Land and Ethiopia’s Corruptocracy
By Alemayehu G Mariam / April 1, 2013
Professor A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the renowned Indian scientist (“Missile Man of India”) and Eleventh President of India (2002-2007) said, “If a country is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds, I strongly feel there are three key societal members who can make a difference. They are the father, the mother and the teacher.”
Recently, the World Bank released its 448-page World Bank (WB) report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia” with evidence galore showing that Ethiopia under the absolute dictatorship of the Meles Zenawi regime has become a full-fledged corruptocracy (a regime controlled and operated by a small clique of corrupt-to-the-core vampiric kleptocrats who cling to power to enrich themselves at public expense). Perhaps the report’s findings should not come as surprise to anyone since “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Over the past several weeks, I have made a number of cursory remarks on the shocking findings of the WB report. I have also discreetly appealed to a segment of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” (its teachers, professors, economists, political and social scientists, lawyers, and other members of the learned professions) to critically examine the report and inform their compatriots on the devastating impact of corruption on the future of their poor country and make some recommendations on how to deal with it. I even challenged the political opposition to issue a “white paper” and make crystal clear their position on accountability and transparency and make some concrete proposals to remedy the endemic corruption that has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic.
I have yet to see any substantive analysis or commentary on the WB’s “diagnosis of corruption” in Ethiopia in the popular media or in the scholarly journals; nor have I seen any proposals on how to sever the vampiric tentacles of corruption sucking the lifeblood from the Ethiopian people. Could it be that Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” can’t handle ugly truths? Or do Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” turn faint-hearted when it comes to speaking ugly truths to power?
Few can tell the ugly truth about corruption in Ethiopia more bluntly thanGlobal Financial Integrity (GFI), the renowned organization that reports on “illicit financial flows” (illegal capital flight, mispricing, bulk cash movements, hawala transactions, smuggling, etc.) out of developing countries. In 2011, GFI told the world, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”
When the late dictator Meles Zenawi was asked in July 2011 about his feelings concerning the use of the word “famine” synonymously with Ethiopia by the Oxford Dictionary, he said, “… Like any citizen, I am very sad. I am ashamed. It is degrading. A society that built the Lalibela churches… Axum obelisks… some thousand years ago is unable to cultivate the land and feed itself…. That is very sad. It is very shameful. Of all the things, to go out begging for one’s daily bread, to be a beggar nation is dehumanizing. Therefore, I feel great shame.” I too feel great shame that Ethiopia has become not only a “beggar nation” over the past 21 years, but also that she has now become synonymous with the word “corruption”. It is unbearable that the land of “13 months of sunshine” has become the land of 13 months of the darkness of corruption.
Speaking the ugly truth to power
Given the icy silence of Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds”, it is my humble duty and unenviable job to continue to speak the ugly truth about corruption to the powers that be in Ethiopia. For years, I have written numerous commentaries on corruption in Ethiopia as a serious human rights violation. I agree with Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International (Corruption Index) that “corruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights.” I also believe corruption undermines good governance, cripples the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.
In 2007 when Ethiopia’s auditor general, Lema Aregaw, reported that Birr 600 million of state funds were missing from the regional government coffers, Meles fired Lema and publicly defended the regional administrations’ “right to burn money.” In my December 2008 commentary “The Bleeping Business of Corruption in Ethiopia,” I argued that “corruption in Ethiopia is an evil with a thousand faces. It is woven into the fabric of the political culture.” Corruption is the modus operandi of the regime in power in Ethiopia today. Former president Dr. Negasso Gidada clearly understood the gravity of the situation when he declared in 2001 that “corruption has riddled state enterprises to the core,” adding that the government would show “an iron fist against corruption and graft as the illicit practices had now become endemic”. In 2013, the business of corruption is the biggest business in Ethiopia.
In my November 2009 commentary, “Africorruption, Inc.”, I described the tip of the iceberg of the web of corruption in Ethiopia by synthesizing some of the eye popping anecdotal evidence. Dr. Negasso documented corruption in the misuse and abuse of political power for partisan electoral advantage. Coincidentally, in 2009, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley announced that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.” (For reasons unknown, but not difficult to guess, the U.S. State Department has never released the findings of its investigation.)
The ruling regime’s “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) in 2008 documented the fact that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the country’s principal bank. FEAC described the heist as a “huge scandal that took place in the Country’s National Bank and took many Ethiopians by surprise… The corruptors dared to steal lots of pure gold bars that belonged to the Ethiopian people replacing them with gilded irons… Some employees of the Bank, business people, managers and other government employees were allegedly involved in this disastrous and disgracing scandal.”
