On Tuesday this week, 17th April, at the 25th regular session of Parliament, Prime Minister Meles answered questions and queries from MPs on various issues ranging from the recent teachers salary scale adjustment, the measures taken to control inflation, resettlement issues in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State, and on matters of regional peace and security. 

Responding to a question on whether matters might escalate to an all-out war with Eritrea and on ways to stop Eritrea’s destabilizing activities, the Prime Minister defined the four pillars of Ethiopia’s strategy. First, he said, was to try to resolve outstanding differences through peaceful means. In that regard, he noted, all possible avenues towards a peaceful solution had been explored but all, unfortunately, had been turned down by the Eritrean regime, apparently hell bent on destabilizing the region. Nevertheless, despite the repeated flat rejections by the Eritrean regime to all initiatives, the Ethiopian government would continue to keep on knocking on the door. It remained unwaveringly committed to a peaceful solution. 

The second element of the strategy focused on trying to distance the Eritrean people from involvement in the destabilizing strategy of the regime and to nullify its attempts to sow seeds of animosity between two brotherly peoples. In that regard, the Prime Minister said the friendly hospitality provided the ever-increasing numbers of Eritrean refugees crossing into Ethiopia was to be commended. It was a real achievement. In an unprecedented manner, Ethiopia is offering numerous scholarships to Eritrean students among the refugees, and this, and other initiatives, was by and large successful in containing the Eritrean regime’s efforts to spoil people-to-people relationships. 

On the diplomatic front, the third pillar of the strategy, Prime Minister Meles said significant progress had been made in isolating the regime and identifying it as a regional spoiler. He told the House that during the entire history of the African Union there had been only one occasion when the continental body had passed a resolution requesting the UN Security Council to impose sanctions and that was over Eritrea. It was passed with a near-unanimous vote .The Prime Minister also welcomed the actions taken by the Security Council in imposing sanctions against Eritrea twice as well as the uniform stance taken by IGAD members in condemning Eritrea’s destabilizing activities throughout the region. He noted that when it failed to manipulate IGAD in 2007, Eritrea had withdrawn from the regional body, essentially turning itself into a pariah state. He explained to the House that unless the regime clearly quit its destabilizing activities the government would continue its diplomatic pressure to enforce and tighten the sanctions previously imposed on Eritrea. 

The final element of the strategy as outlined by the Prime Minister was the taking of proportional, calculated self-defense measures in response to the repeated terrorist acts of the Eritrean regime and its surrogates. In that regard he said, Ethiopia’s recent measures, including the attack on terrorist training camps inside Eritrea, were designed to stop the regime from sending groups across the border to kill and kidnap tourists. He also mentioned the recent kidnapping of more than a hundred young gold miners in the north east and added “we have taken proportional measures in both locations,” though he gave no further details. The Prime Minister stressed that the possibility of an all-out war was out of the question, adding that the Eritrean regime has no capability to wage a full scale war. However, he said, given its belligerent nature the possibility that it would continue to engage in fragmented terrorist activities aimed to try to destabilize Ethiopia could not be ruled out and he reaffirmed the government’s readiness to respond proportionally to control any such activity. 

On the current situation in Somalia and the planned withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, Prime Minister Meles said the current situation in Somalia had shown significant improvements following the series of defeats sustained by Al-Shabaab forces. The Ethiopian troops, he emphasized, were operating within the framework of IGAD along with AMISOM. Accordingly, military measures taken in south western Somalia, in the Baidoa area, and in central Somalia, in Belet Weyne, had led to a swath of territory being freed from Al-Shabaab. Operations out of Baidoa had cleared Bay and Bakool regions, while troops centered in Belet Weyne had freed Hiiraan, Galgudud and Mudug regions. Al-Shabaab had been unable to put up serious resistance except for a few hours at Belet Weyne and it was now limited to engaging in a few terror attacks aimed at its own people. In fact, the Prime Minister said, Al-Shabaab as a group was now too weakened to stage any significant military offensive, and in the liberated areas the public were actively engaged in establishing police units and peace and stability committees. With the support of the TFG, a Hiiraan provincial administration was being established in Belet Weyne and a Bay and Bakool administration in Baidoa. He hailed the encouraging participation of the public in support of peace and to protect itself from Al-Shabaab as the most important achievement of the military operation. On the withdrawal of troops, he said Ethiopian troops will be replaced by troops from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. Djiboutian troops are currently finalizing preparations to take over in Belet Weyne while Ugandan troops are conducting preliminary studies to replace Ethiopian forces in Baidoa. The Prime Minister reaffirmed to the House that Ethiopian government troops would leave Somalia as soon as AMISOM forces were ready to take over.

Responding to a question about religious extremism and its possible danger, the Prime Minister said there were a few extremists working to erode the age-old tradition of tolerance between traditional Sufi Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia. This had remained despite the divisive and discriminatory policies of previous regimes. However, with the implementation of the constitution and the principle of secularism, every Ethiopian was free to proselytize his religion within the bounds of the constitution. The government did not interfere in the affairs of religious groups nor should they do so in government. He told the House that the government had no mandate or knowledge to invite Salafi or Abash sects into Ethiopia. This falls squarely in the domain of the religious authorities and the government has neither the power nor the intent to deny their presence in Ethiopia. Equally, however he noted that there were a few Salafi members who were engaged in subversive acts aimed at establishing an Islamist state just as there were a few Christians calling for a one religion-one nation motto. A few Salafis had even formed clandestine Al Qaeda cells in Arsi and Bale. Reiterating the importance of maintaining the tradition of tolerance the Premier underscored the importance of nipping any such terrorist activities at the outset. Such views were unconstitutional as there was no state religion in Ethiopia nor was it a religious state. So the government has confined itself to teaching the constitution and punishing illegal acts and ensuring the freedom of religion. He stressed the government has no preference between traditional Sufi views, or Salafi doctrines or those of any other sect. This is something to be left to the public. Not all Salafi are Al Qaeda and as long as they respect the constitution they can exercise their freedom of religion as can any other sect in Ethiopia. However, he called on the public to fight any extremists working to obstruct constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression.

On the efforts made to control inflation, the Prime Minister told the House that inflation was on a downward trend but he was disappointed that the country would miss its June deadline for reaching single figures. Overall, however, he said the government’s efforts to reduce inflation had registered more success than expected. The Prime Minister said global economic instability, and significant increases in minerals, agricultural products and petroleum contributed to the increase in inflation. Absence of competition in the market system in the wholesale trade in the country had also contributed. Efforts were underway to stabilize prices through import substitution and controlling export of domestic products. Other measures taken include controlling the money supply to the market and decreasing public borrowing from local sources as well as targeting unfair trade competition. To ease the burden of price rises of food and non-food items, he promised the government would continue to distribute wheat and edible oil to low income earners and the unemployed. There were, he said, sufficient stocks of edible oil, sugar and wheat at national level though there had been a distribution problem.

Speaking on the recent resettlement difficulties that have arisen in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State, in Guraferda, the Prime Minister told the House that the accusations were largely politically motivated and baseless. Similarly, he explained that the confusion around the recent teachers’ salary adjustment had arisen because of a lack of understanding, though a few people had also had a political agenda. It had been a salary scale adjustment not a salary increase. He added that Certification of Occupational Competence, which helps to increase the quality of education, would soon be implemented.

Source: A Week in the Horn – April 20, 2012 issue.


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