Ethiopia | Administrative Injustice is Here to Stay

" In the Ethiopian bureaucracy, as we know it, the best a complainant can hope from an administrative appeal is a benevolent superior officer, who reverses the unjust decision, while reminding her that the problem wouldn’t have occurred if she had "behaved". In the worst scenario, the case would simply be referred back, thereby leaving the complainant at the mercy of that same official. The rest of scenarios range between a sort of arbitration and negotiation. "


The elevation of the superintendent of Good Governance and Reform issues to the Deputy Premiership portfolio might elate the populace craving for steady and speedy changes in administrative justice. Indeed, maladministration is a weak-spot, if not Achilles’ heel, of the ruling party even by its own admission.

The late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi remarked, in a press conference two days after the landslide election-win in May 2010, that the public voted for his party in recognition of changes in the economy and "some attempts to improve governance". Though, minutes later, when a journo inquired whether the government intends to improve its records in human rights and freedom of the press, the PM dismissed it saying: "it is in good condition and will continue in its current direction". Meles was not contradicting himself rather speaking with two different agenda and audience in mind. That is: The Good Governance agenda launched years earlier and the routine accusations from Western-based rights groups.

Presumably, that will be the modus operandi of Muktar Kedir, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and head of EPRDF secretariat who just got appointed as Coordinator of the Good Governance and Reform cluster with a Deputy Prime Ministerial portfolio and Minister of Civil Service. Though the details of Muktar’s job description is yet to be seen, the focal point will certainly be the Capacity Building and Good Governance part of the 5-years Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP).

Granted, his appointment might ease the increasing disaggregation of the components of the package, as it evolved from the Capacity Building policy document of 2003 and the Good Governance Package of 2006, which were developed and horizontally coordinated by the Ministry of Capacity Building and now partly handed over to its successor Ministry of Civil Service. With Muktar’s reportedly good implementation record as well as donors’ commitment in funding and follow-up, he might succeed delivering the planned targets for the sector.

The elating effect of the appointment, however, could barely survive the reminder of the Prime Minister, days later, that the Good Governance efforts are limited towards attaining efficiency in the engineering sense of the word – maximizing unit production.

Indeed, the government’s medium-term governance agenda is a broad one encompassing public sector capacity building,  justice system reform, Human Rights, group rights, ICT development, enhancing public participation, ensuring rule of law, even media broadcast performance. But on a closer look, however, they all tend to be more or less the same thing: Enhancing institutional efficiency through improved systems of performance management, human resource development, revenue generation and utilization as well as reorganization.

The primary problem is that the Good Governance agenda is that its juxtaposing with other points of concern. In fact, the agenda has hardly been spelled out except as part of the civil service reform, capacity building plans or municipal/district level decentralization programs. Thus, no surprise, the output indicators and the performance reports focus on number of people employed, trained, equipments purchased and agencies reorganized, etc.The pitfall of this approach is that it confuses enhancing institutional efficiency which is a relevant but not sufficient condition for ensuring citizen’s rights, as the measure of the latter.

The inherent limitation of the approach is observable even when performance is reported in relation to elements of Good Governance benchmarks (participation, consensus, responsiveness, transparency, accountability, fairness/equity, rule of law, efficiency) as some regions do. The reported outputs revolve around the manner of implementation of  development projects, tackling economic corruption, awareness creation and the like. The closer they go to maladministration is the introduction of a waiting card in offices and vague statements on the number of complaints received. The underlying assumption appears to be that with an efficient institutions all the rest elements of good governance will be delivered. This, however, is not the case at least half the time, as efficiency and the efforts to that end could be remotely related or inconsequential to the quality of governance delivered.

The Good Governance agenda, in general, misses out the socio-cultural context of the matter, which underpins administrative injustice regardless, or despite, the level of efficiency of the system. The feudalist tendency of Ethiopian bureaucrats to abuse power, even without expecting bribe, and its concomitant reluctance of the public to lodge complaint and seek remedy is conspicuously overlooked. Even when it stets out relevant activities, like, complaint hearing panels, setting service standards for responsiveness to the public, code of conduct, etc, it is more of in an intra-organizational format with limited potential to be change drivers.

In the Ethiopian bureaucracy, as we know it, the best a complainant can hope from an administrative appeal is a benevolent superior officer, who reverses the unjust decision, while reminding her that the problem wouldn’t have occurred if she had "behaved". In the worst scenario, the case would simply be referred back, thereby leaving the complainant at the mercy of that same official. The rest of scenarios range between a sort of arbitration and negotiation. It is not easy to find a case, where a complaint is entailed serious repercussions to the aggrieving official. Even when that rarity happens, it is done in a manner that bereft its exemplary potential and of setting a precedent.  

Arguably, the main reasons behind this hesitancy to dispense administrative justice are cultural and political. The lingering feudalist attitude towards authority in the public sphere is no less crudely demonstrated in the power-relations within higher institutions, opposition parties, CSOs and the like. On top of that cultural inertia, a public official reviewing a complaint has little incentives to run out on aggrieving officials. For one, whatever popularity the official could garner, its impact on career path is uncertain. To the contrary, the odds are high for retaliations in party gimgema forums, which are membered by similar colleagues and determines one’s fate including candidacy for forthcoming elections. Unsurprisingly, except in exceptional cases, it would not be difficult to portray a move to rectify injustice as populism, personal favoritism and driven by hidden agenda.

Moreover, officials are hardly required to report the merits of the complaints they handled entertained and is of little consequence, if any. No less importantly, with no receipt issued for complaint letters and recent trend of abolishing the record office of agencies, with the official
‘s response stated orally or at a corner of the letter, which is treated as a secret, the citizen has little information, let alone evidence, on the matter.

This is further compounded by the virtually absent judicial review of administrative decisions. In deed, the Justice reform component of the good governance agenda targets enhancing accessibility of judicial organs, judge’s training and legal awareness creation. Yet, it fails to tackle the major impediments and disincentives for using the venue. The existing legislations hardly help to establish liability, even the proposed code of conducts and service standards manuals as well as decisions of complaint hearing officer/committee are of uncertain legal status. At any rate, penalty provisions, including compensation, are non-existent if not barred. Thus, the citizen could at best get what she should have gotten in the first place, with no compensation and repercussions to the aggrieving official. Add to this, the absence of affordable private legal service and CSOs focused on tackling maladministration, besides to scrambling the Good Governance training funds.

Against this backdrop, while the good governance agenda could expedite institutional modernization, enhance cost-efficiency of the executive and public mobilization in local development projects, its trickle-down effect on administrative justice will hardly be transformative.


(This article was written on the first week of Dec. 2012, but delayed for a completely unrelated reason).


Please check the archives for more on the issues raised above.

* This article is published as part of the “Post-Meles 2012″ Special Edition of this blog.

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