Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 12:01 UK

Ethiopia's passion for bureaucracy

As she prepares to leave Addis Ababa, the BBC's Elizabeth Blunt reflects on the intense level of officialdom she has encountered in Ethiopia which she believes reveals much about the nature of power and responsibility in Ethiopian society.

A BBC rubber stamp
A rubber stamp conveys absolute authority, and without it no document is genuine

I had not been in Addis Ababa very long when one of my predecessors came to visit.

His first question took me by surprise.

It was not, "How was I getting on," or "What was going on in Ethiopia," but: "Did I still have the BBC rubber stamp?"

Actually I did. Small, round, wooden handled, not particularly impressive.

"Good", he said. "Don't lose it. You won't believe how long it took me to get it."

At that point I had no idea what he was talking about.

My notion of rubber stamps came from countries like Nigeria, where every street corner boasted a small plywood booth where the local rubber-stamp maker plied his trade.

Getting a rubber stamp was just a matter of paying your money and coming back in the afternoon to collect it.

A good rubber stamping gave a letter a nice air of authority, but it was not something to be taken too seriously.

But not in Ethiopia. There a rubber stamp conveys absolute authority and without it no document is genuine.

This was brought home to me when I lost both my passport and residence permit. The immigration department offered me a temporary permit, to tide me over for a few days until my new passport arrived.

Satphone
Bureaucracy meant it was difficult to retrieve an impounded satphone

I showed them the duplicated slip I had just been given by the British embassy, informing me that replacement passports were now printed in Kenya and the process took at least six weeks.

The official peered at it very doubtfully.

"How do I know this is really from the British Embassy?" and finally, the killer argument: "It doesn't have a rubber stamp."

Of course something this important cannot just be bought on any street corner.

My predecessor had gone through an elaborate process of getting official authorisation - a "Fikad" - complete with rubber stamp from the authorising ministry, before a BBC stamp could be issued.

Ethiopia's obsession with these authorisations can be written off as insane bureaucracy, or as a make-work scheme to provide jobs for civil servants. It is both of those, but above all it is a way of shifting responsibility.

Take my problem with the satellite phone or satphone which served as an antenna for the BBC studio. I had taken it to London for repair and on the way back I was stopped at customs.

It is the Catch-22 answer everyone in Ethiopia dreads: 'I cannot give you permission because you do not need permission'

The customs officer clearly had no idea what it was but he certainly was not prepared to get into trouble for letting me bring it into the country.

"Did I have authorisation for it?"

"Er, no whose authorisation did I need?"

With the air of a man making it up as he went along he thought for a moment, then proclaimed "the Telecommunications Agency," and impounded the satellite phone.

Waiting game

The next day I presented myself at the agency.

"Was I going to connect it to the Ethiopian telephone system?"

"No."

"Was it going to interfere with wireless transmissions?"

"No."

The official there looked relieved. Then I did not need his permission.

That clearly was not going to do at all.

A map of Ethiopia showing the capital Addis Ababa

Without a piece of paper and a rubber stamp I was never going to get the satphone back.

It is the Catch-22 answer everyone in Ethiopia dreads: "I cannot give you permission because you do not need permission."

Please, please would he give something, anything, with a rubber stamp on it to show to customs.

He weakened. Well all right, but only if I got an authorisation from the Ministry of Information.

So off to the information ministry, where the official in charge of the foreign press was friendly, but far too wily a bureaucrat to get caught giving me permission to have some dubious piece of satellite technology.

He offered an attestation that I was a fully accredited and responsible journalist. With a stamp.

"Not good enough," said the Telecoms Agency. "Try again."

This went on for some time until finally everyone's back was covered. I was allowed to pay an eye-watering sum of money in customs duty and retrieve my equipment.

Rubber-stamped dictatorship

Of course the dark side of this is that if nothing can be done without an authorisation, then with an authorisation, anything becomes permissible, and all responsibility is lifted from your shoulders.

In the days of the Derg, the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia from the mid-1970s until 1991, every arrest, every interrogation, every killing was documented, authorised, and filed.

And every piece of paper was kept, and is still there, in a vast, chilling archive. And every single sheet, I am prepared to bet, carries the correct rubber stamp.

Meanwhile I have carefully filed all the paperwork relating to the satphone, and if I go back to Addis Ababa in years to come I will check that my successor still has it.

It may seem a strange question, but you will not believe how long it took me to get it.

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SEE ALSO
Ethiopia country profile
22 Jan 11 |  Country profiles


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