Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has been making the rounds in a charm offensive to regions of the country since his swearing-in by the parliament. Many a time, he has reiterated the need for accountability and efficiency in government. The real test of whether or not there is the willingness to make politically tough decisions was to come in the restructuring of the Council of Ministers. The outcome was not encouraging though.
Much of the focus in the days and weeks leading to the cabinet reshuffle has been whether or not non-party members of the EPRDF would be invited to serve in his administration. There was an understandable eagerness to see if the ruling EPRDFites would uncharacteristically allow members of opposition parties to head some of the 25 ministries.
This would indeed have brought a measure of the checks and balances between branches of government Ethiopia’s Constitution calls for and what a close to three-decade rule by a single ruling coalition has eroded. The EPRDFites have had control of the parliament, executive organs of government and the courts for such a long time that the line between state and party have been blurred.
What should be a worry here though is not the mere appointment of party-affiliated ministers or director generals to head government agencies. It is the partisanship of public officials down the line of hierarchy and the inexperience of the heads of government agencies.
Political appointments are not unique to Ethiopia or other countries that are considered flawed democracies or have weak democratic institutions. It is a sort of a spoils system and is also exercised in nations that have practised democracy for over a century, such as the United States. The head of the winning party or the party itself after an election usually appoint or nominate members from that same party to lead organs in the executive branch of government and to serve as high ranking diplomats.
This could be detrimental as policy continuity may be sacrificed in the process and years of careful planning could be wrecked. Ethiopia faces a major problem here. The minister of Education, Tilaye Getu (PhD), for instance, is the third person to lead the ministry since 2015. Fozia Amin is the fourth minister of Culture & Tourism since only 2016. Such rapid changes of heads of ministries will likely disorient the management of sectors and lead to stagnancy.
The EPRDF under Abiy has followed suit with a line of a political culture that is evident throughout the democratic world. What is adverse is that the cabinet reshuffle contradicts Abiy’s assertion that competency and meritocracy would be used as the minimum criteria.
Sixteen ministers were appointed to ministries, and 13 were kept – both including director generals with ministerial ranks – in their places. Of the former, only 10 were new faces. None of his nominees for approval to the parliament were from another party, which disappointed members of the public.
The drawbacks to such political appointments though can be cushioned if experience or academic training is considered and those down the line of hierarchy are committed to serving the public. The former is a fundamental criterion, and had the party remained committed to Abiy’s promise, heads within the same party with better qualifications to the ministries they are to run would have been nominated.
This could prove disastrous for a country whose Prime Minister needs to make deep structural changes in the efficiency of government and how officials perform their duty. This is especially true for the public institutions whose autonomy or competence he has a significant part to play to assure.
No amount of brilliant strategies could matter if they cannot be executed. Fancy-sounding approaches to streamlining the public sector such as deliverology, kaizen and business process reengineering (BPR) have been adopted throughout the years, but none have succeeded. Opportunism, parochialism, wastefulness and inadequacy are still bywords for the condition the public sector finds itself in.
Worse, the bureaucracy at public institutions has remained too biased to the ruling coalition. Unprofessionalism and political partisanship have trickled down the line of hierarchy and led to a state where public institutions are active in the business of promoting or furthering self-advancing initiatives of the EPRDF.
This is especially evident in the nation’s democratic institutions that remain ill-qualified to serve fairly those that challenge party policies or ideologies. Such is the condition, the separation between state and the party has gradually been eroded, leading to an erosion of trust in public institutions.
That Ethiopia faces a shortcoming within its institutions when it comes to the execution capacity and the performance ability of constitutional duties has been echoed publicly by officials. What has not realised is the political commitment to address the problem by bringing to the fore individuals that have the expertise to implement the political and economic reforms the country direly requires.
The country faces an almost 13 billion dollar trade deficit, low-skilled labour force, paltry information and communication industry, insufficient agricultural output, hamstrung tourism sector, youth unemployment, nonindependent judicial system, and low domestic revenues. These challenges have aggregated to produce an unhealthy economy and have given rise to public discontent.
There are ministries dedicated to managing and proposing policy prescriptions to address each of these challenges. Nonetheless, during the six-year term of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, all of this ills have either remained stagnant or worsened.
This cabinet reshuffle was a chance to set the tone for how the ministries should be organised. It could have introduced meritocracy into the political culture of the EPRDFites.
The Office of the Prime Minister though is imbued with a great power to play a crucial role in the appointment of high-level officials in the federal government. He can reshuffle his cabinet at any time and can also nominate Commissioners, and the president and vice-president of the Federal Supreme Court.
It is thus unfortunate if Abiy allows politics to dictate upcoming decisions. There are considerable shortcomings in the executive branch of government that have tossed the country into political and macroeconomic crisis. From corruption to ill-considered execution of policies, executive agencies have slowed the economic growth of the nation.
The executive part of government needs to be reformed to a great extent. And this can start by placing the right people in the right positions, with experience or academic training as the minimum criteria. In the instance this does not take place, inefficiency will continue, and the creditability of institutions will be eroded.
The ministers likewise have an exceptional sway in how the respective government agencies they head will be organised. The greatest task should be to assure that public sector jobs are not awarded through patronage but skill. They face the greatest task of creating an efficient and just bureaucracy, which they ought to tackle by holding dearly to one of Abiy’s prescriptions – merit and competence.
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