As corruption takes centre stage in public discourse, with the detainment of senior government officials and private sector tycoons, the Federal Ethics and Anti Corruption Commission (FEACC) seems to have gotten its groove back. In this exclusive interview, Addisu Deresse, associate editor of Ethiopian Business Review, sat down with Aklilu Mulugeta, the Commission’s Corruption Prevention Director, to discuss the root causes of corruption and the challenges of fighting this social evil in Ethiopia. Aklilu graduated in Economics from Addis Ababa University and has had several professional public sector positions before he became Prevention Director five years ago.
EBR: There is a wide spread perception that the Commission is being used to settle political scores between the ruling elite, citing past and present high profile arrests, what does this mean to the commission?
Aklilu: Politicizing imprisonments in corruption cases is not only identical to Ethiopia; it is everywhere. The reason is that large scale corruption is carried out by senior government officials, who have political attachments and influence over the public and the media. Whenever these influential people are prosecuted for corruption, they open up their own fight using the media. One of the wars they wage is turning the public against the government, claiming that the case is more political than corruption related. What the general public and the media should be aware of is that these people are like any other people who can make mistakes and get arrested. The recent case is a good showcase that the public is becoming well aware that the fight against corruption is not political in any way.
How independent is the commission when making decisions about arresting high level government officials, like the recent case that put high ERCA officials behind bars?
The Commission acts with complete independence. This can be explained in terms of the government’s objective while establishing it. The government established the Commission with the expectation that it would clean up the civil sector and the general administration system. The Commission needs no permission from anyone to live up to this mandate; to investigate corruption or to file for prosecutions whenever suspicious activities are detected. Why would the government interfere in the institution that it established to improve the quality of its own administrative system? The other point to consider when talking about institutional independence is the legal framework. By law, the Commission has all the power to investigate any suspicious activity; to prosecute and by court order to detain any individual or group of individuals. The other point is whether or not the Commission is independent resource wise. The government, as much as it can, grants the Commission full access of resources necessary to practice its duties. The working environment in the Commission is also free from any interference so that its employees fulfil their duties.
There were cases of corruption in your organization related to prosecutors, if I am not mistaken. What kind of mechanisms have you put in place to prevent or correct these kinds of cases? Wouldn’t misconduct like this tarnish the Commission’s reputation?
I don’t have the information regarding those prosecutors you are referring to. However, in my experience with the Commission, I know of three such cases, not only among prosecutors but from other departments too. The Commission has treated all the cases by following all the legal procedures and has taken the individuals to justice. There is of course no question about the impacts of such malpractices on the general image of the Commission. But the question is, what are we doing to prevent it? We do background checkups before we hire employees to find out how ethical they have been in their previous experience. We also try to make our procedures as transparent as possible.
You are taking extended time to finalize your investigations and the legal proceedings with the recent high profile corruption case. Why the delay?
We don’t have the legal ground to say everything about the current court case. But from my information, the current corruption case is not just an investigation into a single institution or individual. We are dealing with a web of corruption practices that has blanketed both the private and public sectors, which stretched from the capital to the tips of the nation. The time extension on the court process and the delay should be approached with such perspective. The other thing to consider here is also the fact that the prosecutors are producing results daily.
What has the Commission accomplished so far? Have there been major changes in the level of corruption in Ethiopia since the Commission was established?
Obviously, corruption is a social evil that hurts a country’s social and economic virtues. The Commission has been established to fight this evil and to contribute to the general social and economic wellbeing of the country. There were three major missions for the Commission when it was established; creating public awareness about corruption, preventing corruption and investigating corruption. We are working to create awareness among the general public so that the communities come together to help stamp out corruption. We want a society that says no to corruption and we are doing this by using mass media aggressively. To prevent corruption, the Commission has been trying to install the idea of transparency and accountability in government offices. Finally, we are investigating corrupt activities and reclaiming public resources that otherwise would have been lost due to corruption. We believe the Commission has contributed to the general development of the country in the process.
To evaluate how we are doing we look at how much of an issue corruption was before the Commission came a long, the degree of public awareness of this issue now, and we estimate how much worse we think corruption would have been if the Commission had never been established. If you look at the recent study from the World Bank, it shows that corruption has been going down, although it is not at the level that we want it to be. We believe that if the Commission did not exist, things would have gotten much worse.
What are the root causes of corruption in Ethiopia?
In an Ethiopian context, root causes of corruption have to do with the moral strength of individuals and awareness among the public. Some people even think that because of the strong family bond here that it is ok to cheat or do something illegal to help a friend or brother. There also is not consistency at the institutional level, in policy, laws and procedures that bureaucracies must follow. The income levels for civil servants is another issue, although I do not think it is big a problem here. There are stories of public officials responsible for a large amount of public resources that are paid low wages and as a result, are prone to corruption.
