Gov’t Institutions Failing to Deserve Trust – Addis Fortune editorial

February 29th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Institutions are the life of a nation; they are the structural framework that provides cohesion to diverse peoples with a variety of interests and needs. From the many pastoralists in the arid Afar and Somali regional states to urbanites in Addis Abeba growing more attuned to the globalised world who seem a far cry from some of the remote tribes of the South, the state is depended on for a number of services.


Institutions are the life of a nation; they are the structural framework that provides cohesion to diverse peoples with a variety of interests and needs. From the many pastoralists in the arid Afar and Somali regional states to urbanites in Addis Abeba growing more attuned to the globalised world who seem a far cry from some of the remote tribes of the South, the state is depended on for a number of services.

Successive governments to the east in neighbouring Somalia have full comprehension of the troubles of administering a people who put more trust and authority in local tribal structures than national institutions. The chaos that has become the norm over the many years of conflict is testament to the need for eliciting national pride through responsible governance that can institute the rule of law.

Here in Ethiopia, there is a tradition, at least in many areas, of powerful central authorities governing vast landholdings and diverse ethnicities; albeit such a tradition has its own shortcomings in creating a welfare society. Though democratic institutions are in their infancy and the current regime has had a rocky road filled with impediments to breaking with past choices to rule by force, slowly the framework for smooth relations between a government and the people who are meant to control it are developing.

When a population has a degree of trust in its ruling hierarchy it can concentrate on the private aspects of life, developing the economic and social fabrics that ultimately characterise a society, and rely on its government to execute its limited and clearly defined roles with due diligence. It is a brand of division of responsibilities that produces a functional state.
Unfortunately, the current offices of many government organisations are not enjoying the confidence they need to operate due to many misgivings on their part. In short, various public service providers are not executing their duties reliably enough to elicit the respect they need from a community that often considers them more of a hassle than a help.

From millions of Birr disappearing into steel beneath a golden cover in the National Bank of Ethiopia’s (NBE) vaults, land, house and car owners who have discovered that they pay the price for fake documents and flawed procedures from the government offices they are meant to trust, faith in government institutions has taken a serious blow of late.But even more troubling is that most of these transgressions on the public trust are signs of a bureaucracy overstretched in the areas or depth it is trying to regulate or control. In many ways, it is not surprising that some of the difficulties have arisen given the room for mistakes and seeming unfair outcomes that have left many wondering how much the state can be relied on.


A nuanced tax structure has many economic justifications, especially in an economy still in a transitional phase from an unproductively centralised regime and characterised by many imperfect markets where activities need to be promoted or discouraged because the invisible hand does not do its job.

However, when a tax creates incentives that lead to unlawful activity seemingly beyond the capacity of the government to control, it is not achieving its function. The appearance on the streets of many vehicles that have not been issued the astronomical 35pc customs duties, 30-100pc excise taxes,15pc VAT, 10pc surtax, and three per cent withholding tax imposed on imports is a sign that the efficacy of these rate should be questioned.

The issue of imposing various taxes on automobiles has backing from city planning perspectives to avoid congested streets and in attempts to redistribute wealth based on the presumption that those wealthy enough to afford private vehicles should provide much needed revenue to a government whose services aided in prosperity creation. However, these rationales are predicated on the assumption that public transportation alternatives are provided for and that tax collection is efficient enough to generate revenue, two conditions only questionably in place here.

But what is even more troubling is that the high tariff rate has created the impetus for importers to present false documents to bring vehicles into the country. After discovering the corruption, the unsuspecting holders of those documents and the cars that unlawfully entered the country are then the ones who lose money after vehicles are confiscated. Though it is commendable that investigations have uncovered the crimes, the placing of punishing losses has to be re-examined.

Those seeking title deeds for imported vehicles will probably think twice before accepting that officials have ensured they are acquiring lawful property. But with a government regulation, they have no other choice and thus are left wondering whether their investment would be secure even after following proper procedures.

The victims of individuals cheating the system and then having to pay for it also extends into housing. While many residents have taken advantage of the programme to form cooperatives to build condominiums, stories of those that have been victimised by cooperative organisers in their attempts are troubling. The programme itself, attempting to replace the inefficient one-storey housing options sprawling the city with constructions using the almost unlimited vertical space, has worthy aims.The problem with almost any land policy coming from this regime is that the state-owned land policy combined with escalating prices, especially in the capital, leaves great room for wrongdoing when weighing the potential gains in corruption and low salaries provided for executing duties according to the book.

But while working to find those that have formed cooperatives illegally, what has been uncovered is local officials that have knowingly acted wrongfully and the unsuspecting cooperative members get punished. Losing land and finished constructions or work in progress, often without deliberately breaking the law, will make these citizens wary of government programmes and thus cause them to lose their effectiveness.

Though sometimes citizens do act outside the bounds of the law, their motives and the circumstances in which decisions are made deserve to be taken account of; if the law is blindly applied, sometimes outcomes seem illogical.Take the numerous mortgages that were signed in front of witnesses but not courts or district or municipality land administration and development authorities as dictated by law. Though these documents were taken as valid for years, the widespread and often accepted practice was reinforced as illegal in a Panel of Justice of the Supreme Court decision based on research by the Court’s Vice President, Justice Memberetsehay Tadesse. As a result, many are now out of properties they believed to be lawfully theirs.

While enforcing the rule of law is important, the efficacy of punishing those faulty mortgage holders should be questioned when regulations could be enforced from the date of the new warning’s issuance. Citizens, of course, must be careful to follow procedures properly, but the simple and accepted way around going to a public notary office that saved them questionable two per cent fees, should be a sign that the requirements and fees may be overbearing.Probably the most grievous mistake recently uncovered that a trusted public institutions allegedly committed, is the phoney gold scandal. While the jury is still out on who exactly is to blame for the mammoth mishap, the central bank, the police, geological service, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MoTI) for issuing the change in procedures for gold acquisitions or another interested party, the sum swindled from the public coffer is room for serious questioning of public bodies.

Fake gold in NBE’s vaults brings into question the trust in a large institution that controls a huge amount of public resources and is meant to regulate other banks. If it cannot watch its own assets, it seems a stretch for the public to grant it confidence to oversee others.


These four recent incidents are symptoms of a deep-rooted problem that undermines the very credibility of the government as a whole. If the bodies that are meant to create and enforce laws are not trusted, the authority of the state will forever be in question.

When public institutions are shown to be failing at their duties at the expense of the public, the government’s job becomes more difficult and attempts at subversion will proliferate. The will to pay taxes or seek employment in the formal economy when the black market persists will be limited.

And it is not just these few aforementioned cases that the government will have to overcome in order to assume the trusted body role it should. The trend of lack of confidence in the government is rather more widespread at alarming levels.

Recent events will only contribute to the diminished faith Ethiopians have in their government as shown by a July 2007 Gallup Poll. The national government was found to elicit confidence from only 28pc of the population while the justice system lagged even farther.

Falling far behind even Sub-Saharan Africa in all of the Gallup Polls’ categories, this country will have a long way to go to instil a sense of reliance on public institutions and service men and women working there. If the government does not pay just attention to this issue soon and in a concerted manner, it is a wonder how the state will provide the cohesion the nation needs.

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