Opaque Gov't Fails at Democracy

Jan 18 , 2020
By Sileshi Yilma Reta

Lack of transparency has been a challenge that successive regimes have long been unable to overcome. It has been the same for the newly formed Prosperity Party (PP).

When a particular, often controversial, incident occurs, the government, in most cases, fails to respond and offer information to the public swiftly. At times, when public pressure mounts, the government reacts in the form of press releases. In many of these cases, the explanation that is offered, satisfactory or not, is at the 11th hour, when a narrative has already been developed by competing political forces with varying interests. It has created a marvellous opportunity for stakeholders to exploit the lack of transparency to their own political advantages.

The information gap is creating a platform for conspiracy theories and speculations. By the time the government responds, even with the resources it has at hand to publicise its case, the public often loses interest.

There is a pattern. The government oftentimes publicly promises that perpetrators will be brought to justice and the outcome of investigations will be publicised. Too many times, these promises remain rhetoric and fall on deaf ears.

The same is true for times when high-ranking government officials are removed from office. Hardly any information is offered to the public - though one can argue that the government can fire its ministers or they can tender their resignation at will if corruption is not the case.

Some recent examples include that of Amir Aman’s (MD) departure from the Minister of Health or Redwan Hussein's appointment as state minister for Foreign Affairs.

Similarly, many of the resignations and overhaul of the council of ministers in the early months of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) time in office lacked transparency. The public, as always, was left in the dark to speculate.

More worrying is the level of opaqueness regarding matters of national security. Major conflicts in parts of the country are barely being addressed by the incumbents anymore. The kind of responses received from the government regarding alleged kidnappings of university students, unrest at institutions of higher education, high-profile assassinations and the burning of mosques and churches has been all but satisfactory. At best, these responses are one-sided and do not reflect the problem on the ground.

Following the news of the incidents, federal and regional officials often give conflicting accounts of the event, creating further escalation and resulting in deaths as well as the destruction of properties. Perpetrators are rarely ever identified, except to call them “groups that plan to derail the reform process" and explanations are left out as to the circumstances of the conflicts.

Arguably, the most resonant argument against the government’s lack of transparency is the lack of public consultations and details regarding the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This is despite repeated calls to shed light on the issue and a clear understanding of the consequences of informal diplomatic relationships.

The absence of transparency in the country has pushed media heads to reminisce about the now-defunct Office of Government Communication Affairs, even despite its shortcomings. This writer recalls a number of occasions when those in the media business praised the Communications Office when they see things in retrospect. While evaluating the practice in hindsight, they appreciated its efforts in providing information to media houses and arranging press conferences.

The Communications Office, which had branches throughout the country, was considered by many as a mouthpiece for the ruling party. It was criticised for glamorising the government’s success stories and for turning a blind eye to its weaknesses.

When the current administration took power though, it took to the restructuring of federal agencies and one of the causalities was the Communications Office. It was replaced by the Press Secretariat under the Office of the Prime Minister.

Compared to the Communications Office, the Press Secretariat’s attempts to embrace social media platforms to facilitate its communication was impressive. Unlike its predecessor, however, it mostly focused on disseminating instant messages on the daily routines of the Prime Minister and the initiatives associated with him.

When controversial events occur, the Press Secretariat prefers to keep silent or redirects the media houses to other agencies and ministries. When it finally breaks its silence, it is to calm down heated social media campaigns that have reached fever pitch with more promises than concrete answers.

Secrecy by the government is rarely a good strategy for an aspiring democracy, but it is even worse in the age of social media. Such a tendency will have repercussions. Where there is too much secrecy and lack of transparency, speculation would be the rule of the game. Conspiracy theories would also reign. In countries like Ethiopia, where there is a polarised political atmosphere, the costs could be devastating as seen in some instances in recent years.

At a time when fake news and hate speech are rampant, not being able to ensure transparency will create a favourable environment for propaganda machines and conspiracy theorists. When there is a lack of transparency, it is obvious that people tend to resort to guessing and creating their own narratives regarding controversies they find no official explanations for.

The government needs to change its attitude toward transparency and make openness and transparency its modus operandi. It should walk its talk.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 18,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1029]

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