A parliamentary year ends under COVID-19
Had it been normal times, the whole country would have been taking about election and campaigns. Some Members of Parliament would have been ready to leave office and the public would be heading to the polls after a month.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia to postpone the election indefinitely, extending the current parliament term.
Officially, the fifth year of the legislative body ended on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in the presence of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) where the MPs heard the Abiy’s explanation regarding the budget bill for the fiscal year 2013 E.C. (2020/21) followed by endorsing the proposed budget bill.
Even though, the parliament has endured unprecedented and unexpected challenges to carry out its regular activities as per its plan, the concluded year had been launched in October 2019 based on the existing traditions and working procedures like it been done in the preceding year.
According to the constitutional provision and the HPR Working Procedures and Members Code of Conduct, the parliamentary year commences with the opening speech that is delivered by the President of the Republic. The speech is usually expected to highlight the government’s priority areas for the year ahead
The priority areas
The government outlined its plan for the 2012 fiscal year (2019/20) mainly focusing on reforms; making sure the upcoming election is free and fair; controlling illicit trade and inflation; as well as boosting agricultural productivity.
Similarly, in the aforementioned plan, ensuring peace and security of the public was also given due attention.
Improving the justice sector, correcting macroeconomic imbalances, boosting export performance, creating more employment opportunities, increasing tax revenue and investment are also priority areas for the government.
Expediting the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to increase power supply and meet local demand was also one focus area.
The legislative body is also responsible for supervising and monitoring activities of the executive.
However, as it has been witnessed over the past few months, the year has brought about tough challenges for lawmakers.
The COVID-19 challenge
MPs were unable to do their job in accordance with the set plan due to the overwhelming effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislative body had to look for a bigger conventional hall to hold its sessions. Since, the main chamber of parliament does not meet the criteria set by the Ministry of Health that requires distancing, the HPR had to look for an alternative meeting hall.
Hence, MPs started holding meetings at the Office of the Prime Minister which has a big conference hall that can host more than 2,500 persons.
The decision sparked debates amongst commentators who feared that the mandate of the legislative body may be compromised for seeking shelter at a facility owned by the executive body.
The current parliament building was first built by Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1933 which was finished just two years after the coronation of the emperor.
Last week, House Speaker, Tagesse Chaffo, confirmed that that the house’s key function has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic especially in the last four month’s out of a total of a 9-month-long parliamentary year.
Though the major plans and lists of activities have been undertaken decisively, “they are not fully implemented,” House Speaker told MPs during the extraordinary session that was called on Tuesday a week after the House was officially closed for summer recess.
“The House has continued undertaking several activities even during the pandemic,” he said.
According to the House Speaker’s report, lawmakers have endorsed a total of 72 draft laws and resolutions. Similarly, in a joint session of both the upper and lower chambers have passed one resolution which re-extend the National Census. It can be recalled that the National Census has been extended for the second consecutive year which was originally supposed to be held in 2018.
Out of the 72 laws that were endorsed separately by the HPR, 59 are proclamations while the remaining 13 are various resolutions.
Unlike the preceding four parliamentary terms, MPs of the current parliament have endorsed some controversial and historic proclamations in their final year.
For instance, it was these MPs, who for the first time voted to extend the National Election as well as Census.
Among the key proclamations the MPs voted over the just ended fiscal is the State of Emergency Proclamation (SoE) which came in to effect after the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country.
Cited as “State of Emergency Proclamation Enacted to Counter and Control the Spread of COVID-19 and Mitigate Its Impact Proclamation No. 3/2020, the SoE is the third enacted by the same MPs. The same parliament also decreed SoE in 2016 and in 2018 due to the violent protests and wider unrest that finally brought the current PM to power.
Similarly, during the last ten months, the House also recorded various incidents while debating on various proclamations. For instance, unlike before, MPs have been seen engaged in heated debates on some provisions while the House also saw a huge margin yeas and nays on some proclamations and resolutions.
In a rare move, the recently concluded year also witnessed a couple of draft bills rejected by MPs.
It was also in the same year that the House was divided into two over the appointment of Deacon Daniel Kibret who was re-nominated to be a board member of the Ethiopian Press Agency. His appointment was approved with a narrow margin.
The Hate Speech and Disinformation Proclamation, Excise Tax Proclamation and Firearms Administration and Control Proclamation are few of the proclamations that have attracted attention.
No Auditor General report
The Federal Auditor General has announced that it is going to release audit findings of the 2011 EC (2018/19) fiscal year if the House refuse to call a extraordinary session to hear the stated period’s audit and performance findings.
The Reporter understands that the audit report has been one of the most important report the recently concluded parliamentary year should have heard despite the impacts of COVID-19.
Auditor General Gemechis Dubisso told The Reporter that his office has already submitted the audit findings to the parliament’s secretariat. However, the parliament went on recess without deliberating on the report.
He hopes that House Speaker will summon MPs for an extra-ordinary sessions any time in this rainy season.
However, if that does not happen, the Auditor General indicated that he would release the report publically to the media.
He further told The Reporter that when such kinds of incidents occur the Auditor General and House Speaker consult each other on the possibility of unveiling the report via media.
However, Gemechis believes that instead of using the media “it is better and more appropriate to find ways for MPs to come together to listen to the report,” he told The Reporter.
He said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most MPs might not go back to their respective constituencies adding that it is easy to summon them.
Like the Auditor General’s report, the parliament is usually expected to hear performance reports of most federal offices both under the executive body and judiciary. According to the House’s schedule, the federal budget recipient is mandatorily required to present their reports based on the periodical category under the parliament’s list of schedule. For instance, any ministerial office or other agencies, which might be under a particular ministry, may be recalled by the parliament to hear reports or to present feedbacks upon the parliament’s request.
However, under the recently concluded year the House was unable to hear most of the reports.
In his latest report, House Speaker announced that as per the regular activities and schedule, the parliament has managed to hear reports from only three public offices that were presented before COVID-19.
So far, the only public offices whose reports were heard by MPs are that of the Federal Attorney General, Ministry of Science and Higher Education and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
In fact, the House also heard other reports in extra-ordinary and urgent sessions, which were held due to the urgency of the matters. Hence, these unscheduled reports include one from the National Electoral Board regarding the draft bill to extend the sixth General Election.
Apart from the stated reports, this year’s parliament ended without hearing other important reports which includes those in connection with security related problems in various parts of the country. For instance, the house was expected to hear reports from the Ministry of Peace and or other public offices the Ministry oversees, such as the Federal police. Yet the country has gone through various crises and violent clashes that claimed the lives of citizens.
Similarly, the House did not hear reports from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Water and Irrigation and Energy in regards to the state of affairs of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Moreover, there is a serious desert locust infestation in the country but the parliament did not hear a report from the Ministry of Agriculture or relevant offices under the Ministry.
Another interesting turn of events is the new dissident voice in parliament – the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). However, following the separation of TPLF from the ruling coalition, the House were seen divided into two opposing ideological camps. With the recent development, few members of the TPLF were on many occasions opposing the ruling party – the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP).