Latest Meles’s appearance in parliament exposed Latter’s unhelpful role in defense of the public’s interests By Keffyalew Gebremedhin
Why this article now?
Initially, this piece was conceived in my mind as a personal reaction to the 5 July 2011 debate in the Ethiopian parliament at the conclusion of its debate on the 2011-2012 federal budget. I would return to that with some observations, based on experience and career in another piece shortly.
The intervention of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has shed light on a number of important economic and financial issues in today’s Ethiopia, especially why things are the way they are. More importantly, I have been educated a great deal about the politics of governance in Ethiopia. This has weighed on me in a profound way, unable to answer where personal interests of politicians at the height of power should end and the national interest should predominate.
The fact that Ethiopia’s existing budget methodology is revamped and replaced by the results based program budget is an advance on its own. However, as I would discuss at some point in a separate article, what dumbfound me during the debate, among others, was how reforms and change are easily compressed and shown as policy advancements. In reality, however, the approach of the leading politicians has been akin to the methods of bees or ants how tirelessly they update their means of control, subordinating purported reforms or any anticipated or implied progress as means of consolidating more power by the ruling party, whose preponderance in every nook and cranny of the country—a favorite phrase of the prime minister’s—has already been overwhelming.
After watching the question and answer session, I bottled inside me my reactions, for whatever reason. Probably I was extremely disappointed and shocked by what I saw and heard. I was restored only when I began leafing though the latest edition of Addis Fortune (10 July 2011) in the morning of 12 July, especially the excellent articles by Staff Writer Samson Haileyesus (http://www.addisfortune.com/Meles’%20Candid%20Admissions.htm) and the Editor-in-Chief Tamrat Gebre-Giorgis’s (http://addisfortune.com/Meles Dismissive of-Elusive on Former WB Director.htm). I was happily awakened from my inertia, realizing that others had also felt the same way and are writing about it fearlessly in a country where they can easily become victims the next moment.
Their articles are rare pieces of journalistic jewel, which I have so much enjoyed and for which I am very grateful. Until their observations encouraged me to do my part—go to my computer and write as a concerned citizen—I did not realize until I wrote this piece that I was badly in need of therapy to overcome the shocks I suffered watching that political drama on the Ethiopian parliamentary floor.
Parliaments only a place for crooked whips
Parliaments are politically cleansed of unwanted elements, i.e., opposition to the government in power, in democratic countries through democratic means winning by substantial majority of the electorate and in Ethiopian by doctoring the ballot box. In those circumstances, experiences of ruling parties have shown that chance of parliamentary whips losing good night sleeps is one of the rare things in politics.
On occasions, when tough but non-fatal questions are asked in full public view in parliament, the whips usually spend their pre-voting days harmonizing the thinking and actions of those members that dare to ask the tough questions. When the big mouth in question is their own, the whips may give him/her dress-down in private, bearing in mind the need to curtail such behavior in future.
For some, depending on their effectiveness, this may even bring rewards and promotion to buy their diffidence. Party whips keep in mind the need for balance between on one hand image of the party, i.e., avoiding criticisms by public that the party has become floor mat to critical remarks by unworthy opposition, which could be perceived by the electorate as sign of poor performance and poor delivery. On the other, account is taken of avoiding the danger of individual party members bolting out and joining the opposition altogether.
Such situations depend on political maturity and to some degree on appreciation for openness—never the party’s capacity to indulge into physical violence, which can sooner or later traced to the culprit. They cannot venture into this in countries where the institutions of government first and foremost uphold the right of citizens, the public interest and the equality of everyone before the law. Nixon forgot that and lost the presidency on account of which he chose to go into thuggery and paid the ultimate price.
Aware of that, therefore, the party leaves openings for internal debates so that individual parliamentarians get things corrected on societal concerns. Or they even systematically cultivate an internal dissident(s), deliberately making out of them heroes of the party that speak their minds. These individuals are assets to the party, whose credibility is an asset that can be used when things get pretty rough during the days of political slippage or misfortunes.
