When the Ministry Wags the Minister

The state of emergency that was declared on an October Sunday was lifted a little more than a week ago – after it was extended by four months – when members of Parliament attended an extraordinary urgent meeting, despite differences within the establishment over the decree’s life span.

Few could have anticipated that only a year after the Revolutionary Democrats, and their allies, won every single seat in parliament, major unrests could rock the country to the point where the government is forced to announce a nationwide state of emergency. The decree, the populace was told, would stay in place until the questions that compelled such a decision could be addressed.

Still, there is a prevailing view that holds the very reasons that led to the dramatic turn of events, which propelled two of the largest regions in the country into abject political turmoil, remain unaddressed. Even if the effort to calm tensions with a nationwide state of emergency were complemented by a pledge to a comprehensive cabinet reshuffle.

Expectedly, the rescission of the state of emergency, and the revocation of a state minister’s impunity in connection with the current high-level corruption probe, was what dominated the news for the couple of days that followed the parliamentary session.

An equally important event, though, was another move by the Parliament to approve, by a full vote, yet new appointments to seats whose ministers have been relegated (rarely consigned) to foreign missions such as Kassa Teklebrehan, the former minister of Federal Affairs and Pastoralist Area Development.

Such a move, in the dictionary of the Revolutionary Democrats, is merely significant. They see institutions as an end to policy and reforms. Individuals, even high-ranking officials such as ministers, are not expected to affect government bodies but simply serve under them.

A case in point is the Ministry of Education, the department that was for a long time headed by Genet Zewdie (PhD), who, like most of her peers, left to become an ambassador. After the election of 2015, Shiferaw Shigute was approved by Parliament to serve in Hailemariam’s cabinet. In the 2016 reshuffle, Shiferaw was replaced by his namesake, Shiferaw Teklemariam (PhD). But the second Shiferaw himself did not last that long. He was made an ambassador in 2017, as Tilaye Getu (PhD) was made to serve as the minister of Education.

There was one minister of Education for every Ethiopian fiscal year.

These are some of the institutional complications – complications to outsiders – the Revolutionary Democrats have inherited from their Marxist-Leninist predecessors. The Dergue – the military Marxist junta that ruled the country after a coup – in line with its centerline ideology, stipulated that individualism was a foregone statement, no one person was expected to bring change to an already established state of affairs. When society and country should have been an end to man, man became a set piece to a nation of commonality.

A state of being that, far into the rule of the successor party, and with every election, is rearing its head, especially ever since the general election of 2015.

After an election that went smoothly despite ominous predictions of unrest, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, chairman of the party with an absolute majority, announced his choice of nominees to a slew of positions. Without much fanfare, the ministers and director generals were sworn in by the Parliament that endorsed them for office.

It was indeed an exhaustive reshuffle whereby most of the ministers that were appointed only a year earlier were reassigned to different ministries all throughout the government structure. And in a tradition rarely archetypal of the party, technocrats (still holding party cards) found home in administrative positions.

Such a move was expected to abate discontent that all important posts are sedated by simple political appointees that lack a deeper knowledge of the sectors they are overseeing. Almost no one noticed that even technocrats need some experience in politics if they are expected to brave legislative agendas.

The challenge such confusion brings to institutions is not insignificant. Ministries, or any other government body for that matter, are not self-sustaining, they have to be made to continue to serve in the same optimum capacity. The only way this can happen is if leadership is fully realized, if there is continuity, albeit a healthy one with a defined limit on how long terms of office should be.

But there is something about the individual that irks Hailemariam’s administration. It fails to see the pitfalls the culture of reshuffles creates. It does not understand, or chooses to ignore, the manner with which serious policy making and, far more importantly, deliverability could be affected.

Ministers at the federal level, owing to the large size of their domain, need time to get briefed on the ins and outs of the sectors, and just as crucially, the office politics of a department. And in some cases, where the appointee has little in the way of experience, these briefs can take not just weeks, but months.

In the meantime, a state of vapidity will be created in the leadership position lending an arm to a situation whereby ministers have to depend on the civil service serving down below. And while it is never unacceptable for ministers to learn from public servants who have experience, over-reliance to such a degree will unavoidably disrupt power structures that are detrimental to effective management.

There is also the issue of transparency. While there are many that have been shuffled around, some manage to serve for a long period of time. But it is hard to correlate this fact with the success of the ministries themselves. It is neither the failure nor progress of the ministries that is determining term life, thus the ministers’ merit, but an invisible political game that is taking place behind closed doors, under the veil of extreme secrecy.

It all comes down to the question of the individual, and that individual’s role in politics.

To what extent is a minister allowed to affect a ministry, or is a ministry a solid governmental entity whose aims and principles are written in stone?

If an institution fails to advance, or devolve, in any shape or form with the change of leadership, then that institution is not giving enough credence to new and innovative ideas. It is only moving in a direction that has been set for it by the powers that be.

And if the only justification the Revolutionary Democrats could throw in the public’s direction is that ministries cannot possibly be affected by changes in leadership, then, it is no wonder certain officials have the prerogative to claim they are not accountable to negligence and corruption that takes place directly under their noses. They are emboldened by a way of thinking that queries from them not ideas, but regularity. It throws the entire argument for elections, assessments and democratic rule into question.

Published on Aug 12,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 902]



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