Skip to main content
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (Michael Tewelde/via AFP)
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (Michael Tewelde/via AFP)

Over the past decade, high unemployment has forced tens of thousands of Ethiopians to travel overseas to find work, many to the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. It was illegal for Ethiopians to do so until, in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed lifted the restrictions on overseas migration for work.

Migrant laborers, who are often subjected to poor working conditions, crowded housing, and little access to healthcare, are now also bearing the brunt of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

She had been kept in detention for forty day before she was deported

 

Since mid-March, according to the Ethiopian government, more than 30,000 workers have re-entered the country. Some have returned voluntarily, but others suffered mistreatment in detention centers before they were deported. The New York Times reported that Selam Bizuneh, a twenty-six-year-old who had lost her job as a domestic worker in Kuwait, had been kept in detention for forty days before she was deported. Shortly after arriving home, she tested positive for COVID-19.

Ethiopian officials say that nearly 1,000 migrant laborers were found to be infected with the virus on their return, but the real number is likely to be much higher. This is placing a strain on the country’s already overburdened health system, even though international funding has helped to strengthen its response to the pandemic.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Abiy launched a month-long national campaign—which includes testing 200,000 people for the virus within two weeks—to get an overview of the scale of the pandemic in order to control it better.

 

A satellite image of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Abbay River (Blue Nile) in Ethiopia on July 11, 2020. (courtesy of Maxar Technologies/via AFP)
A satellite image of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Abbay River (Blue Nile) in Ethiopia on July 11, 2020. (courtesy of Maxar Technologies/via AFP)

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s office put out a press release on July 21 confirming the first year’s filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been achieved thanks to heavier than normal seasonal rainfall and runoff. Abiy commended the African Union for leading the latest talks between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to address their differences over the dam’s filling and operation, and said that further technical discussions would continue.

The statement was light on details but seems to indicate that Ethiopia is pulling back from some of its more aggressive rhetoric used against Egypt, as the two nations have rattled sabers at each other over the course of negotiations. Egyptian hackers have even launched a cyberattack on Ethiopian government websites in the past month.

There has been no official response to the press release from Egypt or Sudan.

Egypt has referred to the GERD as an “existential threat” over fears that a rapid filling of the dam could lower water levels in the Nile to a dangerous degree. Amid rumors last week that Ethiopia had begun to fill the GERD before an agreement had been reached between the three countries, Sudan reported a drop in the water level of the Blue Nile—also known as the Abbay River—reaching it from upstream Ethiopia.

When Egypt sought urgent clarification from Ethiopia over the reports that the reservoir was being filled, the Ethiopian water and energy minister responded that the level was rising due to heavy rains and not to conscious efforts to fill the dam. He said the overflow would be “triggered soon.”

 

Key Questions Remain

The key questions are how much water Ethiopia will release in years of low rainfall, and how future disputes will be resolved.

The United States, United Nations, and African Union have mediated negotiations to resolve the impasse. The American response has been ambivalent, however, as some in the Trump administration want to side with Egypt, a strategic US military partner, whereas others worry this risks driving a wedge between the US and Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation.

 

Locusts swarm from ground vegetation as people approach at Lerata village, near Archers Post in Samburu county, approximately 300 kilomters (186 miles) north of kenyan capital, Nairobi on January 22, 2020. "Ravenous swarms" of desert locusts in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, already unprecedented in their size and destructive potential, threaten to ravage the entire East Africa subregion, the UN warned on January 20, 2020. The outbreak of desert locusts, considered the most dangerous locust species, is “significant and extremely dangerous” warned the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, describing the infestation as an eminent threat to food security in months to come” if control measures are not taken. TONY KARUMBA / AFP
Locusts swarm from ground vegetation as people approach at Lerata village, about 300 kilometers north of Nairobi, Kenya, on January 22, 2020. (Tony Karumba/AFP)

Before being struck by a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, the Horn of Africa was already contending with a locust plague the likes of which hadn’t been experienced in several generations. A second, larger wave of the destructive desert locusts has been making its way across Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, threatening food security for millions of people and costing the region (along with Yemen) up to US$8.5 billion according to the World Bank.

 

The fungus has proven to be deadly to locusts while not harming other insects

 

The effectiveness of chemical pesticides to control locust swarms has been limited, at best, due to the swarms’ quick pace and size, along with limited resources as these nations and foreign donors focus on COVID-19. Thus, it fell to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an international research institute housed in Nairobi, Kenya, to devise more innovative and environmentally friendly means of tackling the locust problem.

One approach has been the use of a biopesticide developed from the Metarhizium acridum fungus, which has proven to be deadly to locusts while not harming other insects.