The Ethiopian experience
When the questioning individual (parliamentarian) is from the opposition bench, as we saw it during the life of the last parliament in Ethiopia especially, senior officials of the ruling party from top down usually pounce at the questioner in public with manufactured accusations and embarrassments. They do that talking in codes, which in the end compels uninformed citizens to question the loyalty such marked individuals would have for the country. Allegations or charges of supporting or advocating secessionist and terrorist tendencies, e.g. Eritrean agency, OLF, ONLF, SLF, etc. are leveled at them, especially more often by the prime minister. His lieutenants and their media echo this to the extent of making the individuals outcasts.
When convenient, the state representatives position themselves into knitpicking a galore of human failures with intention to take away from either the truth stated by the individual, or deprive him or her of credibility to speak again about anything, others—especially the government in particular. Or, at its lowest, their actions become no different from schoolyard ridicule by bullies, on pronunciation differences between ‘fiscal’ and ‘physical’. Last time we witnessed rapping by the prime minister in public view, portraying the individual as incapable of pronouncing properly what he wanted to say in terms of ideas. This was intended to inject doubt whether that member of parliament was educated after all. Recall in this regard, the exchange at the close of the last and final session of parliament in 2010, when the PM jumped on a non-point on opposition leader Temesgen Zewdie.
Perhaps by then, the PM had vowed there would be no more opposition members in this parliament beyond one seat, which now is occupied by Ato Girma Seifu, whose interventions always now boil the blood of the prime minister. Fortunately, during the 5 July parliamentary debate on final hearing of summary conclusions on the budget, it was only the rolling of eyes by the PM that the camera caught when he heard that member’s voice.
As a matter of fact, he was asking the right questions with utmost politeness. Evidently, many on the government side had displayed implicit doubts, but only feigning ignorance and asking to be educated, what is and what is not in the agreed over Birr 118 billion at the level of the parliament’s budget and finance committee, which in a way made explanations provided by the PM as necessary after the budget superfluous. That is not what I am concerned about at this stage.
Was Ken Ohashi really an incompetent Country Director for the World Bank?
Among the many questions that were darted at the prime minister was what Parliamentarian Tadesse Meselu raised about the critical article written by the outgoing World Bank’s Ethiopia Country Director Ken Ohashi. Ohashi suffered unfortunate lashing from the usually unrestrained tongue of the prime minister’s on 5 July.
In his absence, Ken Ohashi could not defend himself against charges of incompetence in his work. He was also accused of being spoiled, a behavior, it was said, he allegedly acquired when serving in an ‘underdeveloped country’ (emphasis added) before he came to Ethiopia. The prime minister went to the extent of stating that the fact that Ohashi spoke with such liberty at his exit in retirement as abnegation of responsibility both to the Bank and Ethiopia.
This he said was in complete contradistinction with the position of the World Bank that pumps money into Ethiopia with uninterrupted regularity in support of the government’s program. The incident took place on the floor of parliament, astonishingly the latest victim of this sharp tongued out of pocket attack by the Ethiopian prime minister was not a parliamentarian from the opposition camp. Instead it was the outgoing World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia Ken Ohashi.
Simply put, Ohashi was reduced into a person heading into his twilight, retirement years with frustration. The prime minister accused him of failure to change the lots of those countries he served before coming to Ethiopia. He added that in the years he was in Ethiopia the representative’s arrogant mentality was rejected as was his attempts at imposition of his neoliberal ideology.
The best I can say is I found the public hacking of an international civil servant embarrassing, whose professionalism and uprightness is appreciated by those who knew him closely. In his years of service of Ethiopia, Ken Ohashi has been upfront about speaking his mind. Those who knew him better say that he was itching to engage the Ethiopian government on its programs and alternative venues and least cost possibilities.
By the same token, he was lightening road against international critics when he seriously thought their criticisms were unfair. A case in point is what he wrote on The New York Times (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/24/cruel-ethiopia/) about allegations that aid to Ethiopia was waste of good monies. In his letter, he defended government policy and actions against poverty and realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) as Ethiopia being one of the few African countries likely to attain their targets, as stated below:
“Development assistance is a complex and difficult task. In a recent article, “Cruel Ethiopia” [NYR, May 13], Helen Epstein highlights some of the challenges. However, I think that Ms. Epstein’s argument conflates two closely linked, but separable, topics.
Fundamentally, development assistance aims to promote national development for the country and the reduction of poverty for its people. In this regard, Ethiopia has an impressive performance, with economic growth accelerating sharply on a sustained basis since about 2003, despite the global economic crisis. Since 2000, Ethiopia has recorded the second-fastest improvement in human development in the world, according to the UNDP Human Development Report 2009. This measure relates to more Ethiopians living a longer and healthier life, being better educated, and having a decent quality of life.
With regard to the globally agreed Millennium Development Goals, Ethiopia is making significant progress in all areas. The country is on track to meet goals relating to extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and developing a global partnership for development. Good progress is also being made in reducing child mortality and ensuring environmental sustainability. Despite having already achieved gender parity in primary schools, Ethiopia is likely to fall short, as of 2015, on the targeted improvements for promoting gender equality and empowering women and improving maternal health.
These achievements in national growth and poverty reduction are important measures by which donors assess the effectiveness of their support to Ethiopia. They show that donor funding to the country and peoples of Ethiopia has yielded substantial results that have had a significant impact on improving the lives of the poorest families. They are also testimony to the government’s strong commitment to improving basic services and building a backbone of infrastructure (i.e., roads and electricity) that can facilitate economic growth. Such government commitment is central to sustained progress in the development process.
As important as they are, the results sketched out above are not enough, for ultimately the goal of development in every country is the freedom for every individual to realize his or her full potential. There are concerns about the overall governance of the country, efficiency and fairness of resource use, the risk of dependence on aid, and protection of basic human rights, as Ms. Epstein points out. We recognize these concerns, and development partners in Ethiopia take them seriously.
We start, however, with a belief that in every country people want to be self-reliant and prosperous, and to develop a transparent, accountable, effective, and efficient governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task, as an external development partner, is to support that innate tendency.
However, building institutions, public and private, that assure every citizen’s right to and effective delivery of public services takes a long time; indeed, it never ends, as we can see even in the most industrialized countries. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks. It is, therefore, crucial that development partners work with the long-term process of change, always in support of it, not in control of it (which is impossible in any case).
Of course, this does not mean that we ignore the negative impact that our assistance may bring. That is why we monitor the effects of our assistance closely and maintain continual dialogue with the host government on issues that hinder a robust and sustainable development process. And this is precisely the approach we follow in our efforts to assist Ethiopia.”
After all, is it not ridiculous that the government of Ethiopia should now charge that Ken Ohashi has proved ineffective in countries he served before he came to Ethiopia? His appointment by the World Bank in Ethiopia was supported by Ethiopia. How come that it did not reject him right from the start, when it knows full well, as it alleges that he was incompetent and ineffective in countries he served previously?
The established practice is that, just like the appointment of ambassadors, in which case agrément is sent for of reaction of receiving government, if the reaction is positive. All UN agencies do follow the same procedure, accepting or rejecting being the prerogative of governments, with no further questions asked about it at any time by anybody. That is what all governments do in such circumstances—they carefully vet the person they accept or reject for such positions. In the circumstances, if the Meles regime has not done that in the case of Ken Ohashi the failure is its own, not that of the t World Bank or the outgoing county director.
The situation brings to mind that availing oneself to statesmanship may seem a free ride to the ambitious, whose rise is a function of military action. In reality, statesmanship is not. It comes with a very accurate measure of the individual possessing and demonstrating in action three long established criteria. I was recently reminded by the 2011 Reith Annual Lecture what Max Weber has brilliantly defined as the three pre-eminent qualities of a politician—“passion, responsibility and a sense of proportion.”
What have utterly been lacking all this time in Ethiopia have been a good sense of responsibility and a sense of proportion, as the above has demonstrated. How could a polarized society, such as Ethiopia constantly kicking and crying on the brinks of disaster and all round crises could heal, when political power simple-mindedly and single-mindedly pushes what only advances its stay in power?