Is There Connection Between Corruption and Democracy?

“Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.”

Atifete Jahjaga


EPRDF has been making deafening noise about its fight against corruption. Does it mean it?  We will find out. One thing is clear. That is the government is admitting that its officials and members have plagued the country with corruption. It is also telling us that it is winning the fight. Anyone that has closely observed it is quick to doubt that EPRDF is serious.

To be fair, EPRDF’s predecessors were not known to be corruption free either. The only difference is, EPRDF has taken corruption to its peak level, to make Ethiopia among the top corrupt countries of the world.  Per transparency International, in 2015, Ethiopia ranked 103 out of 168 countries, scoring 33 on a scale of 100.  (  We all know that EPRDF brags for being a pro-development government. The problem with this bragging is that corruption and development do not go together. If anything, they contradict each other. It is no wonder that Ethiopia is still 173rdof 186 countries in the UN human development (GDP) ranking (Source:UN Human Development Report 2015). This at similar ranking level as during its predecessors (the emperor as well Mengistu) times. This is despite all the noise about double digit economic growth that EPRDF is not tired of telling.

Interestingly, EPRDF does not shy away from telling us how progressive its government is (referring to education, health, transportation etc.) comparing itself to the Derg and the Feudal system.  But what it does not tell us about is the tens of Billions of dollars it has collected in foreign aid and loan on behalf of the Ethiopian people. Its lips are tight also about the facts that significant amount of the donated and borrowed dollars have been siphoned to its officials’ personal accounts, as the result of which, its officials have become millionaires.

EPRDF wants us to believe that it can win the fight against corruption without addressing political repression, economic exploitation, disregard for law as well as ethical values that have blanketed the whole country. The truth is that, there is strong relation between repression, exploitation, low morale/ethical value and corruption. In this write up, I attempt to show the only effective way to win corruption is by empowering the Ethiopian people through democratic reforms. There is a strong inverse relationship between democracy and corruption. The reason why EPRDF deliberately isolate corruption from democracy is to prolong corruption as it is the foundation of its existence. In other words, corruption, political repression and EPRDF cannot exist without each other. Therefore, EPRDF’s fight against corruption should not be taken seriously.

What is corruption?

Per transparency international corruption is the abuse of power for private gain. (see the above sited website) Here, the key terms are:  power, abuse and private-gain.  It means that for corruption to occur there must be someone with power (political power that is), and that power must be abused (misused) and the abuse results in private gains (to benefit the power holder). These three are interlinked and interdependent. Abuse of power can take many forms (for example, creating psychological fear, physical torture, incarceration etc.) and private gain can mean to benefit self, family members, group, party affiliates etc. with money, labor and other valuables.

The Origin of abusive power

Where does political power come from? The short answer is that it comes from people.  The old Ethiopian flock lore, that says “Two people are stronger than one individual” alludes to that fact. One key criterion to gain power is, for people to have common purpose. Another way of saying this is that, two people with a common goal have more power than 100 individuals with hundred different goals going in hundred different directions. Therefore, more people who have common goal have even more power than few people or individuals.

People are still the source of power even under undemocratic (dictatorial) settings. In undemocratic communities, political power is forged by charismatic individuals, be it bullies, tribal chief, kings, or warlords “liberation” fighters etc. Those individuals (power centers) are not elected by the public but they get their power from the people that they forced to rally behind them. This is the genesis of undemocratic power.

Of course, political power can also be forged by agreement when people democratically (willingly) agree to invest their collective power. This collective power is then dispensed for a common good by care-takers (or leaders), who herself/himself is democratically elected.

In both(democratic and undemocratic) cases, the source of political power are people who agreed or forced (in undemocratic case) to have common goal. The difference is undemocratic leader have full monopoly of the collective power and can abuse it while the democratically elected ones only dispense their power following the rule of law. Undemocratic power is coercive power and coercive power is corruptive by nature. Corruptive power is coercive in its very nature. To say that there is corruption means that the power used to corrupt is not a legitimate (democratic). It is rather coercive power right from the very start.

Corruption is an indirect way of usurping something of value (money, labor, or other valuables) by force and without fair compensation. For the usurpation to take place, there must be power imbalance between the corruptor and the corrupted. That is, the corruptor must have more power than the corrupted.

Abuse of power take place, if the power is used to benefit the few at the expense of the many. If the use of power is not guided by rule of law and ethical values, it can be misused (abused). If there is no mechanism to counter-balance and assure a fair utilization of power, there are all kind of possibilities to abuse it. If power is not regulated, the human tendency is, to abuse it and take advantage for private gain.

Patterns of corruption

If corruption was something that takes place just between individuals and happens at random, it wouldn’t be anybody’s concern. The problem is, corruption is everywhere in Ethiopia touching millions. It is practiced by people at the highest national office as well as the local level Kebele officials. The practice is affecting almost every economic function throughout Ethiopia. It is systemic pattern that is ubiquitous all over the country. Corruption is like infectious disease that is spread all over and paralyzing any reasonable economic and political activities of the nation.

To wage effective fight against this economic, political as well as societal disease we call corruption, understanding the mechanism of its emergence as well as how it spreads is a good starting point.

