Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) appeared before the House of People’s Representatives (HPR) on Monday morning in the presence of House Speaker Tagese Chafo to respond to dozens of questions from lawmakers regarding pressing issues that have topped the country’s agenda. Among the issues the PM had to deal with include: the growing impacts of COVID-19, macro-economic performance and challenges, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the political disputes between the federal government and the Tigray Regional State, the recent boarder conflict with Sudan, the depleting Lake Tana and abducted university students whose whereabouts are unknown.
The pandemic and its impacts
Addressing questions raised by the House, PM Abiy said that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a socio-economic and political menace to the public, adding that fear, followed by learning and growth have governed the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have chosen to take the growth/opportunity approach, to learn and build on our existing capacities. And expansion of our testing labs is one such example,” he told MPs.
The PM indicated that the world, which will emerge post COVID-19, will entirely be different from the one that we are used to.
“This pandemic has tested global political, social and economic systems. In Ethiopia, we will have to evaluate its effect and impacts in a similar manner,” he said, adding, “The effect of COVID-19 on the global economy is devastating and Ethiopia will also feel its impact. Similarly, food insecurity will be further exacerbated and global slow-down has affected the tourism and aviation sectors as well.”
Recalling that Ethiopia did not have the capacity to diagnose a COVID-19 case when first coronavirus case was reported on March 13; the PM said Ethiopia’s current effort centers mainly on expanding testing efforts.
To that effect, the government has intensified its efforts over the past three months, to expand testing centers. Now, there are 31 testing laboratories in all Regional States and City Administrations with the capacity to test 8,000 people per day, he said.
In addition, seven testing laboratories will start to give services at the end of this week, bringing the total testing laboratories to 38. An additional 15 testing laboratories will also start giving services soon, which will help expand the testing capacity to 14,000 a day by July.
It was indicated a total of 142, 960 tests have been conducted to date. However, the PM has said, “In terms of the population size we have, this number is very low.”
Over the past year, export has grown by 13 percent. And in the past 10 months, there has been a 16 percent growth in coffee sales alone, worth USD 667 million. Meat export has also increased by 21 percent amassing USD 41 million in sales.
Admitting Ethiopia’s predicted annual economic growth has dropped from nine to six percent, Abiy said a six percent economic growth is still a success, keeping in mind that many nations in the world are struggling to even register a one percent increase on their economies.
According to Abiy, Ethiopia’s GDP, which was around USD 86-87 billion when he assumed public office in April 2018, has currently reached the USD 100 billion mark, putting the country on the right track to become a lower-middle income economy. Furthermore, the USD 880 per capita income of citizens has increased to USD 1,000 in the reported period.
Currently, it has successfully reduced the 59 percent external debt to GDP ratio, which had put the country at high risk bringing the state to insolvency, to 25 percent. Prime Minister Abiy said the viable reform measures that have been taken place during the past two years and his government’s successful diplomatic engagements at bilateral and multilateral platforms are the reasons behind such a success.
Regarding foreign trade, the PM talked about Ethiopia’s significant growth in the export sector during the current fiscal year.
“Whilst many countries in the world are on lockdown and unable to produce due to COVID-19, Ethiopia has utilized different strategies to bring agricultural commodities to the global market,” the PM said.
Abiy pointed out that Ethiopia’s expenditure for petroleum products has reduced followed by the partial lockdown, availing the opportunity for the country to save hundreds of millions in USD. On the other hand, the purchase of other strategic imports such as medicines and fertilizers has increased since the outbreak.
Furthermore, Abiy said Sheraton and Entoto Park projects, if successfully completed, has international organizations convinced, that Ethiopia would become among the top visited countries in the world post COVID-19.
However, despite the aforementioned successes, COVID-19 remains a serious challenge as the service sector is battered and the country’s revenue from remittance has fallen sharply, the PM remarked.
Flying at a time of a pandemic
With words full of praise, Abiy commended Ethiopian Airlines for its active role in combating COVID-19 across Africa, and “its excellent worldwide cargo services that has significantly helped the landlocked Ethiopia become a hub for the continent.”
