Ethiopia: The Corruption Game
By Alemayehu G Mariam / May 20, 2013
Are they playing us like a cheap fiddle again? For a while, it was all about the Meles Dam and how to collect nickels and dimes to build it. That kind of played itself out. (Not to worry. That circus will be back in town. The public has the attention span of a gold fish. So they think.) It’s time to change the flavor of the month. Time for a new game, a new hype. How about “corruption”? It’s a chic topic. The World Bank is talking about it. Everybody is talking about it. Even the corrupt are talking about corruption. Imagine kleptocrats calling corruptocrats corrupt? Or the pot calling the kettle black?
I have been talking and writing about corruption in Ethiopia for years. After dozens of commentaries on some aspect of corruption in Ethiopia, I am still drumbeating anti-corruption. I have been “lasing” corruption in my commentaries in 2013. I was flabbergasted by the World Bank’s 448-page report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. I am still reeling from the shocking findings in that report. In my commentary last week, “Educorruption and Miseducation in Ethiopia”, I focused on corruption in the education sector. It is one thing to steal an election or pull off a gold heist at the national bank, but robbing millions of Ethiopian youth of their future by imprisoning them in the bowels of a corrupt educational system is harrowing, downright criminal. Aarrgghh!
“The Administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn made the full might of its power known last Friday, after ordering the arrest of 10 high and medium ranking officials of the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA), along with six businessmen, some of whom are well known… Hailemariam wants to prove that there are no holy-cows…” tooted the opening sentence of an online media outlet. My initial reaction was a bemused, “You don’t say!?” (To be perfectly frank, I exclaimed, “Holy cows? Holy _ _ _ t!!”)
The two dozen “corruption” suspects nabbed in the “investigation” include ERCA “director general” with the “rank of minister”, his deputies and the “chief prosecutor” along with other customs officials. A number of prominent businessmen and some of their family members were also snagged in the dragnet. “Ethiopia’s top anti-corruption official” Ali Sulaiman told the Voice of America Amharic program last week “the suspects had been under surveillance for over two years.”
The anti-corruption crusaders put on quite a show-and-tell on their television service. They put up dramatic footage of wads and stashes of greenbacks and Eurodollars in suitcases allegedly seized at a suspect’s residence. They displayed allegedly fraudulent land records from another suspect and gave interviews on how the suspects engaged in their corrupt practices. (The show-and-tell was reminiscent of the “terrorist” suspects they paraded in “Akeldama” and “Jihadawi Harakat” with caches of guns and explosives. For the “corruption” suspects, it was stashes of cash.)
The regime’s public relations machine kicked into overdrive. Comments by unnamed “Ethiopian activists praising efforts by the government to crackdown on corruption in the East African country” were reported. One anonymous activists declared, “Ethiopia is pushing forward on efforts to help end the rampant corruption within government and business in the country…. We need to clean up our government…” Other anonymous commentators were quoted proclaiming moral victory on corruption. “The arrests are the beginning of a new Ethiopia free from the politics and past craziness and greed that had been part of the country for far too long.”
Divergent viewpoints on the “investigation” and arrest of the suspects were bandied in the Ethiopian Diaspora. Some offered muted praise for “Hailemariam’s government” for launching a “war” on “corruption”. They said the bagging of the two dozen or so suspects represents a shot across the bow for all “corruptitioners” (a neologism to describe professional practitioners of corruption). Others were convinced the suspects were guilty “because everybody knows they are corrupt. They shakedown every businessman importing goods into the country…” They were glad to see these “bad guys” bagged. There were many who dismissed the whole investigation as a sham, a public relations charade. It is political theater staged for the World Bank, the IMF and other donors who are demanding anti-corruption action as a precondition for handouts.
Some even suggested it was a special show staged for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who is expected to visit Ethiopia to attend an African Union summit. The regime bosses can bob and weave against any Kerry punches on human rights and the jailing of dissidents, journalists and opposition leaders by touting their “anti-corruption” efforts. Others viewed the arrests as a fallout of the post-Meles power struggle that is raging among ruling party factions. For the suspects to be arrested, their protector “god fathers” must have been vanquished or purged out in the power play. Still others said the arrest of these particular suspects is the low hanging fruit of corruption in Ethiopia. Going after officials of the customs authority, an agency historically stained with corruption, provides the regime an aura of credibility and magnifies its purported anti-corruption efforts.
