Promoting national transparency

One of the downsides of Ethiopian traditions is the unimportance with which transparency is regarded. From individuals to the society to the government, most Ethiopians shun transparency in their personal dealings and managing the affairs of the state. Such a  hostility to transparency has had multi-tiered consequences that have harmed both the national and public interest. Let’s look into some which are more worrying.

Ethiopia was recently placed on a watch list of nations with a troubling doping record. Though individual athletes stand to lose more, the country could well face sanctions if stakeholders like the Ministry of Youth and Sports, various sports federations, the Ethiopian Olympics Committee, sports clubs, athletes and the general public do not forge a united front to tackle the problem vigorously. There are a host of entities which have a stake in the performance of an athlete including families, friends, trainers, managers, sponsors, etc. Some athletes are tempted or pressured into taking performance-enhancing drugs in order to gain fame and the financial rewards it brings. Non-transparency in how each of these actors should conduct themselves and towards one another has played a considerable role in emboldening and spreading the commission of doping offences. Had the proper procedures been put in place ensuring the prevalence of transparency in sports, Ethiopians would not have been vexed by and hang down their heads in shame when the athletes they revere are labeled  cheats. 

The constitution of Ethiopia unequivocally lays down that the conduct of affairs of the government shall be transparent. The reality on the ground, however, cannot be further from this. For instance, Parliament regularly invites stakeholders to participate in deliberations on draft bills. Occasionally though the stakeholders are clueless about the proposed piece of legislation. Meanwhile, a not insignificant portion of the proclamations that the legislature enacts are repeatedly amended because they are poorly drafted and impractical. Parliamentarians recently berated the Ministry of Justice for this particular failing. Non-transparency in the law-making process has led to frequent revisions of laws that have inconvenienced and annoyed the public. Another grave problem prompted by lack of transparency is the continued jailing of suspects that courts order to be released on bail for lame reasons. This is a stark reminder that opacity paves the way for rights violations.

Just last week ethio telecom, the state-owned telecom monopoly, announced that it was mulling over the introduction of the telecom apparatus registration mechanism as well as the policy charge and control system. The latter supposedly aims at restricting applications that are freely using the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to receive and forward text, voice and video calls, thereby costing the monopoly significant revenue it would otherwise have earned from international calls. The board of ethio telecom, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and other relevant government agencies are holding discussions that are expected to lead to decisions regulating the use and fees payable for popular applications like Viber and WhatsApp. The consultations have to be inclusive and transparent so that the decision factors in the needs of millions of users of the applications and ethio telecom’s legitimate commercial interests. A host of solutions can be thought of including, as proposed by the monopoly itself, to leverage its ownership of the national telecom infrastructure so as to reach a profit-sharing agreement with the owners of the applications. Failure to engage the public openly prior to passing a decision on the matter may well elicit customer dissatisfaction and hurt the company’s bottom line.

Speaking of transparency numerous government agencies post on notice boards the ‘principles of ethical service’ they are bound by. A customer who looks forward to a satisfactory service having read the ‘principles’ is bound to be let down. While the majority of honest and hard-working public sector employees treat customers courteously and with a sense of responsibility, the reluctance to strictly enforce mechanisms that help to bring about transparency and accountability has allowed a few employees and managers to abuse their power with impunity and rob the public blind. If institutions and their workers were to carry out their duties in a transparent manner, decent folks would have been held up as examples even as the unprincipled face the music.

In general lack of transparency is a bane for the nation and its people. The government, in particular, owes a constitutional obligation to make its conduct more transparent. Except for information precluded from disclosure by the access to information law on grounds of national security and similar other considerations, the public should be able to have an unfettered access to information held by the government. The fact that Ethiopians are by and large too guarded cannot justify the perpetuation of the culture of secrecy in government institutions. Lack of transparency accounts for many of the ills of Ethiopian society: bad governance, miscarriage of justice, rampant corruption and infringement of citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms to name a few. Consequently, backwardness, conflict, polarization still have not given way to modernity, peace, stability, and consensus on issues of national interest. Transparency is an indispensable ingredient of democracy, development, prosperity and solidarity. Let’s inculcate it in the national psyche!