The Jury Still Out on the Judiciary

After Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye’s announcement of an investigation into corruption and human rights abuses, the wave of arrests of senior government officials and the concerted media campaign into the matter, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) released a statement titled “Let’s Fight Cancer Together.”

It was not a call to fight a disease that harms human health. It was instead a juxtaposition between the effects and processes of the spread of cancer inside the human body with that of the abuse of power within the state. It was indeed a shrewd comparison in that cancers are caused by growths of the cell that are part of the body, and they may be mighty hard to cure if detections are not made early on. The statement concluded by stressing that probes into corruption and human rights abuses would continue so that the alleged criminals can be rooted out, and justice and accountability can be exacted.

The statement’s crux though was flawed. It indulges in the short-sighted view that the abuse of power, and the consequential political and economic disenfranchisement of the majority, is the doing of a few individuals with ill intent. Indeed, accountability is crucial but so is the institutionalisation of power.

As cancer thrives in a person who does not undergo periodic check-ups, and drinks, smokes and does not exercise, the abuse of power spreads in a state where there are no checks and balances in government, the media is partial, and the courts are used as an instrument to advance a political agenda. Rooting out the cancerous cells only offers a temporary break and does not ensure against future relapses.

Ethiopia is hardly new to the grand probes of the sort being undertaken now. Experience has shown that they have served as preludes to get rid of political foes, distract from economic problems, consolidate power or curry public favour. The individuals suspected may be guilty but accountability in government, with the benefit of hindsight, has rarely been the prime objective. Unfortunately, collective memory is usually short-term.

That the coverage by the public media outlets was one-sided and seemed coordinated, and that it resembles past probes in style, should have given many a moment of pause. Regrettably, few are the voices stressing that such probes are taking place in a country where, despite many extolled appointments of fresh faces to leadership positions, institutions such as the courts remain weak and parliament mostly continues to play to the tune of the executive body.

There is hope that this time around will be different.

It is evident that holding officials to account cannot be suspended until such a time that institutions can attain the public’s trust. As long as the state continues to exist and holds sway over the distribution of resources, a system of checks, however weak they may be, ought to be retained.

But probes into allegations of corruption and rights abuses need to be scrutinised. It is incumbent upon the public, advocacy groups and the media to rise above biases, call for the fair administration of justice and unequivocally condemn flaws within court proceedings.

How the impending trial will be handled will determine the trajectory of the political reforms currently being undertaken by the administration of Prime Minister Abiy and will set the stage for how officials will conduct themselves and use power for the years to come. If the take away is that justice continues to be selective and administered with political bias in mind, it will not be accountability that will be ensured but a political realignment.

If instead, the courts uphold fair trials before the law when charges are brought, the precedent for democratic maturity could be met. It will only occur if members of the judiciary are hell-bent on warding off any executive incursion made on their constitutional autonomy. Their recent history flags a troubling sign in this respect.

One of the first tasks Chief Justice Meaza Ashenafi, president of the Federal Supreme Court, and her deputy, Justice Solomon Areda, took upon assuming office was a survey of perception from 131 justices and judges about their job. A disturbing 55pc believe the executive meddles in their work, and a whopping 63pc admit that favouritism and corruption stands in the way of the administration of justice.

The jury is out on whether Justices Meaza and Solomon will ensure that this grim picture will change soon. One important litmus test will be to see how the alleged grand corruption and serious human rights violations are tried in the courts. If the courts uphold their constitutional duty to presume the innocence of the accused until proven guilty; ensure that the suspects under custody are treated fairly; transparent proceedings are held; and the righ to a speedy trial is guaranteed, it will be a step in the right direction. It will also be a new era for Ethiopia.

The focus in times of complexity and uncertainty should be to resist the urge to buy into biases, take a critical view and resist interference by the executive. It is about the courage to uphold the rule of law without fear of the powerful and without currying favours for those who are connected. The temptation to falter in these regards could be hard to withstand.

Rightly, Abiy’s analogy shows that the misuse of monopoly of violence and abuse of public funds is a consequence of few individuals who act with impunity and without a moral compass. But such problems are the result of weak institutions, mainly the lack of independence of the judiciary.

Although many positive developments have been witnessed in recent months, power still remains in the hands of those in office, not the office. The same weak barriers exist to prevent the abuse of power, the squandering of national resources, and political expediency at the expense of the lawful exercise of power.

Worse still, when effectively politicised, high profile trials can be great weapons in consolidating power and mustering public feeling. Rhetoric and the prosecution of a few individuals – guilty or not – may make it look like things have changed. But there is hardly any replacement for the institutionalisation of power, which should be the primary area of focus.

Published on Nov 24,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 969]



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