The Prime Minister’s report Optimistic Scenario Despite Challenges on the Ground

This week’s annual report to parliament by PM Abiy on the state of the nation came a week or so after the tragic events in the Amhara State and in Addis Ababa. His temporary absence from the media and public function might have caused some public anxiety. Obviously, the government had to deal with the tragic events, gather strength, leave the past behind and move forward with renewed self-confidence and vision. The Prime Minister’s appearance in parliament last Monday, has to some extent restored confidence and some form of normality to the disturbed political environment. It was back to business as usual.

As a rule, parliamentary reports by prime ministers and other government dignitaries as well as question and answers sessions are lengthy, sometimes boring and occasionally spiced with humor and collective laughter at some witty remarks by the PMs. This week’s parliamentary session was relatively more interesting and the mood was more of eager expectation than déjà vu. It came a week after the tragic events. There were more questions to be answered in connection with the events as the public spent most of the week in confusion and/or silence as normal information flow was interrupted and the government spokespersons remained mum most of the time.

As it is the tradition, the PMs report touched on political, economic, issues and were generally speaking sober and insightful as many people and observers agreed. Even though the public as well as parliamentarians expected the PM to deal mainly on the recent tragic events, he was however cautious not to indulge in them and he gave them marginal importance as it was evident during the question and answer sessions. On the contrary, peace and security, federalism and its attendant worries, constitutional amendment, elections and democracy have taken priority over other issues.

It is obvious why peace and security is the most burning issue at this particular time. Besides recent tragic events such as the failed coup attempts in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa, the most frustrating challenges in the last eleven months have been conflicts and massive human displacements in the various regions. No doubt that these issues have long captured the imagination of even people living far away from the centers of conflicts and displacements, most of whom might still have serious concerns.

The PM’s report on this issue was however tranquilizing and hopeful even if his arguments might not be independently confirmed. He said that the massive displacements have now stopped and most of those displaced in the past one year or before have gone back to their original places. This may also be a homework for the media and journalists who have to travel to the problem areas and check whether the PM’s report on the issue is plausible instead of staying in their offices and google second-hand information on these issues.

Federalism still remains a controversial national issue triggering more emotions than informed public debates. It is shedding more heat than light both among the literati and academia as well as among the general public. The PM’s take on this is not a new approach. He rather redefined or repeated what the Constitution and other relevant or related laws of the land have affirmed. For instance the constitution has put in place mechanism and procedures regarding the federal system as well as constitutional amendments. The problem is that these provisions are not well-digested or intentionally ignored or distorted and fueled extremists sentiments that caused many conflicts in the past.

The PM has made it clear that the constitution can be subject to revision and/or amendments because, as he put it, the constitution itself has put in place the procedures for doing so. He further emphasized that anyone who is interested in constitutional amendment should come up with ideas that can be useful for all the people of Ethiopia and for all regions of the country. What they have to do is only to convince the majority of the people and try to influence the government so that their ideas would be implemented. The problem, it seems, is that despite much talk and emotional outbursts, no person, party or group has so far come up with a comprehensive, studied and sober ideas on how to amend the constitution or improve the federal system. The PM however warned that any attempt to change these things by force or threat is bound to fail; because, as he put it, a high price has been paid to create and implement the constitution as well as the federal system.

The PM these sounded tough on these issues warning that his administration will, in no way compromise on the country’s unity and territorial integrity. He warned against extremist or polarized positions that on the one hand want the constitution to be changed entirely and on the other hand want it preserved as a dogmatic or holy piece of document. He called for a median position that can accommodate both positions and lead to consensus.

This same toughness was evident in his treatment of the issues of elections and democracy. The message was however clear. He said that it is incumbent upon citizens as well as political parties to look at elections or democracy within the framework and the rights enshrined in the constitution as well as in the federal act. One cannot say that they do not abide by the constitution and yet seek their rights to be respected or take part in election, as PM Abiy put it.

Judging from his report on what has been done in the last eleven months regarding preparations for the forthcoming elections, one gets the impression that election 2020 will take place according to schedule. The PM did not say that explicitly but one can derive this conclusion from the funds allocated for the elections and the work in progress. He said that the budget allocated for Election 2020 is so big that it surpasses the aggregate budget allocated for the last five elections combined. The money comes from local sources as well as from foreign assistance. He did not however mention the specific date and year the elections would be held. This may leave both doubters and pro-election activists guessing.

Economically, PM Abiy’s main focus was on job creation for millions of youths who are unemployed in towns and countryside across the entire country. He said that there are presently more than 11 millions youngsters looking for jobs, adding that his administration could only create and provide one million jobs. His plan for 2020 is to create three million jobs although he did not speak in detail how his administration is going to create all those jobs. This can be done by expanding the role small and medium businesses play in job creation while the other option might be through the creation and activation of the newly-built economic zones that are set up in various regions. Last but not least, expanding public works and the construction sector that are also big employers of unskilled labor power can also be taken as part of the job creating strategy.

This is also a clear departure when setting priorities. In the past, the focus was on scoring higher growth rates or per capita income. Now, there is a clear shift in priorities as job creation has perhaps become the biggest concern of PM Abiy’s reformist administration.

The PM’s economic outlook for 2020 is highly optimistic although his optimism might sometimes be debatable. He said that the economy will grow by more than nine per cent

 next fiscal year without detailing the factors behind of the projected growth. This may help trigger debates around the issue which will be a good thing for both doubters and enthusiasts. In the last few years, the official average economic growth rates had not exceeded eight per cent. What are the factors that would contribute to achieving greater growth rate next year, given the difficult conditions prevailing now, when the forecast is made? Time will certainly give the relevant answers to both doubters and believers.

One of the factors that are no doubt creating doubts about the growth projection is perhaps the prevailing inflation, massive unemployment and the foot-dragging process of privatization of big state-held enterprises the administration had promised to hand over to private investors a year or so ago. Inflation is still hitting the double digit figure, reaching 16 per cent since last June. Unemployment is bound to rise further given the high rate of population growth and that not even a single state enterprise has been transferred to private hands. For now the PM has promised to bring down the rate of inflation, start selling state enterprises and create more jobs. Let us hope and pray that he would succeed in doing so.

There is no issue the PM has not touched upon in his rather lengthy report. From human rights to soccer hooliganism, to planting tree seedlings to opening the old Menelik Palace to the public, the PM has expressed his candid views during the question and answer session. He insisted on the need to improve law enforcement without infringing upon human rights. He rather suggested to balance rule of law with human rights and freedoms and come up with a workable solution or a middle ground that would lead to consensus rather than to conflict. He deplored the politicization of sports and soccer in particular, where stadiums have become forums for politically incorrect statements and even politically-motivated violence.

He warned that the government is not only talking tough but will also be tough as far as addressing the issues of mob violence, infringement of law and order as well as disturbing public peace. This is a clearly reassuring answer to the biggest public concern that would restore confidence in the administration’s capacity to deal with lawlessness and arbitrariness by self-proclaimed mob leaders whose thuggish behavior has lately become a big public concern and a security challenge.

Thus, the PM’s report was not only balanced, comprehensive and visionary and optimistic. It also conveyed warning that no red line will be allowed to be crossed by anybody or any group when it comes to the country’s peace, order and unity. This is what the public expected and wanted most to hear although its practical application might prove another challenge.

The Ethiopian Herald July 7, 2019


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