I see the whole things with a jaded eye. I am convinced the cunning regime power players are gaming corruption. They are showboating and grandstanding. They are trying to kill two birds with one stone. Nail their opponents and get public relations credit and international handouts at the same time. They are desperately trying to catch some positive publicity buzz in a media environment where they are being hammered and battered everyday by human rights organizations, NGOs, international media outlets and others. It is a public relations stunt and political theatre without much substance or seriousness of purpose. It is standard operating window dressing procedure for the regime. It is red meat for the local population to make themselves look good and drum up support. It is a calculated strategy to reinvent “Hailemariam’s government” with smoke and mirrors. After repeated public cathartic confessions that he is the handmaiden of Meles, Hailemariam now wants to show the world he is Mr. Clean, not Mr. Clone (of Meles). He is no longer part of the corrupt-to-the-core ancien regime of Meles. Mr. Clean is going to clean house and he has already bagged his first “Dirty 2 Dozen”. (Reminds one of Pinocchio telling Geppetto he dreams of becoming a real boy. Hailemariam, a real prime minister?!) What better agitprop to mobilize and capitalize on the infamy of a long reviled and hated agency. If they can’t hoodwink and drum up public support by talking ad nauseam about the Meles Dam, perhaps they can pull it off with a “corruption investigation” of the customs authority. It is sleazy investigating greasy and cheesy.
To say the corrupt Meles regime has no credibility with me is an understatement. The anti-corruption crusaders want us to believe only their side of their story and their silly show-and-tell. But every story has two sides or more. In telling a story, credibility is everything. The regime convicted Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and so many others on lies, fabrications and tall tales. They have no credibility.
I believe those corruptoids are interested in clinging to power, not good governance or stamping out corruption. The only reason they are able to remain in power is because corruption courses in their bloodstream. Corruption is the hemoglobin that delivers life-sustaining oxygen to their nerve center. Without corruption, the tyrannical regime will simply wither away.
I take a dim view of the regime’s “anti-corruption” efforts” not because I am its relentless critic or because I will not miss an opportunity to ding them or make them look bad. I make no apologies for my trenchant criticisms. But the truth of the matter is that if I believed in the slightest that they were serious and genuine about rooting (instead of tooting) out “corruption”, I would be the first to raise my pen and lavish them with praise. I would be rooting and tooting for them.
As I have often remarked, corruption is the malignant cancer that has metastasized throughout Ethiopia’s body politic. That’s why the World Bank’s voluminous report was aptly titled, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia.” It is a “clinical” diagnosis which has determined the cancer cells of corruption are not confined to one organ of state (customs authority) which can be surgically removed and treated with the penal equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation. The corruption cancer has spread throughout all organs of state.
The chemotherapy for the cancer of corruption in Ethiopia is a free press that can aggressively and doggedly investigate and report corrupt officials and practices for public scrutiny. The radiation therapy for the cancer of corruption is an independent prosecutorial office that could catch not only the small winnows in the pond but most importantly the big whales and sharks swimming at the highest levels of government. An independent judiciary that is capable of adjudicating corruption cases with due process of law is also very much needed. The preventive care for the cancer of corruption involves vigilant civil society institutions which can work freely at the grassroots levels and provide anti-corruption awareness, education, training and monitoring. It also involves a genuinely competitive multiparty system that can hold the ruling party and its officials accountable.
None of these “medicines” exist in Ethiopia today. That is why I believe the cancer of “corruption” in due course will destroy the regime though it is the very source of its survival now. More on my views on the “anti-corruption efforts” of the regime later; but a word or two about due process, the rule of law and the “corruption” suspects.
Due process and the rights of the accused
As I was drafting this commentary, I was advised by some learned colleagues that any statement I make that seems remotely sympathetic to the suspects accused of “corruption” could send the wrong message and create the misimpression that I would stoop low to defend even the manifestly corrupt just to make political points against the regime. I was told not to bother because “everybody knows the suspects are corrupt…” One of my feisty friends in a moment of rhetorical impetuosity was compelled to ask, “Why should you care if these S.O.B’s get a fair trial? Everyone knows they are guilty. Let them hang!”
That is where I part ways with my learned friends. The last time I parted ways with them was when I defended Meles Zenawi’s right to speak at Columbia University in September 2010. At the time, I was roundly criticized by friends and some of my regular readers. “How could you defend the ‘monster’ who had denied millions of Ethiopians the right to speak and even breath?” I insisted I was not defending a “monster” but the principle of free expression. My defense was simple, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” My position is no different now. If we don’t believe in a fair trial for those we despise as corrupt, then we do not believe in fair trial at all.
