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The “bleeping” business of corruption

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

The Audacity of Corruption: Illinois Style

Corruption here, corruption there, corruption everywhere! It seems the worldwide business of corruption is recession-proof. Last week, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested on charges that he peddled the Senate seat held by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. The foul-mouthed and self-indulgent governor was unrestrained in his sales pitch. Quoting wiretaps, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald recounted key portions of Blagojevich’s conversations with others concerning the Senate seat: “We were approached pay to play, that you know, he raised me 500 grand, then the other guy would raise a million if I made him senator… It’s a f_ _ _ _ _ _ valuable thing. You just don’t give it away for nothing. I’ve got this thing, and it’s f_ _ _ _ _ _ golden.” [1] Fitzgerald had to bleep out Blagojevich’s numerous profanities at his press conference. President-elect Barack Obama was swift in condemning Blagojevich’s conduct, and in calling for his resignation. In separating himself from the culture of corruption in Illinois politics, the President-elect gave an insightful lesson on the meaning of public service: “Here in Illinois — as is true, I think, across the country—there is a tradition of public service, where people are getting in it for the right reasons and to serve. But there’s also a tradition where people view politics as a business. We have to reclaim a tradition of public service that is about people and their lives, and their hopes, and their dreams.”

The Business and Culture of Corruption: Ethiopian Style

A few days ago, the “former prime minister” Tamerat Layne was given early release after serving 12 years on an 18 year sentence for alleged corruption and abuse of power. Tamrat was released because he “showed good behaviour while imprisoned.” It can hardly be said that corruption in Ethiopia is limited to a few rogue officials at the top. To be sure, corruption prosecutions of top officials seem to be motivated not so much by a desire for clean government, but rather by calculations aimed at purging and incapacitating former political and business allies who are perceived to pose a challenge or threat to Zenawi. Seye Abraha was another victim of dubious corruption charges who served 6 years in prison. Just a few days ago, it was announced that Mekdes Aklilu, Board chairman of Nile Insurance and Abebaw Desta, a major shareholder of the Star Business Group, were being held on suspicion of corruption. Apparently, these two individuals were previously acquitted of corruption charges after serving five years in jail. There is that overpowering stench of political prosecution when it comes to former Zenawi allies-allegedly-turned-crooks.

The fact of the matter is that the culture of corruption is the modus operandi in the Ethiopian body politics. Former president Dr. Negasso Gidada clearly understood that when he declared in 2001 that “corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core,” adding that the government would show “an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic”. In 2007 when Ethiopia’s auditor general, Lema Aregaw, reported that Birr 600 million of state funds were missing from the regional coffers, Zenawi fired Lema and publicly defended the regional administrations’ “right to burn money.” That same year, Ethiopia was ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world (Ethiopia CPI rank 138/179; Eritrea, 111/179) by Transparency International (the Corruption Perception Index measures perceptions of the degree of corruption in a country as seen by business people, country analysts and experts who are locals in the countries evaluated and ranges between 10 (highly clean) and 0 (highly corrupt)). Ironically, in 2003, Ethiopia signed the U.N. Convention Against Corruption; and a couple of months ago, a conference on institutions, culture, and corruption was hosted jointly in Addis Ababa by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