At a risk of being repetitive, I say that corruption is unproductive political as well economic activity. Political: because, it involves political power abuse. Economic: because it involves the taking away of someone’s wealth, labor or other valuable holdings without reasonable compensation. Let’s visualize how it takes place by considering a very simplified corruptive activity and then we move on to a more involved scenario of corruptive activity.

Let’s take two people. One of them has power because, say, he works for the government. The other has nothing except his labor.  The man with power asks the laborer to do some work for him with promise to pay fair market price after the job is completed.  After several days of laboring, the worker completed the job and asked to be paid. The man with power made only partial(not full) payment and gave unjustified excuse of poor workmanship not to pay in full. The job was well done. But the man with power did that because he knew that the laborer has no means or power to make him pay in full.  The worker then took his case to the court. The problem is, the court would not favor the worker because the judge and powerful guy have common economic interest. Therefore, the Jude is not neutral. The Judge is more interested in helping his body instead of the fair implementation of the labor laws of the country. The laborer, at least should be able to complain and expose what happened to him in the hope to shame the powerful guy so that he won’t repeat his corrupt actions. But the problem is the local media is owned and controlled by the government do not expose anything the criticize people in power.  Worst yet, even the private media owners would not cooperate for fear of retaliation by the politician.

This is the type of corruption that takes place every day, in every part of the country to millions of working people. Not getting paid for the day’s work is bad enough. But corruption hurts even more than that and has much more lasting effect. For one thing, corruption robs the thrust that people should among each other. Secondly, it tarnishes people’s view of work as the legitimate way to earn living. Instead, it encourages beggary, theft and other deceptive ways to earn living. Think about the number of people and the economic scale this affects, when this is happening on millions of people all over the nation.

From the above, it is easy to see corruption thrives in the interplay between the following three simple conditions.

  1. Repressive Political power without rule of law and ethical value
  2. The court Harmonizing with repressive political power (instead of being counter-balancing force)
  3. Press and Media controlled by repressive political power (no free speech)

Now think of the corruptive economic and social pattern that covers the whole country when the above three conditions are met at every level of the government by every EPRDF member. Yes, this is the Ethiopia that EPRDF rules.

The above picture is when corruption happens on person-to-person basis. Now, let’s looks at corruption happens to many people at the same. To show this, we look at deals that the EPRDF officials make with foreign investors.

These types of large scale corruption start when foreign investors can lease a fertile land from EPRDF to initiate industrial scale farming to produce crops they sale in the investors’ home country. That is, the investors pay large amount of money to EPRDF to lease millions of hectares of farmland. Since the farmlands to be leased are already occupied by native farmers, the deal would require that hundreds of thousands farming families be forcefully removed from their land without having any say or getting equivalent compensation.

Why do the EPRDF officials do this cruelty to hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens?  The answer is, they do it because they could for they have the power.  They do it because, there is nothing to stop or control them from abusing their power. They do it because the officials have monetary gains to make.

EPRDF call this deal development but the truth is it is corruption which is anti-development. The outcome is more severe than the one-to-one corruption because it affects thousands of people in just one deal. Now, think of all the dealings that the EPRDF has already made with the various so called international investors to give the already settled fertile farmlands, be it to foreign or to national investors at the misery of millions of farmers.

I only drew two scenarios of corruption.  But corruption comes in many different forms. It takes place in banks, in mining fields, in educational and medical settings, in import and export offices, in market places etc. In short, in almost all economic political and social activities.

In all of them, it is easy to see the abuse of power to make personal gain. Victims were not allowed to see their days in court. They did not have freedom to express their grievances. The same outcome repeat for all the victims. They are, misery, joblessness, poverty and poor health for the millions.

Why is it that corruption is everywhere in the country and with the same results? The answer is that the seed of corruption is planted in the highest political office of the country. It starts at the head. It is the EPRDF leaders who set up the initial conditions from which the nation-wide corruption pattern emerged to infest the nation with economic and political cancer.

Corruption has become a systemic phenomenon infecting the whole country. If one wants to get rid of a system, one starts by rooting out its cause-operational rules- that brought it to existence in the first place.  The system of corruption that has plagued Ethiopia cannot be eliminated by removing officials at random. It cannot also be eliminated by decree. It can be eliminated only by institutionalizing a genuine democratic system and building a system that respects the rule of law and guided by ethical values. Independent judicial system and free speech are also necessary to combat corruption.

Considering this, let’s see what EPRDF has been doing over the years to “combat” corruption.