I believe in fairness and justice. I do not believe in revenge or retribution. I take no position on the factual guilt or innocence of those accused of “corruption”. If they did the crime, they have to do the time. However, I believe they have a constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial. In other words, I make no exceptions or compromises when it comes to taking a position in defending the principle and practice of due process of law and respect for fundamental human rights. Those accused of “corruption” now (and those who will certainly face accusations of crimes against humanity and other crimes in the future) are entitled to full due process of law, which includes not only the presumption of innocence and the right against self-incrimination but also the rights to counsel, adequate notice of charges, an impartial and neutral fact-finder, speedy trial and adjudication by the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
My deep concern over the arbitrary administration of justice or denial of fair trial to anyone accused of “corruption”, “terrorism”, “treason”, etc., is rooted in the manifest absence of the rule of law in Ethiopia and the harsh realities of Meles’ officialdom. Any petty “law enforcement” official of the regime has the power to arrest and jail an innocent citizen. As I argued in my February 2012 commentary, “The Prototype African Police State”, a local police chief in Addis Ababa felt so arrogantly secure in his arbitrary powers that he threatened to arrest a Voice of America reporter stationed in Washington, D.C. simply because that reporter asked him for his full name during a telephone interview. “I don’t care if you live in Washington or in Heaven. I don’t give a damn! But I will arrest you and take you. You should know that!!”, barked police chief Zemedkun. If a flaky policeman can exercise such absolute power, is it unreasonable to imagine those at the apex of power have the power to do anything they want with impunity. The regime in Ethiopia is living proof that power corrupts and an absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In my view, denial of due process (fair trial) is the highest form of “corruption” imaginable because its denial results in the arbitrary deprivation of a person’s life, liberty and property. I am unapologetic in my insistence that the suspects accused of “corruption” are entitled to full due process of law under the country’s Constitution and international human rights conventions. The question is: Could they get a fair trial in the regime’s kangaroo courts? Do these “corruption” suspects have the same chance of getting a fair trial today as those accused of “treason”, “terrorism”, “subversion” yesterday?
Article 20 (3) Ethiopian Constitution provides, “During proceedings accused persons have the right to be presumed innocent.” The same right is secured under the Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 7(b) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR). Disrespect for the presumption of innocence has been the hallmark of the Meles regime. To be accused of a crime by the Meles regime is to be convicted and sentenced to a long prison term. That is why I have often caricatured the Meles’ judicial system as kangaroo court justice. The courts are corrupted through political manipulation, intimidation and domination. The 2012 U.S. State Department Human Rights report concluded, “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, andsubject to political influence.” One of the “corruption” suspects during his first court appearance complained of prejudicial pretrial publicity because “state television showed his house being searched.”
There is a long and predictable pattern and practice of disregard for the constitutional right to presumption of innocence and wholesale abuse and denial of a panoply of constitutional rights to those accused of political crimes in Ethiopia. Following the 2005 election, Meles publicly declared that “The CUD (Kinijit) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They were charged, appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, Meles railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, without so much as a hearing let alone a trial. He sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement and later declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” In 2009, Meles’ right hand man labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial as “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long prison sentences.
Meles proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while they were being tried and he was visiting Norway in 2011. He emphatically declared the duo “are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists.” Persson and Schibbye were “convicted” and sentenced to long prison terms.
Violations of the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes by the regime are not limited to disregard for the presumption of innocence. Internationally-celebrated Ethiopian journalists including Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and many others were denied access to legal counsel for months. Ethiopian Muslim activists who demanded an end to religious interference were jailed on “terrorism” charges and denied access to counsel. They were mistreated and abused in pretrial detention. Scores of journalists, opposition members and activists arrested and prosecuted (persecuted) under the so-called anti-terrorism proclamation were also denied counsel and speedy trials and languished in prison for long periods.
Article 20 (2) provides, “Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse(s), close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors. In an interview given to the Voice of America Amharic program last week, a lawyer for one of the suspects complained that he and a bunch of other lawyers were denied access to their clients accused of “corruption” after waiting for five hours. They were told to return the following day because the “suspects were undergoing interrogation.” Yet, Article 19 (5) provides, “Everyone shall have the right not to be forced to make any confessions or admissions of any evidence that may be brought against him during the trial.”