FEAC also reported that “there was another big corruption case at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation that took many Ethiopians by surprise” which involved the “competitive tendering for the supply of telecommunication equipment.” FEAC “found out that nearly 200 million USD has been lost to corruption through the entire fraudulent and corrupt process…. In another case involving a telecommunications deal with the Chinese, a high level regime official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks for himself and other regime officials.” (Even though high level bank officials were fingered in the gold heist, there is no evidence that any one of them has ever been prosecuted.)
In my November 2011 commentary “To Catch Africa’s Biggest Thieves Hiding in America!”, I called attention to a Wikileaks cablegram which confirmed long held suspicions about massive corruption in the current ruling party in Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF): “Upon taking power in 1991… [the TPLF] liquidated non-military assets to found a series of companies whose profits would be used as venture capital to rehabilitate the war-torn Tigray region’s economy…[with] roughly US $100 million… Throughout the 1990s…, no new EFFORT [Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray owned and operated by TPLF] ventures have been established despite significant profits, lending credibility to the popular perception that the ruling party and its members are drawing on endowment resources to fund their own interests or for personal gain.” According to the World Bank, “roughly half of the Ethiopian national economy is accounted for by companies held by an EPRDF-affiliated business group called the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT)… EFFORT’s freight transport, construction, pharmaceutical, and cement firms receive lucrative foreign aid contracts and highly favorable terms on loans from government banks.”
When 10,000 tons of coffee earmarked for exports had simply vanished (not unlike the gold bars that walked out of the National Bank) from the warehouses in 2011, Meles Zenawi called a meeting of commodities traders and threatened to “cut off their hands” if they should steal coffee in the future. In a videotaped statement, Meles told the traders he will forgive them this time because “we all have our hands in the disappearance of the coffee”.
In my December 2011 commentary “The Art of Bleeding a Country Dry”, I argued, “No one knows corruption — the economics of kleptocracy — better than [Meles] Zenawi. The facts of Zenawi’s corruptonomics are plain for all to see: The [Ethiopian] economy is in the stranglehold of businesses owned or dominated by Zenawi family members, cronies, supporters or hangers-on.”
“Diagnosing Corruption in (in the land of) Ethiopia”
Transparency International (Corruption Index) broadly defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Corruption manifests itself in grand and petty ways. “Grand corruption consists of acts committed at a high level of government that distort policies or the central functioning of the state, enabling leaders to benefit at the expense of the public good.” Grand corruption often involves political corruption in which political decision makers manipulate “policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.” Petty corruption often occurs when the law enforcement officials or bureaucratic functionaries exact payments from “ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments and other agencies” .
Corruption in Ethiopia is no longer a question of disparate anecdotal evidence or an issue of intellectual debate. Corruption has become the loathsome disease of the Ethiopian body politic. That is why the World Bank carefully titled its report, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. Diagnosis refers to the clinical process of identifying a disease. The 448-page World Bank report has diagnosed corruption as the metastasizing cancer of the Ethiopian body politic.
Corruption in land is the root of all corruption in Ethiopia! Grand corruption in land originates from the upper circles of power in the public and private sector. The powerful political and economic elites in Ethiopia exploit the anarchic, arbitrary, secretive, unaccountable and confused governance of the ruling regime to weave their tangled webs of corruption. The World Bank report states that “the land sector [in Ethiopia] is particularly susceptible to corruption and rent seeking [using social or political institutions to redistribute wealth among different groups without creating new wealth (profit seeking)].” Corruption in land in Ethiopia is inherent (as the old communist ideologues used to say, “part and parcel of”) in “the way policy and legislation are formulated and enforced.”
The World Bank report explains that corruption in the land sector in Ethiopia occurs in several ways. First and foremost, “elite and senior officials” snatch the most desirable lands in the country for themselves. These fat cats manipulate the “weak policy and legal framework and poor systems to implement existing policies and laws” to their advantage. They engage in “fraudulent actions to allocate land to themselves in both urban and rural areas and to housing associations and developers in urban areas.” These “influential and well-connected individuals are able to have land allocated to them often in violation of existing laws and regulations.”
