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Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Strikes Out Against Culture of Corruption (Part I)

19 mins read

The Fierce Urgency of Now.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The time for justice sector reform is now. We have not been successful with our intervention until now. If there’s going to be judicial sector reform, the time is now. If reform is not done now, if the foundation is let to collapse, it will never be fixed. P.M. Abiy Ahmed

Author’s Note 1:

On November 15, 2022, H.E. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attended a session of the Ethiopian Parliament for a Q&A session. He addressed a variety of political, economic and social issues.

In an extraordinary response addressing the justice system and judicial sector, he offered some observations that shock the conscience, astound the mind and paralyze the body.

He said the culture of corruption in the justice system and particularly in the judicial sector has become a malignant cancer that has metastasized throughout Ethiopian society and in the Ethiopian body politics. He said the endemic official corruption together with inflation are the twin evils posing a clear and present existential threat to Ethiopia.

In the strongest terms and in language uncommon in general public discourse, PM Abiy named, shamed and gave a public dressing down to those in the justice and judicial sectors.

Two days after his appearance in Parliament, PM Abiy announced the establishment of a 7-person national anti-corruption committee which includes the Attorney General and the head of the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service.

The announcement directly engages the public in the national life-and-death struggle against corruption. It provides a 24-hour hotline, a text message number, an email and website address to report actual and suspected cases of corruption.

PM Abiy has thrown the gauntlet at practitioners of corruption.

Truth be told, PM Abiy has been talking about the issue of corruption from the very early days of his appointment as Prime Minister in April 2018.

He drew particular public attention when he softly warned those who have stashed millions in Dubai and elsewhere imploring them to bring it back and invest in Ethiopia.

In a memorable observation, he advised those involved in corruption “not to take the ill-gotten money home because it will become poison and destroy their families.”

Author’s Note 2:

I have launched this series on Ethiopian judicial sector reform because I believe I am in a unique position to make positive and constructive contributions.

I have been a keen observer of the Ethiopian judicial sector for more than one-half century, from near and far.

To me, Ethiopia today is a state of  “peaceperity.”

One of the peace dividends of Ethiopian peaceperity is the opportunity for diaspora Ethiopians to directly participate in nation-building.

That tragically contrasts with the nation-tearing effort of the past two years.

Diaspora Ethiopians have done their part to defend Ethiopia’s honor when it was affronted by internal and external forces. We have opened our wallets to help their people make it through another day.

We have mounted sustained protests challenging US and European policy in Ethiopia. We have defended the disinformation war declared on Ethiopia in social media and in the Western press-titute media.

Diaspora Ethiopians must now turn their attention from war to peacebuilding, institution-building, confidence-building, rebuilding, upbuilding.

We must put our shoulders to the wheel and noses to the grindstone and join the work crews engaged in Ethiopia nation-building.

It is time for diaspora Ethiopians to put our  money where their mouth is. It is time to put up or shut up. It is time to be part of the solution, not the problem.

The Ethiopia Peaceperity Train is leaving the station. All Aboard or be left behind.

When I joined the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights following the 2005 Ethiopian election, I was guided by two simple but profound ethical principles:

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Dr. Martin Luther King

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Horace Mann, American educator and slavery abolitionist.

Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam, the late great Ethiopian human rights defender and advocate, scholar and author, once upon a time in America told me, “It is (you have) a good life in America. But you will never find a place like Ethiopia. You will find that out one day.

I am sure all diaspora Ethiopians will find that truth one day. (Note 2 continues in footnote 1 below.)

Below are various video segments over the past five years (with my translations) in which PM Abiy has publicly discussed the problem of official corruption, particularly in the judicial sector.

A note on translation.

When PM Abiy speaks, he is nothing short of “poetry in motion.” Not even his fiercest adversaries will deny that.

Prof. Mesfin once said he has seen leaders, Ethiopian and non-Ethiopians, during his long years as an academic, advocate and government critic. But he has never seen anyone like PM Abiy with the breadth and depth of knowledge, vision and sheer eloquence.

I am acutely aware that my translation of PM Abiy’s statements fall far short of PM Abiy’s eloquent articulations in Amharic.

It is exceedingly difficult for me to capture in English translation PM Abiy Ahmed’s legendary eloquence in the Amharic language.

His ability to explain the most complex issues in a way even a child can understand is simply astounding.

His use of metaphor, analogy, allegory and other figures of speech makes it doubly difficult to capture his ideas in translation.

For any and all translation deficiencies and errors, I am solely responsible. Mea culpa!