“The Hubris Syndrome”: The Power of Corruption

The British historian Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In other words, a person’s moral compass goes bonkers when his/her power increases. More recently, Lord Owen, a former British Foreign Secretary and a physician and neuroscientist by training, argued that power does not just corrupt politicians, it can actually drive some of them nuts. In his 2007 book, The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power, Owen argued that for many politicians at the top, power has an intoxicating effect much the same as a mind-altering drug. They become hubristic (possessed of arrogance, pompous, overbearing, supercilious, and overconfident) and isolated and live in their own make-believe reality. Focusing on Bush and Blair, Owen argues that the dynamic duo in their hubristic incompetence manipulated intelligence and sought to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, while completely oblivious of the need for an exit strategy or a post-Saddam Iraqi reconstruction. The “hubris syndrome” is evident in Blagojevich’s wiretap transcript as he brazenly solicited prospective candidates to buy the Senate seat for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Zenawi bragged that he will crush the “jihadist threat” and exit “out of Somalia in a few weeks.” He called those who opposed his invasion “donkeys.” Two years later, thousands of Somalis have died and hundreds of thousands displaced. Zenawi now says he is leaving Somalia. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are intoxicated with power. They are disdainful of those who disagree with them believing that they are unaccountable to the law or the democratic process. Blair was mistaken in his belief. He was held accountable. Bush will soon leave office with the dubious honor of the most incompetent and dimwitted president in American history. Blagojevich will soon face accountability before a jury of 12.

The Corruption Fighters

There is nominally a Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (FEAC) in Ethiopia. Established in 2001, FEAC’s mission is to sensitize society that “corruption will not be tolerated by promoting ethics and anti-corruption education.” In 2005, FEAC established a website “so that the public would get access to it and obtain information on the Commission’s activities, performance, plans and programmes.”[2] The most current annual report posted by FEAC on its website is for EC 1998 [2005]. Accordingly, FEAC provides anti-corruption educational and training programs and performs corruption investigations. It has a public relations and ethics education division with 33 employees holding diplomas in “languages and literature, education, political science and international relations, theatrical arts, curriculum, and communication psychology.” A Corruption Investigation Department with 38 employees is “authorized to investigate suspected corruption offences where they are committed in public offices or public enterprises or in the regional offices relating to subsidies granted by the Federal Government to the regions.” Whistle blowers provide tips for corruption investigations. The Prosecution Department with 24 employees has the responsibility of prosecuting corruption cases and has pre-trial asset seizure powers. The Administration and Finance Department has 70 employees. The Corruption Prevention and Research Department has 28 employees. According to the website, “in full capacity, the FEACC is supposed to have a staff of 293 people… At the end of November 2006, it had 200 staffers, 93 professionals short of the required total.”

As the old saying goes, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” According to the website, as of EC 1998 (2005), FEAC has “offered ethics and anti-corruption education to more than 15,000 people drawn from different cross-sections of the society, raising public awareness on the consequences, causes and manifestations of corruption.” Among the recipients of the ethics and anti-corruption education were 8,339 employees of 74 public enterprises and offices; 836 members of the Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa City Administrations Police Departments and 412 graduate students from the Arbaminch, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Adama and Haromaya Universities. FEAC has also conducted opinion surveys in “Oromia; Amhara; Tigray and South Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional States and the Addis Ababa City Administration.” It has “delivered advisory service for 267 ethics officers on how they should fight corruption,” and “developed five modular text materials, which are to be used as teaching materials in expanding ethics and anti-corruption education in the years to come.” FEAC gave over 52 press briefings and responded to information requests from some 866 organizations and individuals. Its staff “wrote some 35 articles (all of which were published in government papers) on corruption and mechanisms of fighting it. Tens of thousands of brochures, magazines, fliers and posters [have been distributed].”

According to information on the website, whistleblowers have triggered corruption investigations in the Office of the Ethiopian Olympic Committee, Wonji Showa Sugar Factory, Akaki Metal Works and Steel Factory, Guenet Hotel, Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization, Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency and Muger Cement Factory. “On aggregate, the FEACC received 945 tips-off from whistleblowers and complainants on alleged corruption offences, infringement of rights and reprisals.” The Prosecution Department “filed charges against 79 alleged corruption offences… and obtained convictions in 28 cases. In total, 45 corruptors received from 3-13 years of imprisonment. The corruptors were found to be involved in the acts of forgery, extortion, bribery and nepotism.” (Italics added.) In 2005, FEAC’s budget was Birr 10,322,386.46.