In the capital Addis Ababa, it is “nearly impossible to a get a plot of land without bribing city administration officials.” These officials not only demand huge bribes but have also “conspired with land speculators” and facilitated bogus “housing cooperatives [to become] vehicles for a massive land grab. It is estimated that about 15,000 forged titles have been issued in Addis Ababa in the past five years.”
Management of rural land is similarly deeply infected with corruption. “In rural areas, officials have distorted the definition of ‘public land’ to mean ‘government land’”. Officials define “public purpose” in applying expropriation which is believed to be a leading cause of “landlessness”. Officials have also “engaged in land grabbing to grant land to functionaries” and this is “happening at the woreda (district) level and is being copied by the elected committee members at kebele (subdistrict) level.” According to the World Bank report, “Almost all transactions involving land most often incorporate corruption because there is no clear policy or transparent regulation concerning land.”
It is stunning to learn from the report that the ruling regime does not even have the most elementary system of land management in place. “Rural areas have no maps of registered holdings… In urban areas, there is little mapping of registered property. Encumbrances and restrictions are not recorded in the registers, and the encumbrances, if registered, are listed in a separate document. Land use restrictions are not recorded in the register. There is no inventory of public land, which affects the efficient management of public land and creates opportunities for the illegal allocation of public land to private parties.” Because existing institutions and laws are evaded, ignored and manipulated for private gain, the system of land management is a total failure making it impossible to hold officials in power legally accountable for their corrupt practices.
A variety of methods are used to perpetuate corruption in land in Ethiopia. One “key method” of land corruption involves the illegal allocation of municipal land “to housing cooperatives controlled by developers who then sell off the land informally.” Often “buyers were unaware of the legal status of the land they were buying” and end up in court before judges who are “aligned (in cahoots) with the corrupt officials”. Another “method” is official falsification of documents. “With limited systems in place to record rights, particularly in urban areas, and limited oversight, officials have plenty of opportunities to falsify documents. It is not uncommon for parcels of land to be allocated to many different parties, sometimes to as many as different parties, from whom officials and intermediaries collect multiple transaction and service fees.” Blatant conflict of interest of board members who oversee the lease award process, the absence of a compliance monitoring process for lease allocations and payments and the absence of land use regulations have served to accelerate the metastasizing corruption in land in Ethiopia.
State ownership of all land in Ethiopia is the fountainhead of land corruption. Wealthy elites and influential groups seize the land of the poor and marginalized through forced, but “legal” evictions and eminent domain actions. Nowhere is this type of land grab corruption more conspicuous than in the regime’s land giveaways to foreign “investors”. The World Bank report states that “a substantial proportion of expropriated land is transferred to private interests”, but not to smallholders. “The expropriation and relocation of smallholders has been to the advantage of extensive commercial farming, including flower farms, biofuel, and other commodities.” It is also documented that the Ethiopian “government is forcing the Indigenous Peoples of the southwest off their ancestral lands and leasing these lands to foreign companies.” This expropriation has been achieved through a bogus program of “villagization” in which 1.5 million people have been “resettled” from the regions of Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, and Afar and their ancestral lands handed over to domestic and international “investors”.
As I documented in my March 2011 commentary, “Ethiopia: Country for Sale”, the Indian agribusiness giant Karuturi Global today owns a 1,000 sq. miles, “an area the size of Dorset, England”, of virgin Ethiopian land for “£150 a week (USD$245)” for “50 years”. As Karuturi Project Manager in Ethiopia Karmjeet Sekhon euphorically explained to Guardian reporter John Vidal, “We never saw the land. They gave it to us and we took it. Seriously, we did. We did not even see the land. They offered it. That’s all.” The Karuturi guys would like us to believe they got something for nothing. The regime wheeler-dealers would like us to believe they gave a 1,000 square miles of virgin land to one of the richest agribusinesses in the world for nothing. Suffice it to say that they may also believe we were born yesterday; but surely, we were not born last night!
Prognosis on corruption in Ethiopia
Corruption in Ethiopia is the principal business of the State. Corruption has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politic because the political and economic elites that have total control over the country’s land resources benefit enormously. They use tailor-made legislative opportunities to secure, sell and speculate in land rights. Because the state is the sole owner of land, those who own the state alone have the power to privatize land, expropriate, lease, zone or approve construction plans or negotiate large-scale land giveaways. Those who control the land in Ethiopia control not only the political and economic process but also the digestive process (stomachs) of 90 million Ethiopians!