“These days, many airlines lay-off thousands of workers and demand financial support to survive, but, our flag carrier is doing its business as usual, apart from playing a pivotal role in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Abiy said, adding, various leaders are expressing their gratitude to the carrier for its indispensable role in cargo and flight services, during this difficult period of the world.
Ethiopian Airlines has now about 90 flights per week to transport Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from China to the rest of the world, he said, adding, China has kept on providing financial support to Ethiopian, for showcasing solidarity during its hard times. Moreover, this has enabled the nation to be chosen as a hub for humanitarian aid from Addis to Africa.
Regarding the drawn-out election saga topping the country’s internal politics, the PM said his party honors the decision made by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to postpone the national election.
At the beginning of the outbreak, Prosperity Party was in favor of holding the elections as per the initial plan, the PM said; however, according to him, following discussions with chairperson of the Board, Birtukan Medeksa, the party realized that it was the right decision to postpone the election.
“For the sake of election, we shouldn’t follow a system which will cost us a lot,” the Prime Minister said.
GERD and border skirmishes
Ethiopia does not have a history of causing harm to others. Our need is only one – to develop and prosper and to free our people from the shackles of poverty. More than 50 million Ethiopians do not have access to clean water. That is almost the population of one country. More than 50 million do not have access to electricity. To this day, Ethiopian mothers still carry fire wood. Meeting their basic rights and needs is of paramount importance. Development of the GERD is therefore, for our growth and will equally benefit lower riparian countries. Seeing this project in a positive light is therefore critical.
“Over 50 million people, who amount to the population size of the Sudan or the people of Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somali altogether, are still living in darkness and use unsafe water,” Abiy said, comparing the situation with that of Egypt’s, whose 98 percent of its population enjoy access to clean water and a 24-hour electric supply.
He stressed that Ethiopians, causing no significant harm to downstream countries, are after their basic rights to access clean water and electricity. “Any good neighbor, who understands these hard facts, supports us. We will complete the project, even if there are elements who attempt to put a barricade on our path.”
In addition to the current issues concerning GERD, Ethiopia is in a border dispute with Sudan, on which Abiy gave his take on, saying Ethiopia is determined to resolve the recent border clash. "The Sudanese are our brothers and have legitimate questions that we have agreed to resolve," he said, adding, those who had been trying to fan the flames would not succeed.
"There is nothing that will take us to war, as we maintain culturally and historically emboldened relations," Abiy said.
Save Tana and tree planting
The PM was requested to give his governments view towards a much depleted Lake Tana, which has recently attracted a wider campaign. The PM responded to the question by explaining the root cause of the problem while he gave temporary and permanent solution.
“Save Lake Tana campaign has so far focused on the symptoms (physically removing water hyacinth) from Tana. Protecting/reforesting the Guna mountain chain would cure the root cause,” he told the House.
In the meantime, he indicated that the federal government is in negotiations with Europe to buy machines worth 300 million birr to help prevent water hyacinth.
According to the PM, since the process of mechanical and man-made elimination of water hyacinth is a temporary solution, sustainable environmental practices are the only long lasting solutions. He said the five billion green legacy, will be a major solution to the sustainable eradication of water hyacinth.
“They are long-term and short-term protective measures against water hyacinth in the lake of Tana. The short-term defense is try to block it with the help of human and machine forces; but this approach does not bring lasting solutions. A long-term defense is to do environmental protection.”
Mount Guna originates from the rivers feeding the Tana and Tekeze; farmers around the mountain have been victims of flash floods, especially in the Fogera area, where their fertile soil and fertilizer are washed away, he said.
The kidnaped students and their fate
Regarding Dembi Dollo University students, the Prime Minister said the government has been undertaking various operations over the past months to find answers and there are ongoing efforts and the Federal government has not shied away from allocating in the required resources to address this issue.
“We do not have a report of deaths nor are there any forces that have claimed the kidnapping. Nevertheless, many who have facilitated this incident have been reprimanded.”