Corruption Mitigation in Ethiopia

Corruption persists in Ethiopia because there are people in power who benefit from it. Having the beneficiaries of corruption to oversee corruption control is like having the fox guard the henhouse. An anti-corruption commission has been at work in Ethiopia since 2001, but by 2007 Ethiopia is still classified as one of the most corrupt states in the world. The fact of the matter is that significant inroads against corruption in Ethiopia are currently impossible for many reasons. As Peter Eigen, chairman of Transparency International has observed, “in many parts of the world, the local people are resigned to the fact that there is corruption. They think there is nothing they can do about it. Therefore they more or less try to accommodate themselves, pay bribes themselves.” Most Ethiopians aware of the anti-corruption effort are likely to view the whole effort with a jaded eye. At best, corruption control in Ethiopia today is a matter of triage. Does one start tinkering with corruption at the very top, the bureaucratic middle or the street level traffic cop? In a recent analysis, Professor Seyd Hassan has demonstrated the systemic and structural nature of corruption in Ethiopia in his analysis of the “link between ethno-centric minority rule and the culture of corruption in the ruling regime.”[3] Prof. Hassan’s analysis shows the problems of anti-corruption campaigns in a one-party, one-man dictatorship. One can not reasonably expect to root out corruption by setting up a toothless anti-corruption commission or by paying lip-service to the cause of good governance to impress international donors. Effective anti-corruption efforts require an active democratic culture and a vigilant citizenry empowered to confront and fight corruption in daily life.

Genuine anti-corruption efforts must necessarily begin by empowering ordinary people to fight back against corruption. There are some successful experiments in grassroots anti-corruption efforts where ordinary people have been given the tools to fight back. In India, for instance, they have successfully organized local “vigilance commissions” in many towns and brought together the vulnerable and interested groups to probe into corruption. These commissions have put a dent in local corruption. In Bangalore, city residents have been involved in rating the quality of all major service providers in the city. The results were used to put pressure on government officials and service providers to ensure that service providers were accountable to citizens. In parts of Brazil they counter corruption by engaging citizens in “participatory budgeting.” By including citizens from various backgrounds in the process of budget allocation, they have been able to decrease levels of corruption and clientelism. In the U.S. many states and local governments use their grand jury system to investigate and prosecute corruption. Last month, for instance, a grand jury in South Texas indicted U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and former attorney General Alberto Gonzales for “organized criminal activity” related to alleged abuse of inmates in private prisons.

There is also much to learn about corruption control from Botswana, regarded to be the least corrupt country in Africa according to Transparency International. It is said that a big welcoming poster adorns the Gaborone Airport in Botswana with an unusual message to incoming travelers: “Botswana has ZERO tolerance for corruption. It is illegal to offer or ask for a bribe.” In Botswana, they use the strategy of “name and shame” to educate and accentuate public awareness of corruption. Using the free press as a tool, for instance, Botswanans name and shame corrupt officials by publishing their photographs on the front pages with the headline: “Is this man corrupt?” Botswana’s top political leaders are said to maintain high levels of public integrity and teach by example. There does not appear to be a case of corruption prosecution of a government minister or top official in Botswana in recent memory. Peter Eigen credits Botswana’s success to the “Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime in Botswana [which] has processed thousands of [corruption] cases since 1994 and has made great strides against corruption.” In 2007, Botswana had a CPI score of 5.4 [38/179]. All of these examples point to the fact that citizen involvement and monitoring are very effective in reducing corruption and increasing public integrity. Creating a bloated self-perpetuating anti-corruption bureaucracy is mere window dressing. The real answer to corruption lies in the empowerment of ordinary people to defend themselves against their corrupt predators.

Prosecutions: Where the Rubber Meets the Road!

