits duties, trade transactions, fees and so on depend on ethnic and party affiliation. Thus, customs officials and their allies at the top have unlimited opportunities to game the system. It is who you know and who you ally with that matters most. No wonder that customs is one the most corrupt institutions in Ethiopia today.
  1. Local and Regional Administration. Urban and rural lands, commodity marketing, the provision of services such as seeds and fertilizers are among the major sources of corruption and abuse of public trust. The SNNP and Gambella examples offer a glimpse of massive collusion. Nothing worthwhile occurs without some insider deals in local and regional administration in Ethiopia today. Now, global finance capital is in the act.
  1. Municipalities. Does anyone know any urban place in the country where permits to acquire a piece of land, build something of value and licenses to operate something, to initiate a business and so does not require some form of bribe. This is why Freedom House and the Wall Street Journal concluded last year that the cost of doing business in Ethiopia is among the highest in the world today. It is “one of Un-freest countries in the world.”

Are there institutions that are relatively free of corruption? Yes; they include Ethiopian Airlines, the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, the National Bank of Ethiopia and the Postal service. I should caution that it is not easy to steal from an airline. Is it? It is not easy to steal from a commercial bank at least directly unless you rob it. By the way, the government robs banks by forcing them to lend to it. The National Bank has become a piggy bank that prints money and contributes to hyperinflation and the erosion of the Birr everywhere in the country. These relatively corruption-free institutions are not the real service interface between the government and its citizens. The five are. So, it really does not make sense to compare apples and oranges as the Tanzanian firm has done.

Given the mix of the survey, the Tanzanian outfit concludes wrongly that corruption is 78th in the hierarchy of national crises.  In my assessment, corruption that leads directly to illicit outflow is at the top of national crisis. Further, it is not sufficient to confine investigation on corruption to money and related concerns. Equally important is political corruption that has led and continues to lead to the rigging of elections. TPLF Inc. ‘won 99.6 percent’ of the votes in 2010 by barring others from competition. The ‘silent violence’ against dissidents, opposition political parties, civic organizations, teachers, students and others is a form of corruption.

The forced relocation of 1.5 million Ethiopians from their ancestral lands by 2015 is an abusive of authority and therefore a form of corruption. TPLF Inc. does not allow opponents to offer viable options; affected citizens have no say in the matter. Continued exodus of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians from their country in search of alternatives abroad emanates from a corrupt and repressive system that does not allow them to prosper within their own homeland. More directly, corruption and illicit outflow of massive amounts of resources out of the country deprives communities, the society and the country the investment capital they need to expand productive capacity and capabilities: build quality schools, health facilities, safe drinking water, and access roads to rural communities, factories that produce fertilizers, basic consumer goods and so on. It is when the structure of the economy changes dramatically that hyperinflation can be contained Corruption and illicit outflow is therefore a tax on this and the coming generation. It is principally the system that produces and tolerates it.

Given the above, how and why would people trust the TPLF Inc. government, its officials and institutions that are corrupt and tolerate corruption; that lie to them that they are better off today than before it took power 21 years ago while compelling them to accept lies as truths; and that repress them while telling the world that these are done in the name of peace, national security, anti-terrorism and development? I am convinced that lies are an integral part of the ethos of TPLF Inc. and will not change until the entire system changes.

Governments with moral and ethical leadership change when they lose the confidence and trust of their citizens. TPLF Inc. and its civil servants seem to be both arrogant and oblivious or are in complete denial that they are unloved and unwanted. Berhanu Kifetew, the head of the Anti-corruption Commission confirmed this when he dismissed the modest findings and conclusions by the firm he helped hire. He said the study lacked “analytical and statistical depth.” This is a pattern. TPLF Inc. reached the same conclusion on killings and massacres following the 2005 elections; the same conclusions following the massacres in Gambella and the Ogaden.

The reader should never doubt that Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people are hurting big time from corruption and recurring illicit outflow of resources. The reader should not doubt that the beneficiaries of the system cannot possibly change the corrupt and repressive system that keeps them employed. The reader should not doubt for a second that corruption and illicit outflow undermine public trust and confidence in the government, its institutions and officials. Corruption will keep Ethiopia poor and push millions more into poverty.

What can we do?

We can do a great deal. It is up to those—within and outside the country--who love the country and respect the hopes and aspirations of all of the Ethiopian people, to work in unison and leave a legacy of peaceful transformation anchored in Ethiopia and owned by the Ethiopian people that future generations would recite and the world would admire. The key is to decide that change will only come if we support the Ethiopian people, civil society organizations, youth, opposition political parties and others in the country. The anchor is Ethiopia; and the social forces are the Ethiopian people. It is they who should guide our thinking and our actions.