Article 19 (1) provides, “Anyone arrested on criminal charges shall have the right to be informed promptly and in detail… the nature and cause of the charge against him… Article 20 (2) provides, “Everyone charged with an offence shall be adequately informed in writing of the charges brought against him. The “corruption” suspects have yet to be “informed promptly and in detail the charges against them”. “Ethiopia’s top anti-corruption official” Ali Sulaiman told Voice of America Amharic last week that the “suspects have been under surveillance for two years”. Yet at the suspect’s first court appearance, the prosecutors requested a 14-day continuance to gather more evidence. The “court” ruled the suspects can be held in custody “until the Federal Ethics & Anti-”corruption” Commission (FEACC) could collect additional evidence to bring charges against them.”
If it took them 2 years to investigate the case, but couldn’t wait another 14 days to gather the last pieces of vital evidence before arresting and publicly parading the suspects? This is a trick they have used before. It is called arrest and jest. Put the suspects in jail, crucify them in the press and laugh at them as they languish in prison for months on end. There will be endless delays and continuances “to collect more evidence” and the “court” will allow it because the “court” does what it is told by their political bosses.
There is no judicial system in the world where suspects are arrested of committing crimes after being investigated for 2 years and then the prosecution asks for two more weeks to gather additional evidence. The regime’s trial by publicity and demonization will go on. They will keep pumping out unrebutted damaging information in flagrant disregard of the suspects’ constitutional rights to create hostile pretrial publicity. They talk with a loose tongue about the suspects crimes of “tampering with loan-sharking investigations”, “illegal trading and tax evasion”, “improprieties especially involving imports of steel”, etc. Such is the sad fact of corruptoid justice in the regime’s kangaroo courts. Arrest persons presumed to be innocent and go out and look for evidence of their guilt! What a crock of _ _ _ t!
Fall guys or grand fall
There is something strange about the regime’s current “corruption” narrative; and I must say it reflects very badly on Meles himself. According to reports, the “director general” (the alleged kingpin of the “corruption” ring) was appointed by Meles in 2008. He is a “senior cabinet member”. He is credited for “overseeing several tax reforms including widening the tax base, by requiring businesses to install cash registration machines and to become registered for Value Added Tax (VAT).” According to one report, “Under [the “director general”], the amount of revenues the federal government mobilized has reached 71 billion Br in 2011/12, a dramatic increase from the 19 billion Br collected before he took the position.”
Something is not right with that picture. Was Meles so blind and incompetent to select such a “corrupt man” to take the helm of his money making machine? Did Meles select him to oversee his corrupt empire because he knew the “director general” was the just right man for the job? Is it possible that the “director general” is a victim in a political power play? In any case, the arrest of the “director general” and the smear on his character and reputation reflects very poorly on Meles judgment, common sense and integrity. In my view, if the “director general” is truly the corruption ringleader, then he cannot possibly be the capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses), perhaps an underboss or a consigliere.
The anticorruption warriors should be mindful of the law of unintended consequences. If they succeed in their corruption crusade, Meles’ legacy may be at extreme risk. When it came to corruption, Meles had a double standard. For instance, when 10,000 tons of coffee vanished from the warehouses, Meles forgave the coffee thieves and others “because we all have our hands in it”. He threatened to cut the hands of coffee thieves if they steal again. Meles was content to rail against “government thieves” without doing much more. Now Hailemariam wants a single standard of corruption applicable to all. For someone who worships Meles, Hailemariam’s move is downright heresy!
It is noteworthy that the last time Meles mounted a “corruption” investigation was over a decade ago when he rounded up some of his former comrades and their business associates and charged them with “corruption” and railroaded them to prison. Back in the mid-1990s, he jailed the “prime minister” of the “transitional government” on charges of corruption. That “prime minister” ate 12 years in Meles’ prisons. Hailemariam now, without warning, wants to go after all corruptitioners and cut off their hands? Is it going to be the legacy of corruption of Mr. Crook against the promise of good governance by anti-corruption crusader Mr. Clean?
Going after corruption, inc. (unlimited) — the real “holy cows” of “corruption”
In 2011, Meles publicly stated that 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished from the warehouses. He called a meeting of commodities traders and in a videotaped statement told them that he will forgive them this time because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”. He threatened to “cut off their hands” if they should steal coffee in the future. In 2011, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) commissioned report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) on “illicit financial flows” (money stolen by government officials and their cronies and stashed away in foreign banks) from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) revealed the theft of US$8.4 billion from Ethiopia. In 2009, over US $3 billion illicitly left Ethiopia. “The vast majority of the rise in illicit financial flows is a result of increased corruption, kickbacks, and bribery while the remainder stems from trade mispricing.”
