Four of the chairpersons of the member parties that make up the coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) sat side by side to announce what was unthinkable few months ago. The Federal Police Crime Investigation Centre, infamously known as Ma’ekelawi, would be closed to be reopened as a museum.
Ironically, the statement Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn alluded to is a facility employed by the defunct military regime for torture did not go well in the eyes of members of the public for obvious reasons. Not only has the facility remained in use for the past 26 years under the current regime, but there are also many victims of torture alive today to testify they were subjected to cruel interrogations.
The announcement of the closure, however, is a significant symbolic gesture that should be welcomed.
For the ruling party, the move is part of the effort to “widen the political space” for a nation that has seen unrests in at least three of its regional states. A political turmoil that officials first took as a fleeting annoyance when students protest in public universities of the Oromia Regional State gained traction on social media, it has since meant too many lives lost and properties damaged.
The party’s leadership though never took responsibility; not for far too long. The buck never reached those offices up at Arat Kilo. Instead, the youth bulge, the “forces” based overseas and lack of good governance by the rank and file took most of the blame.
To counteract, Hailemariam reshuffled his cabinet, inundating it with technocrats. And the youth was promised a 10 billion Br revolving fund by President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) – a day after the Prime Minister declared a State of Emergency – to address the challenges to job opportunities, in the hopes that it would get them out of the streets and the stress. And a directive released mere days after the declaration forbade watching Diaspora based satellite channels.
But public discontent grew too fierce, continuing along the typical state of affairs the party had gotten used to in over a quarter of a century of political leadership. The State of Emergency, declared by the Prime Minister in October 2016, was a symptom of this. Initially meant to last six months, but extended for four more months; it at least succeeded in pacifying unrests but failed to provide long-term solutions to what ailed the country.
As the Central Committee of the EPRDF sat for 17 days to carve out a path for the nation whose populace is suffering from unease, fresh of the heated Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) meetings that saw a change in leadership, there was hope that the events of the past three years would weigh down its leaders’ shoulders. For a nation which, the EPRDFites concur, is at a crossroads, leadership has first to take its fair share of responsibility for the mistakes that have led down this rabbit hole. The communique by the Central Committee issued two weeks ago left much to be desired, and not only where solutions were concerned. Aside from acknowledging that the Executive Committee of the EPRDF took the blame full and square for much of what is happening in Ethiopia, it failed short of pointing out just who in the top-leadership is responsible and how they should be held accountable.
For those that have followed the Revolutionary Democrats closely, there was not much surprise there. The law has consistently failed to extend to the incumbents of the higher levels of office – an annoying habit in that the top-leadership has nonetheless continued to demand subservience to the constitution from the rank and file. Akin to the corruption probe that began last August, gross failures on the part of the administration in managing and handling public resources has never been made the fault of individuals in key administrative positions. Yet, the public continues to demand heads to roll.
Over 150 administration officials have since been allegedly accused of causing the country to lose billions of Birr. Despite this, there is little in the way of queries directed at the ministers of those institutions. They may not have committed crimes, but it goes without saying that there is a shortcoming to effective leadership if they have allowed these much resources to disappear right under their noses.
Same goes for the 20 billion Br undocumented transactions by 158 public institutions in the last fiscal year. When the Auditor General told the parliament of a country whose officials are consistently complaining of shortfalls in domestic revenues, the most representatives of the respective institutions received were reprimands. The 44,000tns of sugar to be exported to Kenya that ended in turmoil, with the responsibility for the failure afforded to no one, tells a similar tale.
Incompetence could only be tolerated to a certain degree, and when these institutions keep failing the public, it is natural to look to the leaders for answers. Be it ineptitude that is allowing those at the bottom to abuse the mandates of their offices, or leadership that is putting personal or party expediency ahead of the public good, appropriate actions should be taken to ascertain that duties are carried out competently and responsibly.
The buck thus could stop at the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister’s recent failure to heed summons for a pending federal court case that involved opposition leader Bekele Girba et al, citing a busy schedule, is a trend that has best encapsulated senior officials’ contempt for the rule of law. It leaves behind a bad example that some are indeed above the law.
It is similarly an illustration of the judiciary’s weakness. It should have served as an occasion for the leaders of the judiciary to tender their resignations protesting, perhaps taking a page out of Wubishet Shiferaw’s, former president of the Federal High Court, book. Today’s leadership inside the judiciary should find the conviction in their courage to repeat Wubishet’s challenge to the late Meles Zenawi that he would resign unless the then Prime Minister apologised in front of parliament for calling judges names. There is little purpose in the judiciary if it could not check authority, and even less in judges if they could not uphold the full power of the law.
It does not take a political genius to realise that change through peaceful means will not come if the government, with its full force of the security forces, do not opt for it. And there will be little in the way of change if leaders refuse to take responsibilities for their mistakes and shortcomings. This has been a fact of reason and wise judgement that has eluded the Revolutionary Democrats from the moment they gained the keys to the highest offices of the land.
There is a good chance that little of this, if any, is lost on the Central Committee of the ruling party. There have been too many promises made in the name of change, but little of that has materialised thus far. And preaching economic development successes have long ceased to sustain hope in the populace to the extent that it creates stability. But overturning that culture of unaccountability could set the right precedence that all citizens are equal before the law, and before institutions existent for no other purpose but to, as Hailemariam often puts it, “widen the democratic space” and ascertain the rule of law.
In the absence of accountability of those in the highest offices of power and the assurance of the rule of law, shutting down a facility of coercion remains that: symbolic. There is no guarantee that similar cruelties will not happen in another facility elsewhere.
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