Transparency Bakes the Cake Even Better

Jan 18 , 2020.

Addressing questions from members of parliament a few months after ascending to the Office of the Prime Minister - confident and impassioned as he was - Abiy Ahmed (PhD) declared that the “politics of obscurement” will not apply anymore. Of course, there hardly is a democratic order when the government "bakes the cake and serves it,” he conceded.

“The ingredients will be served," he pronounced with certainty. "We [government and the public] will discuss it and bake it together.”

Abiy had been in office for around two months by June 2018, when he dazzled the country with his oratory and promises. To his credit, he did some walking as well. He pursued his predecessor's bold decision of releasing political leaders and journalists from jail, including the most talked-about, Andargachew Tsigie, abducted by security agents while in transit in the Saana, Yemen airport.

Abiy rolled out a red carpet for exiled political parties and their leaders, including those known to have insurgent forces. His town hall meetings across the country, where complex topical issues were discussed, were held with candour. He had a clean slate. It was a different time, and the stakes were much lower for his administration to open up and appear accountable.

Expectedly, the years went by, and the realpolitik kicked in. The honeymoon has been over. Political parties of all colours and ideological bent have entered the picture, and the EPRDF had unraveled from within. It soon became apparent that it is much easier to be idealistic about transparency on rhetoric than in practice, where ambitious political goals and a national image of stability and prosperity are at stake.

More than any other sphere, it is on the issue of insecurity that the administration’s lack of transparency has been most evident. A breakdown in law and order across the country has been mostly glossed over. It is obvious that the administration neither has been able to stay on top of the security situations across the country nor shed light on what is happening. Citizens are frustrated, and a collective sense of helplessness begins to sink in.

The most recent example is the ambiguity, hence the surrounding controversy concerning students traveling to their homes from Dembi Dolo University who were reportedly kidnapped. After weeks of social media campaigning to recover the students, Nigussu Tilahun, press secretariat at the Prime Minister’s Office, finally made a statement on public media. He acknowledged the reports of kidnapping and informed the country on the negotiated release of some. He pledged to see through the release of the students who reportedly remained under forced custody of groups whose identities remain obscure.

Barely giving any details, the government had yet to produce any of the students it said it rescued until this paper went to bed. This had occurred a few weeks after another kidnapping in Armacho in the Amhara Regional State that led to the tragic death of around half a dozen children whose parents failed to pay the ransom that was asked of them. Close to 50 suspects were arrested as a result, according to Temesgen Tiruneh, the region’s president. Another 80 suspects were under custody for allegedly burning mosques in Mota, eastern Gojjam, in the last month.

These are just incidents in December and January. There have been far too many incidents that show how hard the Ethiopian government has to work to restore law and order in the country. There is indeed a lot of effort by men and women in uniform trying to arrest the situation from sliding any further. Their commitment and sacrifices should not be viewed in vain.

As there could be as many incidents that have been contained before the implosion, the public, unfortunately, is in the dark to learn about them and those that go out of control.

If, for instance, there is anything common about the three incidents mentioned above, it is that details of their progression were buried in obscurity.

The motives of forces allegedly behind the incidents is usually presented as an attempt to derail the current efforts toward “political reform.” The perpetrators remain faceless members of groups or individuals who are not heard of once the authorities promise that they are under arrest.

Even more worrying should be the lack of swift responses. The authorities have been too comfortable to sit back and allow the narrative to be fodder in the highly polarised political environment. In the absence of an authoritative body that appears to have a handle of the political situation, many are turning to pundits and commentators glad to dispatch half-cooked prognoses, without fear of accountability or need for partiality.

This is in sharp contrast to Abiy’s administration desire to sell an image of stability and prosperity. It wants students to continue to attend classes in higher learning institutions, worshipers to go to churches and mosques and citizens to continue to travel and reside wherever they desire. It wants to have its cake and eat it too.

The administration wants to pretend that the government can be trusted even if it had fumbled the ball one too many times for comfort.  It wants to remain dependable in the eyes of the public when it had swept too much under the rug. It is merely falling into old tactics that have been tried and failed.

The official line to justify the lack of transparency that had been a hallmark of previous administrations was that the government needed to maintain public order. It is a reworking of the “ignorance is bliss” theory. The government will take care of an incident, under the radar, without creating an atmosphere of fear among the public. Citizens will have to take the state`s word that it conducts itself legally and constitutionally, although there would be no one neutral to check whether or not it would.

This attitude of "the state-knows-best" has not done much good, if history is any teacher. Every regime has come into the political scene with the justification that its predecessor did not know best. Anyone with power is tempted to misuse it, hidden behind a veil. It is human nature.

If this does not happen, then a lack of oversight will give way to the dereliction of duty.

Some steps can be taken to address the growing mistrust of the state by the public. Primarily, the administration needs to accept that what is good for the country, especially in the long term, will not always be a smart political play. The more details there are, even the most exceptional of leaders come off as profoundly flawed. There needs to be the restraint and discipline to put the strategic consideration above tactical manoeuvring.

Reinstating the former Government Communications Affairs Bureau, which was closed to be half-heartedly replaced by the Press Secretariat, would also help improve communications between the administration and the public, through the media. Granted, the Bureau was not to the letter and spirit of its formation. It was not as efficient as it was bureaucratic as its predecessor.

But these challenges could have been addressed by a comprehensive overhaul. An empowered, tech-savvy and fresh-faced leadership would have improved transparency rather than decentralised communications across government agencies with little to no coordination, which is the case now. Not many of the communications foot soldiers deployed in federal and regional agencies are empowered to address the public truthfully, hence the conflicting and contradictory statements they make over the same issue.

The administration’s style of one-way communications has allowed it to dominate narratives on issues of public interest. But in an environment where the administration and the public are no longer talking - when the former holds back information while the latter is starved for it - it will be hard to “bake a cake” together.

The result may be a taste the public has interest for no longer.

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

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