FEAC’s own data shows that bona fide corruption prosecutions and convictions are negligible. No doubt, education is a necessary component of an effective anti-corruption campaign. Education and training programs sensitize both the corrupt officials and their victims to the corrosive effects of corruption and the devastating impact it has on the poor and the general social welfare as resources are siphoned off from schools, hospitals, roads and other critical projects to line the pockets of those who are members of the offcialdom. But there are few deterrents to corruption that are as effective as vigorous prosecutions and asset forfeitures of corrupt officials. Bona fide criminal prosecutions with well-publicized trials of corrupt officials and tough prison sentences will go a long way in controlling corruption. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney who filed the complaint against Blagojevich, had previously prosecuted and convicted Republican Illinois Governor George Ryan and 60 other officials and businessmen for racketeering, fraud and other crimes corruption. He also successfully prosecuted top aides to Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daily, and the Chicago City Clerk. Despite Fitzgerald’s unblemished prosecutorial record, Governor Blagojevich dared to run against his buzzsaw. (Nobody said corrupt criminals are necessarily smart.) Tough and relentless prosecutions will certainly put a dent in corruption in any country. There is no reason to believe that aggressive, uncompromising and relentless corruption investigations and prosecutions will not dampen the alacrity of predatory officials who make it their bleeping business to victimize and rip-off the poor and vulnerable in Ethiopia.

Corruption as a Human Rights Issue

There is a growing movement to make corruption a legitimate human rights issue. The movement draws its inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which under Article 28 prescribes that all people are “entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.” Peter Eigen, Chairman, Transparency International [Corruption Index] suggests, “[C]orruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights.” The poor and powerless bear the brunt of corruption throughout the world, which is in violation of the non-discrimination principles of the UDHR. More people are beginning to appreciate the fight against corruption is a human rights imperative.

Is it Futile to Fight the Bleeping Business of Corruption in Ethiopia?

Corruption in Ethiopia is an evil with a thousand faces. It is woven into the fabric of the political culture. The anecdotal evidence shared with us by so many Ethiopians is somewhat discouraging and dispiriting. It seems there are few things that are not tainted or stained by corruption. We are told of outright theft and embezzlement of public funds, misuse and misappropriation of state property, nepotism, bribery, official favors to friends and acquaintances and other forms of abuse of public authority and position to exact corrupt payments and privileges. Several months ago we learned that millions of dollars worth of gold simply walked out of the bank. Banks loan millions of dollars to front enterprises owned by regime officials or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral. A high level official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks from a Chinese official. The individual stories of corruption are shocking. Doctors can not treat their patients because medicines are diverted for private gain. Others are asked to pay tax on medicine and medical supplies brought in for public charity. Businessmen complain that they can not get permits and licenses without paying huge bribes or taking officials as silent partners. They complain that publicly owned assets are acquired by regime-supporters or officials through illegal transactions and fraud. Others complain they are unable to participate in public contracting without paying hefty bribes. Businessmen in the import/export business complain of corrupt customs practices. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference. Ethiopians on holiday visits driving about town complain of shakedowns by police thugs on the streets. The anecdotal evidence of systemic corruption is just overwhelming.

We are cautioned not to get our hopes high. As one victim reminded us, “The thugs who are in power are bleeding the country dry to line their own pockets. They rule by the power of fear and greed. As long as they remain in power, corruption will remain rampant.” We would like to believe, as does President-elect Obama, that a tradition of public service and a culture of public integrity is the ultimate antidote to corruption. We also believe public service is “about people and their lives, and their hopes, and their dreams.” Those who are engaged in the business of corruption should heed Karl Kraus message: “Corruption is worse than prostitution. The latter might endanger the morals of an individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country.”


2 thoughts on “The “bleeping” business of corruption

  1. Thank you professor for your elaborate expose on the corruption of the “criminal family” and their accomplices.

    The recipes for rooting out corruption are also well presented.Can the regime replicate Botswanas’ style? I don’t think so, for it’s predatoy that thrives on it.

    Merry Christmas and a happy New Year dear professor Alemayehu!

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