We believe that corruption is not primarily caused by low incomes because the corruption that is hurting our country is practiced by the upper class in the private sector and senior government officials. If you look at statistics by profession, even though corruption exists in every profession it is more prevalent among civil engineers, who on average earn more than other professionals. Low incomes are a contributing factor, we acknowledge, but not the major reason right now. We also acknowledge that low paid government officials at the lower government echelons are vulnerable to petty corruption. There are also some other political factors that are evident as well.
I would like to dwell a bit more on the relationship between low wages and corruption. The highest salary a public official can earn is ETB 6, 460 a month, probably a fraction of what others in the private and international organizations make. Given such circumstances, isn’t it hard to expect the civil servant to be corruption free, with all the temptation?
Of course, there is a significant difference within the salary structure in the private and public sectors. The moral question however is more related to what we have said earlier. If you cannot balance your income with your demand, you always have less money. The only way you can have more money is if you can balance the two. An unsatisfied public worker who earns ETB 5,000 may not be satisfied with ETB 10,000. Balancing your income with your demands should be the first thing people do. Theft is not justified in any way. That is why we believe corruption is more related to the moral strength of the individual. Theft should not be an option. Having this in mind, I don’t relate low wages to corruption. However, as I said earlier, I am not saying it is a non-factor either. We know that low wages are a cause of petty corruption for those public servants at the district level and people working in similar levels of the government.
I believe low wages can steal people’s strength in the long run so it is a contributing factor, but not a major one. Yet, I do believe it is better to consider the issue of low wages.
What are the preventive measures the Commission is undertaking?
We need to create a public that takes ownership in the fight against corruption. The public should not be a forest where the corrupt can hide. We also are investigating the bureaucracy in public institutions and following leads. These come from individuals, the media and institutions. One primary source of information is the Auditor General because that office provides us with the evidence we need for investigations. We also take the initiative ourselves in some cases. We look at ways certain laws may leave open the possibility of corruption and recommend changes. We also conduct researches. A current example of this is that we are working to identify potential problems in the justice department by looking into the courts, police, judges and lawyers. The studies are used later on by the government to revise the system and take preventative measures against corruption. If we see possible corruption we take immediate action. This usually happens around large public procurements. We might get a tip before it happens and we stop the procurement from taking place or sometimes we find procurements designed to benefit individuals and not the institutions. When this happens we prosecute the individuals involved. Recently we introduced a wealth registration scheme to maintain accountability and transparency, which should also help with the prevention process.
What is your presence like in regional administrations? Do you have branches outside the capital?
The Commission’s office in Addis Abeba is the central hub for the general process and we have another branch office in Dire Dawa. We do not have branch offices in other regional towns. However, all the regions now have anticorruption offices in their own regional structures. These corruption offices in the regional towns execute different preventive and legal measures in their own jurisdiction. The FEACC, however, is not limited to only corruption cases in the capital city; our responsibilities also extend to the regions. There are activities that we undertake by ourselves; we also have the legal ground for representation from other governmental offices to execute what is needed.
Why would the government interfere in the institution that it established to improve the quality of its own administrative system?
According to the recent report by the World Bank on the state of corruption in the country, the construction and the telecom sector are said to be the two most corruption prone. Why are we not hearing of major operations by the commission in these sectors?
Well, we have taken action against corruption in telecom. Right now the former CEO of what was at the time known as Ethiopia Telecommunications, is still doing time in prison for crimes related to procurement.
Currently we are looking into government institutions that undertake huge procurements and ethio telecom is included as well as the construction industry. But we are also prioritizing, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation and universities, Justice and law enforcement, public revenues and the land administration system are other priority areas right now. Construction may be the profession associated with severe corruption but it is also leading the economic development of Ethiopia right now. What we are doing is working together with the Construction Association to teach the people about preventing corruption and reforming regulations and procedures that leave openings for fraud. Of course, it is not just the rules that need to be changed, it is the players themselves who perform corrupt actions. When people choose fraudulent ways of winning auctions instead of getting them by providing quality service, it needs to be changed. It harms the public sector in general and stifles competition so that a few large fish keep others out of the pond. Companies that work hard and are honest are often destroyed in this process. A series of talks with stakeholders to create awareness has been held recently and we are keeping a close eye on the construction sector right now. With regard to corruption in the construction sector our immediate action will be against corruption practices in the process of constructing water wells, universities and roads. These investigations, however do not grab the headlines like the recent action against The Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority because many investors and business people focus on the later. EBR