EPRDF’s attempt to combat corruption

EPRDF has been telling us about its “relentless fight” against corruption for the last twenty or so years.  Per, which is EPRDF government’s web site, the following highlights its bogus activities to combat corruption:

  • The Government of Ethiopia established an anti-corruption commission in 2001 (and defined powers in the revised Proclamation 433 of 2005).
  • Decreed the Criminal Code Proclamation No. 414/2004; The Criminal Procedure Code 1961;
  • Revised Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission Establishment Proclamation No. 433/2005;
  • Established Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission of Ethiopia is responsible for preparing a national report on anti-corruption efforts across the country.
  • Revised Anti-Corruption Special Procedure and Rules of Evidence Proclamation No. 434/2005; Assets Disclosure and Registration Proclamation No. 668/2010;
  • Decreed protection of Witnesses and Whistleblowers of Criminal Offences Proclamation No. 699/2011;
  • Decreed prevention and Suppression of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism Proclamation No. 657/2009; Source:
  • Hired world bank experts to help reduce corruption
  • Shuffled or rearranged position of high ranking corrupt political officers, while jailing low ranking ones
  • In the last few months, (after the mass resistance that is,) EPRDF’s media is telling us that it is discharging and arresting thousands its own members accusing them of corruption and incompetency.

What did (or will) Ethiopians gain from these?  Clearly, the results were very disappointing. Instead of weakening, corruption became even stronger. The imbalance of wealth and political power between the haves and have-nots became wider and wider.  What ordinary Ethiopians saw is more greed, intensified exploitation, fake development, displacement of farmers, joblessness, hopelessness and then mass political unrest and uprising.

After two decades of dishonest anti-corruption propaganda and a year-long intensified mass protest, EPRDF still insist that the corruption problem can be solved by jailing some corrupt officials. The “intensified corruption cleansing” campaign of the last few months will face the same failure as the many bogus attempts.

EPRDF controls the courts, the law enforcement machinery and the mass media. But they could not clean corruption. The reason why their decrees, courts and law enforcement did not reduce, let alone, eliminate corruption is, that corruption cannot be fought and won by corrupts themselves, without dealing with its root-cause.

The truth is that EPRDF officials are not that dumb. They well know that they cannot cleanse corruption by repeating the same activities that created the system. It is either they lack the will power to change or it is who they are and can never change. In the latter case, like all short-sighted greedy group, they have chosen to die as corrupt Billionaires.

Just in case, it is just in case, that they have the will power to change but did not know how, let’s revisit the connection between corruption, democracy and ethical values.

Democracy and ethics: the most potent tool against corruption

If corruption means the abuse of political power, then the best way to weaken or eliminate corruption is to distribute that political power equally to all citizens and eliminate power concentration from the hands of the few. How do we do that? We do that, by creating a society where there is political equality among all citizens. In other words, democratization is the way to spread power and combat corruption. Political equality of all citizens is an essential principle of democracy.

To prevent its abuse, power needs to be spread among the citizens and the different branches of government. Power needs to go back to its original source, the people.

Corruption is an infectious behavior that is practiced by every power holders. It can only be defeated with the participation of the masses who are empowered to exercise their civic and democratic rights.

If people’s democratic rights are respected, they can organize themselves as they see it and tackle corruption. Democracy and freedom calls for independent free press and media (radio, TV, internet).  Democracy enables to expose corruption and corrupt individuals by writing or speak against them without fear of reprisal. In free society, transparency and flow of information will make facts available to all but not to those in power only. Corruption can be won when fought by the people who seriously are hurt by it and want to get rid of it but not by its perpetrators.

Power abuse and corruption have difficult times in democratic society, since the judicial system

  • protects the rights of citizens
  • guards the integrity of the constitution.
  • limits the power of the government and those who run it.

Ethics is the other tool that dismantles corruption and corruptive behavior. If the day-to-day actions of all citizens are guided by ethical conducts, corruptive practices can fade gradually. These ethical values start with the golden rule that says “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you”. The other rules include:

  • Work hard and smart Earn your living and void what is not yours
  • Be Patriotic Love people and country without discrimination
  • Be Fair Serve justice, treat with equality, be honest
  • Be respectful Respect people, the environment and property
  • Seek Peace                      Be tolerant, resolve conflict peacefully
  • Pursue Happiness Enjoy life without hurting other’s happiness

If practiced diligently, these are powerful guides that can shape a society one person at a time. That is, if every person in a family follow the rules, then the whole family practice them. If every family practices them, then the whole village practices them. If the practice keeps growing from villages to communities to districts, then to the nation everyone in the country is guided by the same ethical values. That means, that, if every family discourages corruption then the communities do the same. If every community discourages corruption, then the whole country discourages corruption.

In this way, the synergy of democracy and ethical values can become a potent weapon against corruption. So, if EPRDF is serious to defeat corruption but did not know how to, this is the way! Anything short of this is nothing but diversion.

In summary

Corruption is a societal cancer that paralyzes any reasonable economic activity including a country’s development. Political repression, lack of democratic rights  as well as disrespect for the rule of laws are the necessary conditions that corruption thrives on.

EPRDF has admitted that corruption is a serious problem. But the methods it is using to tackle corruption is very superficial.  The only way to eliminate a bad tree is by uprooting it all together but not by cutting one of its branches. In the same token, the only way to uproot corruption is by democratically empowering the Ethiopian people so that they can challenge the corrupt officials. Only ethical and empowered people can eliminate corruption but not the corrupt government and its decrees.

So, if EPRDF is genuinely seeking to eliminate corruption, it should start by entrusting the Ethiopian people with their inalienable democratic rights. Anything different is deception.

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