PM Abiy Ahmed’s Fierce Urgency of Judicial Sector Reform Now!

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, without mincing his words said, with few exceptions, corruption in the Ethiopian judicial sector is so pervasive and endemic that “the judges are thieves, the prosecutors are thieves, the police are thieves and the state auditors are thieves.” To the mix he added those running faith institutions.

It is extremely rare, unheard of and unprecedented, for a prime minister to publicly indict the entire justice sector as nothing more than a mafia-style organized crime racketeering operation.

PM Abiy said corruption in the justice system in general and particularly in the judicial sector is run like an extortion ring with audacious judicial gangsters exchanging and bragging about the bribery they are extracting on social media, particularly Telegram.

Is he exaggerating the problem of corruption in his characterization of the justice/judicial sectors?

PM Abiy is known for his measured language, forethought, cerebration and evidence-based observations.

Why did he strike out at justice sector corruption with such intensity and ferocity?

Why did he put the spotlight, indeed the klieg light on corruption in the justice sector?

Was he simply resonating the seething outrage of the Ethiopian public?

The available evidence from the international corruption watchdogs paints a dismal portrait of corruption in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia ranks 87 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index for 2021.

Ethiopia scores 39/100 on the Index. “A country’s score is the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0-100, where 0 means highly corrupt and 100 means very clean.”

PM Abiy’s characterization of the problem of justice sector corruption raises some serious questions:

What are the existing oversight and monitoring mechanisms to hold judges, prosecutors, police, state auditors to account for their professional performance?

What are the range of opportunities and risk points for judges, prosecutors, police, auditors, etc. to engage in corrupt practices? For instance, PM Abiy said state auditors are running extortion rackets forcing individuals to pay bribes or risk being reported for prosecution.

What is the structure of accountability within the hierarchical system of the judicial sector for safeguarding separation of powers principle?

What is the structure of justice/judicial sector accountability within the framework of separation of powers and checks and balances principles? For instance, PM Abiy urged Parliament to undertake rigorous reform of the judicial sector using its constitutional oversight functions.

What is the scope of corruption in criminal and civil proceedings? For instance, PM Abiy said there is ample evidence public prosecutors accept bribes and avoid robustly prosecuting cases letting the guilty go free. He suggested the prevalence of abuse of power in case management including causing delays in scheduling of cases, mishandling or losing evidence because of bribes.

What is the scope of corruption among court clerks? PM Abiy metaphorically talked about the “common language of walking files”  unless the palm is greased (bribe handed). He suggested bribes were common among court clerks and related personnel for losing or finding court files or giving access to judicial decisions.

 What are the administrative disciplinary processes for judges, prosecutors, police and state auditors accused of corruption and how effective is it? How are codes of conduct and conflict of interest policies administered and enforced?

Regular judicial training to promote high levels of professionalism is common in many advanced countries. PM Abiy suggested professional and ethical training for the judicial sector was critical. What is the scope and efficacy of existing training programs in the justice sector today?

PM Abiy suggested there is a transparency deficiency in the justice/judicial sector. How accessible are court proceedings and decisions to the general public and media? How much media and public scrutiny is focused on the justice/judicial sectors?

In the various video clips below, PM Abiy raises numerous questions about corruption in the judicial sector and vows rigorous reform.

Indeed, PM Abiy’s announcement two days ago of the establishment of  a high-level anti-corruption committee which includes the Attorney General and the Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service is a clear indication of a determined effort to directly attack the problem of corruption. It should prove to be a first strong step against corruption “if not to eliminate it altogether, at least to put a chokehold on it” as PM Abiy declared.

 

 

Video source available here.

The cancer called corruption is causing problems. It has become the principal weapon of oppression and robbery (plunder) in our country.

The reason corruption is called the 5th branch of government is because in an organized manner it can arm-twist and get whatever it wants done. Corruption is not only stealing and eating (benefitting). It is also about what it does after it steals. It you get in its way (not comply with its demands), it can also put a chokehold on you and make you do what it wants. It has power like government (to force compliance). When we say corruption, it is not just for one group. This culture of corruption is a dangerous disease for all of us.

 

 

Video source available here.

There are two cardinal secrets about the downhill journey of our country Ethiopia. They are holding grudges and thievery (corruption).

In Ethiopia, here and there , there are individuals who detest corruption.

Since we follow many in leadership, (we have found) a few people who despise thievery (corruption).

To transition this (into a program of broad public integrity) to a group and national level, we must first build a boat and get a few people (of integrity) across. After that, we will have to build a bridge and create means for all citizens to cross (from corruption to public integrity) it.

 

 

Video source available here.

Regarding the justice system, just like inflation is the biggest breakdown (dysfunction in our system) so is the breakdown in the justice system.

Certainly, reforming the justice process requires the participation of all of us, especially Parliament’s. Parliament is expected to undertake robust reform work (on government bodies) over which it has a direct oversight role. The same goes for the executive branch and other sectors as well. As long as we do not do the necessary reform work, the breakdown (dysfunction) will remain enormous.

Prior to the existence of the modern justice system, Ethiopia had a traditional justice system with its own practices and customs. We still have them. Sitting under a tree, discussing and resolving disputes under the guidance of elders is common.

The difference is that the modern justice system is designed to punish the wrongdoer. In the traditional system under which we were raised, once the wrongdoer is identified, restitution is compelled and the parties are eventually reconciled.

Our traditional system is more effective. It is not only that it is free of bribery, but it is more effective because it identifies the wrongdoers, compels restitution and then reconciles the parties. It provides for reconciliation even in cases where blood has been shed. The modern justice system will punish but not reconcile.

Regardless there are expansive problems (in the justice sector). Last time, I mentioned the existence of widespread official theft (corruption) in the judicial sector.

I have heard some have gratuitously objected (to my statements) and chosen to be contrarians. Today, I want to repeat it emphatically.

In the justice system, there are prosecutors, judges and policemen who will say (abstain from corruption), “I will not accept a bribe because I’ve taken a vow. I’m keeping my vow (of public integrity). I have faith (in the justice system).”

But these honest public servants in the eyes of their friends and families are fools. They are mocked and insulted. Those who work in truth (with integrity) are considered dummies and uncivilized.

They’re insulted by their friends. They are urged to become like so and so (who engages in corrupt practices). They are told they carry files on their feet (in metaphorical reference to officials who hide documents until their palms are greased).

Those who objected have failed to get the full measure of my previous statement. When we say there is thievery (official corruption), it is not just empty talk. There are judges who have opened Telegram (social media) accounts to communicate about how much bribe they are getting.

They are not doing it in secret. They are doing it on Telegram. They heroically brag about the (reckless) games they play. They (casually) say, “I released so and so. I jailed so and so.” This is not a joking matter.

The time for justice sector reform is now. We have not been successful with our intervention until now.

As you know, even in terms of budget, we have now taken the justice system out of the executive branch and transferred it to Parliament. It has received substantial support. If there’s going to be reform, the time is now. If it is not rectified now, if the foundation collapses, it will never be straightened out.

Therefore, those who abide by truth (practice public integrity), those who have love for their country, honor their words must collaborate and work together. Parliament has started the process. It must strengthen it. It is my hope that will bring relief to the Ethiopian people. We will also strengthen our share of responsibility.

 

 

Video source available here.

A messed-up process creates bribe givers. Bribe givers create bribe takers. Bribe takers in turn create a messed-up process. It is a vicious circle. We cannot escape it.

 

 

Video source available here.

Regarding official thieves (kleptocrats), it is true that theft (corruption) by those in office has become a very tiresome issue. A certain group of people is emerging to make an opportunity out of our national predicaments and national challenges. They have converted the uncrossable red line of corruption into a red carpet of thievery and are freely swaggering on it.

In Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, it is common language to say official files (records) do not walk on their feet. The files  walk on their hands not feet. (A metaphor to suggest one has to grease hands to get officials to do their jobs.)

The culture of corruption (official theft), and not merely the practice of it, is now taken as a right which is a dangerous thing. Theft is (corruption) a plague on our economy and a cancer on our growth. Where there is theft (culture of corruption), it is difficult to have growth or to live. That is because thieves not only steal, but after the steal, the money does not go into the bank. If it does, it will be known. It is not deposited in the bank and is not traceable. After they steal the money, they do not go to the hotel and pay the proper rate to eat, drink or to dress. Since they do these things in secrecy and because secrecy leads to illegal business, it is difficult to return stolen money to lawful use.

That is why in Addis Ababa large numbers of high rises are ownerless. The building is there but the owner is not known. The house is there but the owner is not known.

Let us leave contrasting aside about whether the issue affects Prosperity Party or others.

The fact is we as a society are (drowning in a culture of corruption) becoming proficient in thievery (corruption) in all public institutions. If we don’t find a solution to this problem, it will damage our economic growth. It is worthy of consideration.

In the old days, there were those who would eat (metaphor for benefit), without working. Today, it is no longer about those who eat without working. There are those who eat those who work (metaphor for destroy). They target those who work and eat them (destroy them). So, people avoid working.

It is not just that they sit idle and benefit, they find different ways to trip those who work and make them fall. They eat the work. They eat those who work. What we have today is not only those who eat without working. This is seen widely in all areas.

As I previously said, a thief may build a house but he will not have a nation. By stealing (corruption), one may build a house but not a nation. A house without a nation is unsustainable.

When we have an opportunity to collectively grow as a nation, a person who selfishly says he wants to build only his house is problematic. Regardless, we have discussed it in terms of executive implementation at the cabinet level.

Perhaps in two or three days will make public our plan. We have established a national committee and have undertaken a study of corruption. I wish to inform honorable Parliament and people of Ethiopia we have established dedicated telephone numbers for this purpose only. We have established offices to receive evidence of thievery (corruption).

Even if we cannot eliminate it entirely, we may be able to put a chokehold on official thievery (corruption). We must work together. Let’s work collectively. It is not just a suggestion. We must stand strong together and make efforts to put a chokehold on thievery. If we do that, we’ll get tremendous benefits. The corruption we see today will be diminished.

Right now there are lots of accusations. There are many who are fingered for theft (corruption). But unless we can support the accusations with evidence, the justice system will remain as you have indicated before: “The accused is arrested and immediately released.”

So that we have lasting solutions, we have to work collectively and cooperatively. That will be good.

 

 

Video source available here.

Regarding theft (corruption), I have touched on it before. We’re trying to deal with it internally (executive branch). The major problem with theft (corruption) is that judges are thieves (corrupt). Reform is most needed in the court system. The courts have become a den of thieves.

(Some judges) believing the reform will not reach them, that its scope will be limited, are mocking justice. There is substantial evidence of corruption against them. Serious reform is needed in the court system. Parliament has to lead and administer the reform.

The second group of thieves are public prosecutors. Those to whom we have given the responsibility to uphold the law have become thieves. They take bribes and do not provide robust prosecution of cases. This is our issue (in the executive branch) so we will carry out the reform ourselves.

The third group of thieves are police.

The fourth group of thieves are auditors. Those we made responsible to recover stolen money are found negotiating with those suspected of financial crimes threatening that if they do not pay a bribe, they will be reported for prosecution. It is the very authorities charged with preventing theft that are perpetrating the theft. The preferred method of making money is to find a way to join these institutions.

The anti-corruption agency does not work to prevent corruption. It has become a super-spreader  of  corruption.

Faith institutions are principal sources of corruption. We have to pass laws and audit them. Even though they may not pay tax, it is necessary to audit and verify the donations they collect are put to proper use. Therefore, (records of revenue) will be collected, audited and a determination is made if it is expended for the development of the church or masjid.

This will no longer be a country where private individuals amass money and wreck the society. There is much thievery (in public and non-governmental organizations).

If we add these thieves to the government thieves and if we  proceed by creating effective ways of dealing with them, then we can succeed in accomplishing our objectives. Therefore, it is to say thievery starting from schools has become a challenge. (Members laugh.)

I’m not sure why you’re all laughing. Corruption has become a problem.

 

 

Video source available here.

Be that as it may, there are claims terrorists are not prosecuted. They’re not accountable. They are not held accountable by the international community.

The international community has not held its own accountable let alone ours. As regards the suggestion we should ask them, I want to remind the honorable assembly, it is a lawmaking body. By citing code sections, deciding and judging by itself, (Parliament) I am afraid will destroy the (delicate) relationship structured on separation of powers (principle) between the branches.

You are not judges. You cannot say such and such must be done according to this article or that. If you say that, then you will mess things up. That is not your job. Your job is to make laws.

There is a body that takes the laws you make, interprets them and determines how a particular crime can be charged and under what article the prosecution will occur. For you to sit here and say for this crime this article applies messes up the checks and balances system. This will result in preventing the kind of justice process you want. This requires care and also professional training. I am speaking from my heart. As lawmakers you have a big responsibility. You carry the load of 100,000. When you come here and speak and become judges and ministers, that is counterproductive. You’re members of the assembly. It is a big job. That is what you must do. Others must also do their own jobs.

My recent ETV interview on judicial sector reform in Ethiopia. In the Amharic interview, I address a variety of issues on the role and performance of the judiciary in general and focus on the 4-year strategic plan.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Author’s Note continued.

I have been a keen observer of the Ethiopian judicial system for more than one-half century. I remember tagging along with my father to observe him litigate cases in court in the early 1960s when I was in elementary school.

I could say I had reasonable familiarity with the Ethiopian Penal and Civil Codes and Criminal and Civil Procedure before finishing elementary school. Indeed, quite a bit more. (I still have in my library the very Code books my father used and I studied over one-half century ago.)

It comes as no surprise that I should choose to join the legal profession alongside an academic career in America.

As an Ethiopian American lawyer with over three decades of varied experience in multiple federal and state jurisdictions, I have learned many valuable lessons about the judicial process and reforms to enhance judicial integrity.

I have had many opportunities to interact with federal and state judges and prosecutors in different forums, including at least on U.S. Supreme Court Justice, to discuss ways of strengthening the justice sector.

I have taught and practiced American constitutional law, and taught judicial process for three decades.

I have a very special interest in the Ethiopian justice system and judicial process.

I am honored to have been given the opportunity to submit an Amicus Brief and testify electronically before the Council of Constitutional Inquiry on the constitutionality of the  postponement of the August 2020 election because of the Covid pandemic.

I have had an opportunity to study the 4-year strategic plan of the Ethiopian Federal Supreme Court.

I have had various opportunities to engage is discussions and exchange with Ethiopian federal judges, including the President of the Supreme Court, H.E. Maeza Ashenafi and learned about the challenges and issues they face in performing their judicial duties.

I have researched and commented on it in dozens of my weekly commentaries over the past decade and half. Links to some of them are provided in footnote 2.

I feel honored that my commentary commemorating the 800th anniversary of the English Magna Carta was included in the official celebrations by the 800th Magna Carta Trust in 2015.

I have substantial experience in grassroots legislative advocacy and drafting.

The aim of the series of commentaries on judicial sector reform in Ethiopia is to make a positive and constructive contribution by sharing my knowledge and experience.

I have chosen to participate in the ongoing Ethiopian judicial sector reforms as an independent legal expert with a single objective: HELP MAKE THE ETHIOPIAN JUDCIAL AND JUSTICE SECTORS THE BEST IN AFRICA.

Over the past 16 years, I have struggled every single day and night, alone and with others, to bring democracy and the rule of law to Ethiopia.

No honest and reasonable person can deny Ethiopia today has a democratically elected government. It is an imperfect democracy struggling to overcome the hurdles of terrorism, corruption and foreign intervention.

Regardless, I am filled with great confidence that despite the challenges, ETHIOPIA WILL PREVAIL IN THE END.

I am inspired by the words of St. Francis of Assisi who lived a life of ascetic poverty and was dedicated to Christian charity.

He said, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

That is exactly how we are going to Make Ethiopia Great Again (MEGA). Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

I am proud to call myself a 24-carat Ethiopian diaspora MEGA.

[2] A sampling of my commentaries on corruption in Etiopia, particularly the judicial sector.

December 2008 “The “Bleeping” Business of Corruption,” https://almariam.com/2008/12/22/the-bleeping-business-of-corruption/

December 2011 “Ethiopia: Land of Blood or Land of Corruption?,” https://almariam.com/2011/12/19/ethiopia-land-of-blood-or-land-of-corruption/

May 2011 “Africorruption, Inc.,” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/africorruption-inc_b_367268

May 2013 “Edu-corruption and Mis-education in Ethiopia,” https://almariam.com/2013/05/13/edu-corruption-and-mis-education-in-ethiopia/

May 2013 “Ethiopia: The Corruption Game,” https://almariam.com/2013/05/20/ethiopia-the-corruption-game/

July 2013 “Deconstructing Construction Corruption in Ethiopia,” https://almariam.com/2013/07/21/deconstructing-construction-corruption-in-ethiopia/

August 2013 “Corruption in the Ethiopian JUST US Sector,” https://almariam.com/2013/08/25/corruption-in-the-ethiopian-just-us-sector/

November 2013 “Mining Corruption in Ethiopia,” https://almariam.com/2013/11/03/mining-corruption-in-ethiopia/

March 2014 “Mining Corruption in Ethiopia: A Reply to Clare Short,” https://almariam.com/2014/03/09/mining-corruption-in-ethiopia-a-reply-to-clare-short-2/

February 2014 “Dignifying Mining Corruption in Ethiopia Through EITI?,” https://almariam.com/2014/02/23/dignifying-mining-corruption-in-ethiopia-through-eiti/

August 2017 “The T-TPLF’s Corruption Prosecution Con Game,” https://almariam.com/2017/08/06/the-t-tplfs-corruption-prosecution-con-game/

 

 

 

 

 



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