Commercial brands use this kind of fungus in their powder products. Such powders are mixed with oil and sprayed onto fields from planes or trucks. The fungus then penetrates the locust’s hard outer layer and starts feeding on the insect, sapping away

Another tactic homes in on locust pheromones, disrupting their biochemistry to break up swarms before they form and encouraging cannibalization among immature locusts before they gain the ability to fly.

A third approach is to introduce the protein-rich locusts as a foodstuff—either cooked or crushed—for people and animals. ICIPE is developing nets and backpack-vacuums to capture large numbers of locusts. 

 

Hachalu Hundessa
Hachalu Hundessa (via @OFinfinne on Twitter)

The death of Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo protest singer who was shot in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 29, has sparked unrest around the country. The security forces have cracked down on protestors, resulting in numerous deaths and injuries, and drastically elevating ethnic tensions that have been brewing ever since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed introduced plans to move Ethiopia away from an ethnic power-sharing government and toward a true multiparty democracy.

Hundessa’s music functioned as the soundtrack to the Oromo Revolution, a political movement demanding equal rights and better representation for the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. Abiy himself is an Oromo on his father’s side, but has nonetheless faced criticism from Hundessa and other Oromo activists, notably for ongoing suppression of protests, arbitrary detention of journalists, and deliberate Internet shutdowns.

This latest bout of unrest is seriously straining the prime minister and his ruling Prosperity Party’s ability to manage a slowly unraveling political crisis.

 

Abiy must also deal with a growing regional struggle over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

 

Legislative elections, originally planned for August 2020, were anticipated to be a major referendum on Ahmed’s reform efforts, but they have been indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some opposition parties accepted the postponement, but the move was heavily criticized by others, including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which still intends to hold elections in the Tigray region despite the federal government’s postponement.

On top of these domestic challenges, Abiy must also deal with a growing regional struggle over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt and Sudan fear that a hasty filling of the dam will negatively disrupt the Nile River flow in their territories and jeopardize their water security.

 

GERD
A view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction, in a photograph taken near Guba, Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)

Ethiopia wants to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile in July, when the rainy season starts, but it has not yet reached a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan downriver. Egypt fears it would reduce its water supply, and Sudan warned on Wednesday that the filling of the GERD without an agreement between the three countries would pose a risk to its own dams. Sudan is especially concerned about Roseires Dam near the Ethiopian border, which plays an important role in supplying the country with water and hydroelectric power.

 

The latest round of negotiations also failed to produce a compromise

 

Consultations have been ongoing between the three countries, with input from the World Bank and the United States. Most issues have been resolved, but the remaining bones of contention are the fill rate of the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir and the long-term operation of the dam.

The latest round of negotiations, by videoconference, also failed to produce a compromise. On June 19, Egypt requested the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia, after which Sudan sent a letter to the UNSC expressing its concern over the filling of the dam without a signed agreement. The UNSC will discuss the issue on Monday, June 29.

And the African Union’s Executive Council will hold an emergency video meeting on Friday, June 26, to discuss the dispute in response to a call from South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chairman of the African Union.

 

Abiy Planting a tree
Ehiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed plants a tree on June 5, 2020, World Environment Day. (Michael Tewelde/AFP)

Members of Ethiopia’s House of Federation, the upper chamber of the country’s parliament, voted on Wednesday, June 10, in favor of retaining Abiy Ahmed’s position as prime minister after his mandate expires in October. The vote was held owing to a delay of elections originally scheduled for August due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This development has inflamed ongoing tensions between Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party and various opposition parties, many of whom represent specific ethnic groups who have chafed at the prime minister’s attempts at political reform.

 

Abiy rejected a proposal to form a transitional government

 

This decision by the House of Federation comes just two days after Abiy rejected a proposal to form a transitional government brought forward by members of the opposition, who claim the prime minister is using the pandemic to extend his stay in power. Dawud Ibsa Ayana, head of the Oromo Liberation Front, decried the vote extending Abiy’s mandate as having “no constitutional basis”, and is expected to release a formal statement against the vote in the coming days.

 

Abiy - Alburhan
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, then chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and now chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, photographed in Khartoum on June 7, 2019. (AFP)

Sudan and Ethiopia have both condemned cross-border incursions by Ethiopian militiamen and soldiers last week, and have called for a truce and an amicable solution to the border tensions.

On May 27 and 28, Ethiopian bandits launched cross-border raids on the Sudanese villages of Mashre El Fursan and Barakat Nourein, witnesses told Radio Dabanga. A Sudanese army captain was killed in the skirmishes, and several soldiers and civilians were wounded.

Such raids and occupation of farmland are not uncommon in the border region of El Gedaref state, especially during the harvest season, but this time the gunmen were supported by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers, according to Brigadier General Amer El Hasan, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Sudan summoned the Ethiopian embassy’s chargé d’affaires over the attacks, and in response the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs said there was “no honorable reason for the two countries to descend into hostility”.