In 2008 “USD16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight never to be seen again. According to a Wikileaks cablegram, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the current ruling party in Ethiopia, “Upon taking power in 1991… liquidated non-military assets to found a series of companies whose profits would be used as venture capital to rehabilitate the war-torn Tigray region’s economy…[with] roughly US $100 million… Throughout the 1990s…, no new EFFORT [Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray owned and operated by TPLF] ventures have been established despite significant profits, lending credibility to the popular perception that the ruling party and its members are drawing on endowment resources to fund their own interests or for personal gain.” According to the World Bank, roughly half of the Ethiopian national economy is accounted for by companies held by a business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) cloasely allied with the ruling EPDRF party. EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks. “Generals” and other military leaders have managed to accumulate properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year, a regime general told Voice of America Amharic that he was able to build a number of multistory buildings worth tens of millions of dollars because he was “given bank loans”.
There is an old Ethiopian saying which roughly translates as follows: “There is no beauty contest among monkeys.” A pig with lipstick at the end of the day is still a pig as the old saying goes. There are no good corruptoids. In any power struggle, it is not uncommon for one group of power players to accuse another of being corrupt. Bo Xilai (once touted to be the successor to President Hu Jintao in China) Liu Zhijun and other high level Chinese communist cadres are facing criminal and political sanctions for alleged abuses of power and accepting bribes. Mikhail Khodorkovsky (once considered the “wealthiest man in Russia”) was jacked up on “corruption” charges and given a long prison sentence. Corruption show trials are a powerful weapon in the arsenal of dictators who seek to neutralize their opponents. As I argued in my commentary “Africorruption”, Inc.”, the business of African “governments” including the Ethiopian regime in the main is corruption. Those who seized political power in Ethiopia in 1991 may have believed they were fighting for freedom and democracy, but once they got absolute power, they became absolutely corrupt. They began to function as sophisticated criminal enterprises with the principal aim of looting the national treasury and operating government as a criminal syndicate and a racket. If the regime is serious about corruption, it should go after the real “holy cows” of corruption, not just the unholy cows that have been forced to become scapegoats.
Scapegoating or “anti-corruption”?
The so-called “corruption investigation” appears to be a case of scapegoating. Tradition has it that on the day of atonement a goat would be selected by the high priest and loaded with the sins of the community and driven out into the wilderness as an affirmative act of symbolic cleansing. It made the people feel purged of evil and guiltless. The “corruption” suspects were supporters, defenders and handmaidens of the regime. Now they are made out to be loathsome villains. The sins and crimes of the regime are placed upon their heads and they are driven out into the wilderness. The high priests of the regimes are telling the people they have been cleansed and the community is free from evil. In this narrative, the regime “anti-corruption warriors” become the white knights in shining armor. But no amount of scapegoating can divert attention from the real situation. It is wise for those who live in glass houses not to throw stones.
How to deal with “horruption”
I am compelled to invent a new word to describe the horrible “corruption” in the ruling regime in Ethiopia. That word is, “horruption” (horrible corruption). The extended definition of this word is found in the World Bank’s corruption report on Ethiopia referenced above.
What is the best way to deal with horruption in Ethiopia? Simple. Line up the right social forces to fight corruption. Allow the free press to flourish so that it can aggressively and doggedly investigate and report corrupt officials and practices for public scrutiny. Establish an independent prosecutorial office properly budgeted and staffed (supported by certified international anti-corruption experts) to go after not only the small winnows but most importantly the big whales and sharks splish splashing in a sea of corruption. Take comprehensive measures to increase the transparency of all public institution and translate into action the mandate of Article 12 of the Ethiopian Constitution (Functions and Accountability of Government). Reduce the regime’s involvement in the economy. Allow the functioning of an independent judiciary that is capable of adjudicating corruption cases with full due process of law. Let civil society institutions flourish so that they can maintain ongoing vigilance and work at the grassroots levels to provide anti-corruption awareness, education, training and monitoring. Let there be a genuinely competitive multiparty system that can hold the ruling party and its officials accountable. In short, institutionalize the rule of law. Then we can act against “horruption” instead of talking about corruption.
The regime thinks they can distract attention by talking about “corruption” and selectively arresting a few of their own members and supporters and putting them on show trials. That is nice political theater but it will not solve the problem of horruption unless one believes, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the Ethiopian people.”
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: