Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) was in parliament in mid-July with Muferiat Kamil, speaker of the legislative house, to oversee the signing of agreements between 20 federal agencies and the standing committees assigned to monitor them.
The agreement listed tasks to be executed by federal agencies at the end of the fiscal year, unannounced visits that will be conducted by members of the standing committees and stated that evaluations of the federal agencies will be broadcast live.
The agreement is a manifestation of the current administration’s promise to institute good governance, an elusive subject said to be behind many of Ethiopia’s political and economic ills. By empowering the standing committees, the agreements are expected to reinforce the oversight capabilities of parliament.
This process will only have a marginal effect. It attempts to bring about reforms by introducing more robust checks and balances on the power of government, a major component of effective administrations and inclusive democracies. These reforms though will still have to be implemented by the same institutions that have nonetheless failed to deliver since the 1995 constitution that operationalised them.
Empowering parliament to carry out its duties effectively is not a fatuous step, but it should be augmented by a centralised system of administrative laws and court structures instituted to adjudicate disputes between governmental institutions and the public.
This will enable citizens to take the bureaucracy to task in cases of inefficient provision of public services or poor administration. It arms the ordinary public with the legal recourse to challenge members of the bureaucracy of state and federal agencies when they have been denied public services, inappropriately delayed or when poor services have been provided to them. It is a means of empowering citizens to demand quality and efficiency for services rendered and to protect the public from the abuses of a bureaucracy that is supported by taxpayer money.
Administrative procedural laws have remained underdeveloped in Ethiopia as a result of the absence of centralised laws that pertain to limits of power, procedures and legal remedies that are instituted to combat maladministration. If the executive is to be checked satisfactorily, the government must put in place laws with specific jurisdiction over matters of administration.
The French model that creates a clear separation between civil and criminal laws and administrative laws is notable in this respect. France has a three-tier hierarchical system known as the Council of the State, which has the administrative and appeals courts under its wing. It is a self-sufficient system that manages the relationship between administrative agencies and citizens.
There are, indeed, legal remedies that allow citizens to establish legal challenges to the bureaucracy under the regular courts in Ethiopia. But citizens will find it difficult to challenge the bureaucracy in the regular courts since it is inconvenient and too time-consuming. Additionally, a lack of precedents have not instilled public awareness about legal remedies for such cases.
An ineffective bureaucracy may have a momentous impact on the nation’s politics and economy, but its harmful effects are too thinly dispersed for the general public to realize that taking such matters to court could be worth the effort.
Administrative laws can be more effectively enforced and utilised through administrative courts established within federal agencies. While some agencies like the Civil Service Commission have administrative courts, tribunals that are formed inside public institutions largely perform the task of adjudicating complaints and the appeals process.
But the tribunals mainly deal with service matters. They can be a tool for challenging administrative decisions by federal agencies but not in matters regarding poor services or abuses by the bureaucracy. The judgments can also be slanted as they will be based on the policies and regulations of the respective agencies.
Tribunals are also part of the federal agencies’ bureaucratic hierarchy. Although they are rule-bound to serve impartially, they are a part of the executive body that can interfere with the tenure, terms and conditions of the tribunal members.
Administrative courts deal with all matters of law. Citizens can challenge the decisions given, as well as the poor administration of services that they incurred, by the bureaucracy. These courts are staffed by persons trained in the law, and their decisions are not subject to departmental policies or directives.
Administrative courts are part of the judicial structure and are legally sanctioned to function independently. Their decisions are independent of the agendas of agencies that they serve and follow parameters determined by law.
Administrative courts are set up to give citizens a convenient platform where grievances against the bureaucracy can be lodged to find legal remedies. They can function as checks against a body of government that has remained unaccountable and has been inflexible and inefficient in Ethiopia.
A crucial element has to be met first though. If administrative courts fall prey to the same subservient position of the regular courts to the executive body, their effectiveness will be reduced. The regular courts’ inability to punish the executive when it overreaches, and the failure of the courts to curtail senior government officials from flouting the law, has lost them the public trust that democratic institutions dearly require to thrive.
It is incumbent upon parliament and the state councils to assure that judges at the federal and state levels are appointed based on merit instead of political loyalty. There will not be much use for administrative courts if they are suspect to the same ills that the bureaucracy suffers from, and the public feels they cannot find remedy there.
Good governance is a vague term, but at the very least, it ought to imply the ability of the government to deliver what the populace demands. Parliament and the regular courts can check elected officials, but there ought to be a full-fledged system designed to safeguard against impunity in government.
This implies fending against poor policies and inefficiencies that would otherwise go unpunished under any other administrative system outside the public sector.
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