 

Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties

 

It is imperative for Khartoum and Addis Abbas to reach a peaceful resolution to the issue amid the ongoing fraught negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. If Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt fail to reach an agreement before July—when Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties—it might lead to a dangerous instability in the region.

 

Accra
Accra, the bustling capital of Ghana, is home to many African embassies given the nation’s role in pan-African endeavors.

NAD chats to the Ethiopian ambassador to Ghana, Regassa Kefale Ere, about relations between the two countries, free trade, industrial parks, and the aerospace industry.

New Africa Daily: How would you characterize Ethiopian-Ghanaian relations?

Regassa Kefale: Ethiopia never was a colony of a European power. After Ghana received its independence in 1957, Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah and Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie worked together on founding the Organization of African Unity, which later became the African Union. The two leaders worked closely together, and this political history is at the core of the relationship.

More recently, we have sought to expand economic ties between the two countries, too, building on the long-standing political ties. Ghanaian investors are interested in various Ethiopian economic sectors, from pharmaceuticals to animal hides. We have had trade events in the two capitals in the past two years to promote trade between our countries.

 

NAD: How does the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area change the trade picture for Africa?

RK: Free trade is an important issue. The signing of the agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area is an important turning point, and we are working to develop this opportunity to ensure the prosperity of Ethiopia.

A key part of our strategy is the development of industrial parks and free zones, offering large-scale employment opportunities for the citizens of our country. Indeed, some 60,000 people work at Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP). We have also developed Bole Lemi Industrial Park and other similar parks, which allow us to take advantage of new opportunities under the new trade agreement and other relationships. For too long, Africa’s trade relations have been focused externally, and not on the opportunities of intra-African trade.

 

The industrial parks will promote development and attract foreign direct investment to Ethiopia

 

NAD: Tell us more about the strategy behind Ethiopia’s industrial parks.

RK: These industrial parks offer exporters a one-stop approach, including customs, roads, and electricity. It’s not just the infrastructure, however; there are also incentives for companies who relocate to these zones, such as tax holidays. The government is committed to this policy. The industrial parks will promote development and attract foreign direct investment to Ethiopia.

 

NAD: One of the main economic components in the Ethiopian-Ghanaian relationship is in the aerospace industry. In December 2018, an agreement was announced to have Ethiopian Airlines play a key role in the relaunch of Ghana’s national carrier.

RK: Ethiopian Airlines, which has a strong brand and a solid history, will take a minority stake in the new national air carrier of Ghana. Ethiopian is a widely respected carrier and Africa’s most successful airline. It flies to more than 110 destinations around the world and operates about 1,000 aircraft, including the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner. Above all, Ethiopian Airlines stands for unique quality and a high level of service. These were all factors in the Ghanaian decision. It is a win for both countries, as there are daily direct flights between Addis Ababa and Accra.

 

Ethiopia Airlines

 

Ethiopia and Ethiopian Airlines have come to the rescue of Latin American nations desperately in need of medical equipment to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. The spread of the virus in South America has overwhelmed cities across the continent, and the worst of the outbreak is likely yet to come.

Poorer countries of Latin America charge that they are unable to successfully bid for equipment on the global market, while others have seen shipments seized in Europe and the United States during refueling stops.

Both European and American authorities deny deliberately withholding protective and medical equipment, but the delays happen nonetheless.

 

Ethiopian Airlines has expanded its cargo fleet and opened new routes.

 

To get around these limitations, state and federal officials in Latin America have started to use Ethiopia as a conduit for cargo from China, which has been a major boost for Ethiopia’s national airline. Besides offering significant discounts for passenger flights, Ethiopian Airlines has also expanded its cargo fleet and opened new routes to meet increased demand amid the global pandemic.

Ethiopian Airlines is currently delivering equipment to Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador; and there are plans to fly to Argentina and Peru as well.

 

 

Tedros Adhanom
Tedros Adhanom

 

As director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom finds himself at the center of the greatest international crisis since World War II. His rise to prominence was facilitated not only by his medical acumen but also by his close affiliation with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front of the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Tedros, as he is commonly known, was born to parents who were originally from the Tigray region of Ethiopia in March 1965, in Asmara, Eritrea, then the former Italian colonial center and a backwater of the Ethiopian Empire. Decades later it would become the capital of an independent Eritrea.

As a child, he was surrounded by the death and suffering caused by malaria. He lost a young sibling to what may have been a preventable disease, perhaps measles. As such, it is not surprising that Tedros was drawn to the study of preventable diseases early on. He completed college in 1986 while Ethiopia was still a communist country. There was little choice but to join the Ministry of Health, as Ethiopia was a one-party Marxist state. Only the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam half a decade later would end Africa’s worst communist regime, which killed more than one million people.