The culture of corruption must be changed before the tangled webs of corruption spun by the political and economic elites in Ethiopia are shattered. The major problem with changing the culture of political corruption is, as Peter Eigen observed, “in many parts of the world, the local people are resigned to the fact that there is corruption. They think there is nothing they can do about it. Therefore they more or less try to accommodate themselves, pay bribes themselves.”
Most Ethiopians are unaware of the regime’s “anti-corruption” efforts and those who are aware view the whole effort with a jaded eye. The simple fact of the matter is that having the “anti-corruption” agency (FEAC) to oversee, monitor, investigate and prosecute the architects and beneficiaries of corruption in Ethiopia is like having Tweedle Dee monitor, investigate and prosecute Tweedle Dum. To invoke an old Ethiopian saying, “It is difficult to get a conviction when the son is the robber and the father is the judge.”
Effective anti-corruption efforts require an active democratic culture based on the rule of law and a vigilant citizenry empowered to confront and fight corruption in daily life. Genuine anti-corruption efforts must necessarily begin by empowering ordinary people to fight back, not by creating a make-believe anti-corruption bureaucracy.
There have been some successful experiments in grassroots anti-corruption efforts where ordinary people have been given the tools to fight back corruption. In India, for instance, they have successfully organized local “vigilance commissions” in many towns and brought together the vulnerable and interested groups to probe into corruption. These commissions have put a significant dent in corruption. In Bangalore, “hub for India’s information technology sector”, residents have been involved in rating the quality of all major service providers in the city. The results were used to put pressure on government officials and service providers to become more accountable to citizens. The Central Vigilance Commission of India also runs Project VIGEYE (Vigilance Eye) which is “a citizen-centric initiative” in which “citizens join hands with the Central Vigilance Commission in fighting corruption in India.” VIGEYE provides citizens given multiple channels of engagement in the fight against corruption. In parts of Brazil, citizens are empowered to fight corruption through “participatory budgeting.” By including citizens from various backgrounds in the process of budget allocation, Brazil has been able to decrease levels of corruption and clientelism (exchange of goods and services for political support).
Ethiopia can learn much from Botswana, regarded to be the least corrupt country in Africa. The “Botswana Model” uses the strategy of “name and shame” to educate and accentuate public awareness of corruption. Using the free press as a tool, Botswanans name and shame corrupt officials by publishing their photographs on the front pages with the headline: “Is this man corrupt?” Botswana’s top political leaders are said to maintain high levels of public integrity and teach by example. Peter Eigen credits Botswana’s success to the “Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime in Botswana [which] has processed thousands of [corruption] cases since 1994 and has made great strides against corruption.” In 2012, Botswana ranked an extraordinary 30/174 countries on the Corruption Index. These examples point to the fact that citizen involvement and monitoring are very effective in reducing corruption and increasing public integrity. Creating a bloated, toothless and self-perpetuating anti-corruption bureaucracy such as FEAC is mere window dressing for international donors and loaners.
The other remedy for corruption lies in vigorous and well-publicized criminal prosecutions of corrupt officials, asset forfeitures (divestment of corruptly obtained wealth) and imposition of tough prison sentences on convicted corrupt officials. FEAC’s own data show that corruption prosecutions and convictions in Ethiopia are negligible.
Absent some dramatic treatment for the cancer of corruption in Ethiopia’s land sector, there is no doubt that Ethiopia will be bankrupted in the foreseeable future. This is a country whose foreign reserve today could barely cover two months of its import bills, has accumulated over USD$12 billion in foreign debt; and over the past decade Ethiopia has lost USD$11.7 billion dollars in illicit financial flows. Ethiopia’s “beautiful minds” and the opposition elements need to do a better job of addressing the issue of corruption. Passing references to “corruption” that “plagues the infrastructure sector”, “corruption that has never been seen before in the history of” Ethiopia and pleas to “arrest corruption that is rampant in the country” are simply not adequate.
I like to ask naïve questions. When it comes to governance, I ask not why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen the “China Model” but rather why they have not chosen the “Ghanaian Model?” When it comes to corruption control, I simply ask why Ethiopia’s rulers have chosen not to follow the “Botswana Model”?
At the end of the day, “if Ethiopia is to be corruption free and become a nation of beautiful minds,” its “beautifully minded” scholars, professors, researchers, policy analysts, lawyers and other members of the learned professions must renounce their vows of silence and loudly speak truth to black-hearted dictators! Silence may be golden but when we see the gold walking out of the National Bank in broad daylight, we had better scream, shout and holler like hell!!!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: