Ethiopia’s Comical ‘Anti-Corruption’ Crackdowns

Muktar Omer

August 6, 2017

There is something truly hilarious about Ethiopian government’s occasional ‘anti-corruption’ crackdowns. Corruption is endemic in Africa and anti-corruption strategies are politicized and have largely failed across the continent. Ethiopia is not an exception. Where Ethiopia brings a new expertise is in the art of covering up corruption by public officials. Every now and then, the government, through its media, surprises a largely resigned and captive citizenry with news of the arrest of high-ranking officials on allegations of corruption. But nobody knows who the arrested officials are because the government does not release the names or the images of the mysterious offenders. Which makes the public doubt if the so-called arrests are actually real!

In December 2016, the regime claimed it arrested 125 people over corrupt practices. Nobody knows who they are to this day. On 25 July 2017, government spokesperson Dr. Negeri Lencho announced the arrest of 34 senior officials and businesspersons on suspicion of corruption. Again nobody knows who they are. These are not the only times when the government purportedly acted against corrupt officials.  Since the formation of an Anti-Corruption Commission in 2001, at the height of a factional infighting within the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regime has been using “the fight against corruption” as a political strategy of settling internal power struggles as well as rooting out officials whose loyalty to the regime is questioned.

In EPRDF’s Ethiopia, where corruption has become the norm and expectation of the political and social life, ordinary citizens receive such news of government anti-graft measures with a mix of cynicism and indifference. So it is déjà vu. Nothing changed in the government’s latest self-serving public pronouncement or the people’s reaction. The turning of government’s deceptive anti-graft ‘fightback’ into an utter farce, however, this time ignited a social media derision.

Notice: we will pay a hefty reward for anyone who produces a name or a picture of one of the 34 arrested officials” promised one Facebook user, summing the national mood.

Another posted a cartoon of the notorious Abay Tsehaye filling a sack with dollars in one hand while with the other hand gesturing a crowd of people to listen to the news of the “arrest of corrupt officials”.

Perhaps the regime finally understood the futility of arresting little thieves when the problem is the system and have resorted to playing jokes with an Ethiopian people it does not fear nor respect. Is there a bigger joke than attesting your “transparency” by hiding who the thieves are?

As Robert Klitgaard observed “discretion plus monopoly minus accountability equals corruption” and party and tribal discretion, monopoly and complete impunity has been the hallmarks of governance in Ethiopia in the last 26 years. Corruption, therefore, is not some flaw. It is how the system works. It is political. It is institutional. TPLF controls the politics, the economy, the education, the religion and every facet of public life in Ethiopia. Corruption is even becoming the country’s accepted value system. The regime’s ostrich politics and pronouncements is not going to decrease or stop it.

A government that is not politically responsible cannot be fiscally accountable. There can be no effective specialized anti-corruption institutions without free media, vibrant civil society, independent justice system and competitive political space. Democracy is not a solution for corruption as the experiences of many African democracies indicate. But it is a sin qua non for overcoming this longstanding governance problem. There is no technical fix to this malady.

Contemporary anti-corruption practices in Africa are rooted in the “principal-agent” analytical construct. The assumption is that corruption arises when there is a breakdown of interests between and among a “principal”, which typically is the ruler and “agents” who are the bureaucracy or citizens. These practices assume clean rulers and prescribe a horde of legal, administrative, and educational procedures to curb and prevent corruption.

The limitations of the “principal-agent” analytical model which relies on the existence of “benevolent principals” to fight corruption is well understood. But even the alternative approach which treats corruption as a “collective action” problem, and states that corruption exists in Africa because both the rulers and citizens have accepted it as a reality of life and the incentives to continue the practice outweigh the incentives to fight it, ultimately recommends “revolutionary change in institutions”. Such changes can’t happen without benevolent principals – either rulers or citizens, or both.

Some recent examples show progress can be made in contexts where the principal – i.e., political leader/s of a country – is/are committed to fight corruption. Democratically elected leaders in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Tunisia have all taken promising steps in combating corruption and with some degree of success.

We are not there yet in Ethiopia. Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria and other countries where people elect their leaders can afford to think about how to incentivize rulers and citizens to understand the destructive impact of corruption and to cooperate to reduce it. We can’t have that discussion in Ethiopia where all arms of government answer to a military and a hegemonic party that control both the politics and the business. No amount of monitoring mechanisms or crackdowns – fake or real – can solve this structural crisis. Only a government that enjoys a modicum of political and moral legitimacy can give fighting corruption a try.

Muktar M. Omer is a social and political commentator from the Somali Region of Ethiopia. He can be reached at

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