How not to fight Corruption in Ethiopia

Corruption is a pervasive and very complex global phenomenon. The practice is as old as humanity itself. Although the magnitude and effect varies across history and geography, it affects all nations indiscriminately. With a view to curbing corruption, the UN and other international organizations have devised national anti-corruption strategies including the UN Anti-Corruption Convention. There are also international institutions that measure countries’ level of corruption. The most commonly cited corruption index is Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) which ranks the perception of corruption of public bodies using pre-determined criteria.  According to the 2018 Annual CPI, Ethiopia is ranked 107 out of 180 countries. Ethiopia is considered among the most corrupt countries in the world.

There are legitimate questions on why people commit corruption. Many studies focus on the formal working procedure of institutions of the public sector and often overlook important factors such as informal institutions that incubate the culture of corruption. To explore this issue, it is useful turn the usual question on its head and ask: ‘How not to Stop Corruption’ and look at seven interrelated hypotheses, or factors. 

The first factor to not stop corruption is to develop the Culture of Corruption- Corruption has always been regarded as a deviant behavior of some self-interested individuals who want to advance their greedy needs. As a result, it was wrongly conceived as a manifestation of some anti-development people and rent seekers. But in reality is quite the contrary. In Ethiopia, corruption is embedded in our culture, religion, civil society organization, private sector, informal business all the way to the most sacred unit-family. The parent-child relationship is the most basic formative stage of social organization. So, if you don’t want to stop corruption, teach parent to teach their children that it is not just working hard that is the path to wealth; teach parents to teach their children that their parents’ are rich, but not to questions where the money comes from. The only thing they know is that they are better off when compared to their friends. This is the first moral disconnect-Corruption begins at home and expands to the community and then becomes a national culture. 

The second factor to not prevent corruption is discouraging formal remuneration and encouraging informal benefits. Employee and employer relations are normally governed by labour and employment laws, which prescribe and proscribe the bilateral relations of the parties to the employment. Work and fair remuneration are the two basic elements in the contract of employment. 

Government employees have no right to negotiate the terms and conditions of the agreement due to the binding nature of the contract-take it or leave it, which are determined by the relevant government body, with the implicit promise of the fair treatment of employees. In Ethiopia, the formal salary is too and the informal benefits are high. This discourages not only work but also creates a culture of resentment among the people. 

Everyone will then fight to enter sectors where the formal salary is low. As a result, basic professions are held by less motivated, less experienced and dissatisfied employee. A typical case is the salary of higher government officials. By sub-Saharan standards, the formal salary of higher government officials is low but many receive additional benefits. They serve as Chairpersons, Board Directors, and Board members of governmental enterprises, private businesses and higher education institutions, where they receive more income than in formal work. Thus, to not stop corruption, you discourage formal income and encourage informal benefits. 

At the lowest level of government, kebele administrators and social court judges are required to serve for free. This is a tacit approval of encouraging corruption: pay as you go for the service. 

The third important factor for not stopping corruption is to make the action morally right, or institutionalization.  Institutionalization means that the practice of corruption as a deviant practice has transformed itself into an accepted or tolerated norm of behavior. A typical example is the issue of per diem, especially for government employees. The per diem rate set by the government doesn’t take into account the cost of field visits. When a person is relocated from the place of employment to other areas, it is a universal standard practice that basic expenses such as food and lodging will be covered by a modest per diem. To institutionalize corruption, you approve a per diem rate that can’t cover legitimate expenses. For others, you enact a law that exonerates higher officials from formal settlement procedures: That is leading corruption by example.

The fourth element is misguided career development, by discouraging life-long careers and encouraging short term vocational training. In any country, professional careers and vocational education are crucial for the overall development. Education needs long term investment, and there must be return on investment. When you discourage career learning and encourage (through state media) short-term vocational activities, you create resentment in professionals who are supposed to lead society by example. They eventually reject the fight against corruption as rhetoric, and corruption becomes professionally accepted.

Public service delivery will also be negatively affected as professionals are less motivated, and change their profession in search of ‘food and water’. Bribes become standard practice to get any public service. Hence, corruption serves to balance supply-demand side of life and becomes a survival strategy.

The fifth element is the overall political economy/policy. Fair and Equitable distribution of national wealth is a determinant factor not only of corruption but also the overall system of governance. In a situation where only a few get rich quick, that sets a model for others that short cuts can lead to wealth. Hard work and effort are the key to success, but the State also has the duty to fairly distribute income among its people. One such mechanism is taxes. The existing tax practices are considered by many as unfair, harming government employees and favouring traders. It is incomprehensible that the annual tax of a government employee with gross salary of 10,000ETB per month is more than a trader whose daily transaction is more than 10,000ETB. 

From the political economy point of view, areas identified as corruption-prone are: procurement, land, justice sector, government contracts and ‘party-affiliated business’. The fact that Ethiopia declares itself a democratic developmental state aggravates the problem. Although corruption is not inherent to development, big government in principle controls big economy and there is a likelihood of high level of corruption.  Other countries in the same position took measures so harsh they prevented corruption from ruining the state treasury. If you do not want to stop corruption, you follow a political economy that is conducive to corruption

The sixth factor is to establish weak anti-corruption institutions or abolish them entirely. When the culture of corruption is so embedded in society, strong and independent anti-corruption institutions with adequate human resource should be established.  Anti-corruption institutions should not be also accountable to the organs that they are established to control.  Those who lead anti-corruption institution should be persons of higher moral character, professional and free of corruption. Thus, if you want not to tackle corruption, either entirely abolish anti-corruption institutions or make them accountable to the executive organ and assign corrupt persons to lead them.

 The seventh factor for not fighting corruption is to lack focus on anti-corruption strategies. If you make every action corrupt it becomes a legal right instead of legal violation. The Ethiopian anti-corruption proclamation is so vast and ambiguous that anyone in Ethiopia can be charged with corruption offenses. On one hand, the law lists prohibited corrupt practices. On the other hand, it lacks clarity, focus and practicability-even shifting burden of proof has not helped to fight corruption. If you invest in hunting down a ‘petty offence’ of corruption cases while grand corruption is the dominant practice, you only encourage and do not deter. While you ignore the elephant, and hunt and punish the rat, you teach neither the elephant nor the rat. Both will constantly change their strategies to try and cope.

6th Year . May 16  - June 15 2018 . No.61



Mekonnen Fisseha

Who served as a Regional Researcher at International Law and Policy Institute, is an assistant Professor of Law at Mekelle University.

He can be reached at

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