In 2000, he earned his doctorate in community health from the University of Nottingham with a thesis looking at the effects of dams on the transmission of malaria in the Tigray region. He would soon have the opportunity to put his ideas into practice both regarding health measures to limit the spread of malaria and dams.

He returned from abroad to an Ethiopia that was rapidly becoming one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and the second-largest population in Africa.

Long-time Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi appointed him minister of health in 2005. Like Zenawi and the other members of the TPLF, Tedros’s rise was aided by the fact he was ethnically Tigranyan. The ethnic group comprises just a few million members. The Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups in Ethiopia far outnumber them. Yet, following the fall of Mariam Mengistu and until the rise of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front dominated Ethiopian politics largely based on their ability to present a united front in political squabbles.

 

A Successful Tenure as Minister of Health

As health minister, Tedros won acclaim for building 5,000 health centers across Ethiopia with many of them located in rural areas. His administration further deployed 30,000 health-workers to Ethiopia’s rural regions. Thus, his role in the health administration provided significant reforms. These efforts generated a 30 percent decrease in child deaths/infant mortality between 2005 and 2011, as well as a 50 percent decrease in death from malaria between 2005 and 2007. Most significantly, he reduced the spread of HIV infection by 90 percent from 2002 to 2012.

The minister of health position in a ruling government is often a dead-end position in many countries, yet Tedros was promoted to minister of foreign affairs in 2012. He would hold the post until 2016.

 

Ethiopia’s Top Diplomat

As foreign minister, he earned the support of many African governments for his role in promoting the United Nation’s Agenda 2063 in the African Union. Most importantly, he played an important role in galvanizing global efforts to counter the Ebola crisis. Domestically, however, he became associated with efforts to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Tedros played a role in selling the project at home and with downriver governments in Egypt and Sudan, with whom he negotiated. 

Tedros first came to the attention of China while foreign minister, and Ethiopia’s government rapidly built close ties with China during his tenure. China worked on building close relationships to Tedros and even invited him to the country on the eve of his election to head the WHO. It’s important to remember that during this period Tedros was also feted in the West. He held some fellowships and leadership positions with the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, and even was described by Wired Magazine as one of the fifty people who will change the world in 2012.

 

First African at the Helm

In 2017, Tedros was selected to head the World Health Organization. Upon his appointment, Tedros had said that he listened to voices from around the world and heard that “countries want WHO to be more efficient and accountable, and [that] the next director general needed to focus his or her efforts on the most vulnerable of the world.” In an attempt to focus attention on the most vulnerable, Tedros turned to Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe presided over a catastrophic health system. Surprisingly, he appointed Mugabe as WHO Goodwill Ambassador. The choice seemed odd. While Tedros had overseen a dramatic decline in HIV cases in his country, Mugabe cared little for fighting the virus and largely allowed it to emerge unchecked in Zimbabwe as he spent millions fighting wars in neighboring countries. Tedros was criticized and he did eventually back down from this appointment. But it did show that he still had the instincts of a foreign minister and not the WHO’s top bureaucrat, something that would carry over to the next major crisis.

 

In the Eye of the Storm

The COVID-19 crisis has thrust Tedros to the center of the world stage like no other African leader since the late Nelson Mandela. He has received praise for his handling of the crisis from the African Union. Yet, he was harangued in a Twitter-letter by US President Donald Trump for mishandling the crisis. The WHO was slow to label the virus a global pandemic and did not thoroughly investigate the seriousness of the outbreak early on, President Trump alleged. To what extent such foibles were the fault of the WHO a large bureaucracy and the leadership of Tedros is unclear. What is clear is that an organization is only as strong and unified as are its members, and with the escalating row between the US and China, the WHO stands to lose in terms of transparency and accuracy of the information it diffuses. On March 20th, Tedros tweeted the following “For the first time, #China has reported no domestic #COVID19 cases yesterday. This is an amazing achievement, which gives us all reassurance that the #coronavirus can be beaten.” Looking back, this was wildly optimistic, but Tedros was not towing the China line; he was communicating the statement of a member state. The WHO has no mechanism to double-check the data member states share with it.

Going forward, Tedros has the opportunity to rise above the politics and coordinate the setup of a new infrastructure to build a robust international health system. Tedros the politician must ignore his instincts. Tedros the diplomat must now turn his attention to the United States, the country whose immense resources can be a boon for the WHO in this crisis and beyond.

 

Kaleb Zewdineh is an Ethiopian-Canadian who formerly worked for the African Union.

 

Daily Picks
Sep 22, 2020