Ethiopia: No Hope for EPRDF to Govern Well
By Eyob A. Balcha
Published two days apart, two of the widely read newspapers in Addis Abeba dedicated their editorials to one of the pertinent issues in Ethiopia – “the lack of good governance”. Fortune’s editorial on July 12, 2015 and Reporter’s (Amharic) editorial on July 15, 2015, lamented on the current state of socio-economic and political governance in Ethiopia. Far from being just a coincidence, both editorials identified core elements of ‘bad governance’ and the ‘lip service’ that EPRDF is giving to the issues of good governance.
Surprisingly, both papers wanted EPRDF, the sole culprit of bad governance, to be changed, probably miraculously, to be a saviour of good governance. In my reading, both papers would like to see EPRDF embracing good governance and remaining far from the sin of paying lip service.
I completely disagree with the line of analysis, the recommendation and the request that both papers made. I will present my argument in three points.
The discourse on good governance is overrated in that it overlooks a number of other essential issues. Hence, it is unnecessary to call for the prevalence of ‘principles of good governance’ in Ethiopia, let alone to apply them to resolve the socio-economic and political challenges.
I would also argue that the current ideological orientation, organisational setup and national political economic context, makes EPRDF nothing but a political actor that is infested with political corruption, clientelistic network and opportunism. And not least, deriving from the previous assertions, I contend that EPRDF cannot afford to clean itself from these malaises without compromising its grip on power. Hence, it cannot ever be a source of change towards having responsive and accountable governance.
The excessively technocratic and simplistic assumptions of the good governance discourse offer nothing but politically crippled solutions. Good governance, since its inception, is predominantly about the formal procedures of doing business, the strict application of standards, improving the skills of the civil service through ‘capacity building’ and so on.
Whenever good governance schemes fail to deliver, ‘lack of political will’ is echoed by many without any practical solution of igniting this political will. By attempting to formalise and universalise all processes of doing business in every context, the mantra of good governance is far from making itself relevant to the interests of political and economic elites of many countries.
Since it is too fixated on the ideal principles of impartiality, the rule of law, accountability and so on to prevail everywhere, political cadres and officials find little to no incentive to practice it. If these principles are strictly followed, there will be no room for personal and group benefits. Hence, the political game is for political officials and cadres to master giving lip service to the principles mentioned above. In practice, they will either turn a blind eye or remain deeply immersed in clientelism, nepotism and all kinds of corruption.
Another of the major limitations of the good governance discourse is its failure to give recognition to informal political and economic relations within society. Good governance has no room to accommodate the role of relationships, political incentives and alliances that underpin the function of public and private institutions as well as policy implementation processes.
Its denial of, or limitation to seeing half of the big picture makes good governance discourse and practice a stillbirth. The vital role of informal relations – in spite of their significant difference to the principles of good governance – needs to be adequately recognised so that their negative role is tamed and their positive contribution is harnessed. Informal relations are salient elements of every encounter from the kebele and wereda level interaction to high level diplomatic negotiations at United Nations level, through what is often called corridor diplomacy.
The Revolutionary Democrats claim that they are now transformed into ‘Developmental Democrats’. They are now on the mission of striking the delicate balance between the two inherently contradictory processes of development and democracy.
What makes their mission historically, structurally and institutionally an uphill battle is the fact that our society has experienced neither democracy nor development in a meaningful manner. However, this is not to sympathise with them. It is a fact that EPRDF has been consolidating its grip on power by every means through repression, nominal elections and politically instigated laws. So the party is successfully maintaining the legacy of its predecessors, to the point that controlling state power is becoming above the law and crushing alternative views and dissent has become the norm.
A number of reasons can be mentioned to show why EPRDF is a wrong candidate to champion the practice of good governance. To start with, expecting any element of good governance from a party that combines its structures with the state institutions, often times to the total submission of the latter, is simply unrealistic. In today’s Ethiopia, it is hardly possible to find state or public institutions that are truthful to the principles of their foundation and purpose.
Instead, most of them are under a strong control of the ruling party; to chant for its celebrations and to be rocked by its tribulations. The public media, religious, educational, police and justice institutions are good examples.
Furthermore, the Revolutionary Democratic ideology with strict adherence to democratic centralism makes EPRDF officials more responsive and accountable to their internal political games and power struggle, than to the public posts they assume. Political loyalty either through legal or illegal practices is more rewarding than accountability to the electorate. Hence, the current political economic governance system is corrupt by design not because it fails.
Organisationally, especially after 2005, EPRDF attracted nearly six and half million “members” with the establishment of multiple, overlapping and cumbersome structures of control and mobilisation in rural and urban areas. Along all these structures, there are embedded networks of clientelism and nepotism that shape the daily routines of the party and government officials.
These relations influence every essential sphere of state-society relations; from accessing fertilizers and improved seeds to getting jobs, educational opportunities or micro finance. The clientelistic link becomes more complex and insulated from the public as it gets higher, to the level of accessing big loans, land, procurement and running huge commercial businesses. Thus, as clearly put in the words of EPRDF itself, ‘rent-seeking’ and ‘opportunism’ are core problems of the country, and the breeding ground is no one but EPRDF itself.
Does EPRDF have any political incentive to work towards the prevalence of the principles of good governance? What is at risk if accountability, the rule of law and impartiality are maintained in every social, economic and political decision?
Right now, there is no political incentive for the EPRDF to implement the principles that are decorating its documents and the walls of public institutions. Winning 100pc of the legislative seats is by no means the result of being a responsive, accountable or corruption- free government. It, rather, is a reward of massive political repression, state sponsored and institutional corruption that also feed into the economic growth.
There is no political incentive that can push EPRDF to go for the establishment of accountable and responsive government. The party will certainly risk the unparalleled dominance that it enjoys to control every aspect of socio-economic and political life of the country, if it opts for any form of having a responsive and accountable government.
In conclusion, the purpose of this reflection is to challenge the two implicit assumptions that both newspapers took for granted. The assumptions are on the exaggerated role of good governance and calling the incumbent to realise good governance in Ethiopia.
I argue that good governance offers a very limited remedy for our problems. Moreover, the current state of ‘bad governance’ puts EPRDF in a very comfortable position to continue business as usual, because its dominance is hardly challenged and is not likely to be, at least in the near future.
Rather, EPRDF is using these messy socio-economic and political processes to consolidate its power. As it stands, EPRDF has absolute power and what we are witnessing is the fruits of absolute power, including absolute corruption.
I did not intend to offer a solution to this problem, but to just discuss and examine the implicit assumptions. I may reflect on possible solutions in another piece.
Eyob A. Balcha Is a Doctoral Researcher At University of Manchester, United Kingdom. He Can Be Contacted At Ebalcha@gmail.com.