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EAST AFRICA OP-ED

How political polarisation eclipsed State Capture in Ethiopia

How political polarisation eclipsed State Capture in Ethiopia
A vendor counts Ethiopian birr currency banknotes in the Merkato area of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo: Amanuel Sileshi / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Political polarisation and State Capture are inextricably linked since both can lead to a breakdown of democratic norms and institutions. This connection has become more and more evident in the wake of Ethiopia's political transformation in 2018.

From 1991 to 2018, Ethiopia was ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), composed of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (Opdo) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). Political instability, particularly from 2015 to 2018, prompted citizens to express dissatisfaction with the EPRDF’s governance, leading to a major political reform in 2018.

This political reform led to the appointment of Abiy Ahmed, a member of the EPRDF, as prime minister. In 2019, Abiy proposed merging the four-party EPRDF into one party. He subsequently disbanded the EPRDF and founded the Prosperity Party (PP).

The refusal of the TPLF to join the Prosperity Party led to a politicisation of corruption to the point that, while members of the TPLF were jailed without trial in the name of corruption, members of ANDM, Opdo and SEPDM who joined the PP were granted amnesty from prosecution for corruption.

Two symbolic examples of corruption

In this article, the controversial Metal and Engineering Corporation (Metec) and the Unity Park, Sheger Park and Entoto Park project (the Parks) are used as examples to analyse how political polarisation and State Capture developed in Ethiopia. Metec is affiliated with the previously TPLF-led EPRDF party, and the Parks are affiliated with the Prosperity Party.

Metec was a giant business conglomerate established by a regulation of the Council of Ministers. It merged the defence industries, formerly under the Ministry of National Defence, with mixed civilian and military purposes and a capital of 10 billion Ethiopian birr in 2010, less than $184-million at the current exchange rate. The company was the custodian of contracts to supply the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam equipment.

Despite its big role in the construction of the dam, Metec was susceptible to corruption as reported in the UK Financial Times in 2018. Consequently, General Kinfe Dagnew, the company’s CEO and a member of the TPLF, was sued and jailed for corruption, linked to the purchase of a radar system without issuing a bid, financial mismanagement and lack of transparency in spending at Metec.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Abiy has been mired in controversy stemming from the construction of the three Parks in Addis Ababa soon after his appointment.

Unity Park, a grand palace and seat of the Ethiopian emperors built by King Menelik, is located at the prime minister’s office in Adis Ababa. Sheger Park is situated in the heart of Addis Ababa, in front of the prime minister’s office, while Entoto Park lies between the northern limit of Addis Ababa and the tower above the city.

The construction of these projects raised the existence of State Capture because the PM manipulated the country’s financial legislation and Constitution in his favour. The prime minister, who perceives the construction of the Parks as a nationally important project, stated in 2020 that the Parks were constructed with money he received from a donation and not from the Treasury.

However, he did not name the source of the funding.

It was not made clear which legislation had authorised the bid to build the Parks. Instead, Abiy told the House of Peoples’ Representatives on 19 October 2020, not to question why he had not revealed all the sources of funding or how the money was spent.

State Capture undermines the constitution

Although the prime minister said that the Parks were built using donated funds, they were constructed on public land. This is against Article 40, sub-article 3 of the FDRE constitution that stipulates, “The right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia. Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.” 

The prime minister must have been aware that the Parks were built on public land, the country’s most precious asset.

Second, it is not possible to collect and spend money from a foreign source without having the permission of the House of Peoples’ Representatives. This violates Article 12/1 of the Constitution, which says that all government action must be transparent. It can also be inferred that the construction of the Parks was basically in the prime minister’s interest.

Ethiopia’s laws governing financial management do not allow the prime minister to utilise money which Parliament has not approved and that the finance minister is unaware of. However, Article 55/12 of the constitution states that Parliament must ratify international agreements entered by the executive branch (FDRE, 1995). Therefore, the prime minister, the head of the executive branch, must also acquire approval from Parliament for the agreements, loans and grants from any country. 

This shows that the prime minister ignored procedures stipulated in the constitution to build the Parks. 

The prime minister said that he obtained an undisclosed sum of money as a donation. However, how much money was spent on the project and how much money was left over is unclear. Parliament did not question whether the funds resulted in mismanagement and/or corruption. Further, the Parks project has never been audited and/or the audit reports have never been revealed to the public.

This makes it ironic that the government is heard in the mainstream media saying that it hates corruption, while it has failed to be held accountable for spending on the Parks.

Political polarisation between TPLF and Prosperity Party 

As stated earlier, Ethiopia initiated one of the most sweeping changes to its party system in 2019. The TPLF, the leading member of the EPRDF that had governed the country for 27 years, was thrown into disarray, while the remaining EPRDF coalition parties dissolved to form one party, the Prosperity Party.

The UK Financial Times reported in 2018 that the subsequent arrests of dozens of high-ranking security and Metec officials were broadly celebrated in Ethiopia. However, the new government’s selective arrests of the TPLF officials who had refused to join the Prosperity Party undermined the process of the law.

When addressing the House of Peoples’ Representatives, Abiy said the TPLF members could have retained their share of power and been neither sued nor jailed had they joined the Prosperity Party. His discourse is a primary indicator of how corruption has been politicised.

Dagnew, the CEO of Metec and a TPLF officer, was jailed not for corruption, but for not joining the Prosperity Party.

Meanwhile, former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who provided sole direction for Metec to undertake major purchases and operations, and deputy prime minister Demeke Mekonnen, who served as chairperson of the Metec board of directors, were not held accountable for the decisions they had taken while in office.

This is a profound example of how corruption has been politicised in Ethiopia. The double standard revealed that Dagnew would not have been jailed, despite allegations of corruption, if he had joined the Prosperity Party because neither Desalegn nor Mekonnen was held accountable for their corrupt acts due to their loyalty to the Prosperity Party.

Role of the courts in fighting corruption 

The political polarisation that has politicised corruption has had a domino effect leading to the destruction of the country’s judicial system. The courts have been affected by the pressure of the prime minister, who is trying to eliminate his rivals, trampling on the law and judicial procedure.

In contrast, those affiliated with the Prosperity Party continue to oppose anti-corruption policies, undermine the independence of the judiciary, mobilise their supporters and promote populism to hide the truth. 

The prosecutors have failed in their duty to uphold justice. The Office of the Attorney-General has become renowned for its failure to prosecute, particularly high-profile corruption cases involving politicians and state officials, including the prime minister. 

When Abiy Ahmed became the prime minister he promised to abolish past mistakes and dismiss prosecutors accused of wrongdoing by persons who had been prosecuted without adequate evidence to support their sentences. However, political meddling has undermined the autonomy of the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s leadership. The lack of judicial independence enabled politicians to divert judicial decisions to their advantage.

For the Ethiopian nation to survive, the justice system should be independent and free of political involvement.

The politicisation of corruption in Ethiopian politics undermines democracy and weakens judicial impartiality. A politically motivated justice system weakens trust between the federal and regional governments, which, in turn, contributes towards ethnic polarisation. This, in turn, could result in the country’s disintegration. DM 

Dr Hafte Gebreselassie Gebrihet is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town.  This article is part of a series showcasing the research and the thematic work areas of the Nelson Mandela School. Watch a short overview video about its work here.

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