Discourse on the Political Economy of Public Corruption in Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi Revisited

By Habtamu Alebachew

1. The Encounter
Last year by this time, I participated in an international research conference in the city of Algiers, Algeria, organized by the Algerian Customs Authority in collaboration with the World Bank. The objective of the workshop was to exchange experiences in Customs and Tax Management Reforms among scholars from particularly emerging economies in the world. My paper was on the ‘Tax Reform’ and emerging trends thereof in my country.

Before my presentation, one expert from Thailand, American in citizenship, was on the
stage presenting his paper. His main argument was that corruption in public customs and
tax administration was more rampant and structural in developing states than developed
ones. To support his argument with official sources, the researcher exposed a ‘public
corruption map’ that divided world countries into four, from the worst to the best in
ascending order. The map marked what it identified as worst and structurally corrupt countries with red color, in which Ethiopia was one.

The study instantly confused me particularly on the question of how it had that much
precision about Ethiopia while I, the citizen at the heart, was there. My mind raised a host of theoretical and practical questions. Of course, I could not be confident enough to argue that Ethiopia was a better country in controlling public corruption as compared to other developing countries. This was because I did not have convincing data even though I made several visits in Africa and outside, and had the impression that my country was better, in general, but worse in some specific sectors than developed states I saw.

However, I had the strong conviction that double-digit growth in my country for
consecutive eight years would have been impossible under structural corruption 1.

Secondly, Ethiopia has had to earn the brand of an ‘emerging country’ as much out of
structural public inefficiency and ineffectiveness as out of poverty, the fight against
which, could also generate, side by side, the undesirable material conditions of public
corruption. Nonetheless, I note that rapid economic growth marred by equally growing
public corruption is a precedent to anomalous growth of a socioeconomic structure,
which Young2 calls the ‘hyphenated society’—polarized income inequality.

Thirdly, even if there was appreciable incidence of public corruption in my country, it must have had its own describable levels peculiar to Ethiopian realities. Thus, without such a study, any caricature of Ethiopia as a ‘structurally corrupt state’ would methodologically be hasty and gross over generalization. I finally changed these views into questions and asked the researcher.

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Discourse on the Political Economy of Public Corruption in Ethiopia – Meles Zenawi Revisited