The Elders held their biannual board meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 19-22 May 2019. The visit came at a time of momentous transformation in Ethiopia as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeks to implement a wide range of political, economic and social reforms across the country.
The Elders had substantial discussions with the Prime Minister and welcomed his reforms, including appointing women to half his Cabinet posts and his pledge to strengthen democratic institutions.
They also had a warm meeting with President Sahle-Work Zewde – currently the only female head of state in Africa – and were impressed by the commitment of both the Prime Minister and President to build a shared sense of national identity drawing on Ethiopia’s rich history.
In these meetings, and in further discussions with senior officials from the African Union and United Nations in Addis, the Elders called on all leaders in the country to uphold the rule of law, foster a sense of national unity and defend the rights of refugees and displaced people.
The Elders did not shy away from the political, social and economic challenges facing Ethiopia. Staying true to the mandate of “speaking truth to power”, the Elders raised directly the question of internally displaced people and how to respect their human rights.
Credible humanitarian sources suggest up to three million people have been internally displaced over the past twelve months as ethno-political conflicts have erupted in different regions of Ethiopia.
The Elders directly raised with the Prime Minister the reports that some people are currently being forced to return to their homes, and urged him to ensure that returns are voluntary, safe and dignified.
The issue of forced displacement also took centre stage at a successful public event organised at the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
The programme included hearing from Tsionawhit Gebre-Yohaness, a young humanitarian worker who herself had been a refugee from Ethiopia in first Kenya and then Australia, as well as Ethiopia’s Minister for Peace Muferiat Kamil.
The ensuing debate afforded the opportunity for diplomats, humanitarian actors and civil society to discuss with the Minister, and served as a powerful example of The Elders’ convening power and ability to amplify the voices of grassroots activists.
Many interlocutors in Addis Ababa highlighted the discrepancy between the Ethiopian government’s treatment of internally displaced people and its commendable policy towards refugees.
The country’s new Refugee Law eases access to employment for refugees and stands in stark contrast to the miserly approach adopted by many governments in the prosperous, developed global North.
The Elders saw for themselves the plight of refugees from South Sudan housed in camps in Nguenyyiel in the western Gambela region of Ethiopia, which are home to around 75,000 people.
They were impressed by the refugees’ dignity and resilience in the face of terrible hardship, including the continued risk of sexual violence endured by women in the camp when they search for firewood in the surrounding bushland.
Recognising and responding to women’s rights and needs was also a key priority in Elders’ discussions with the Ethiopian government on healthcare.
Access to clean water was also a significant issue, with only 10 litres of water distributed per person per day (20 litres is the recognised standard).
Graça Machel and Ricardo Lagos met the State Minister of Health, Dr. Lia Tadesse, to learn more about the country’s efforts to achieve Universal Health Coverage and increase provision of essential services to women and children.
They also visited the Feres Meda health centre in Addis Ababa to meet patients and hold discussions with Health Extension Workers.
The delegation applauded Ethiopia’s focus on primary health care as the most effective way of providing essential services to poor and vulnerable populations. They also discussed with the State Minister the need for the health budget to be increased for Ethiopia to move further towards Universal Health Coverage.
Alongside national issues, the Elders also addressed regional and global security and development concerns during their meeting.
In talks with senior representatives of the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa on conflicts driving mass displacement across the Horn of Africa, they supported the notion of “African solutions to African problems” and highlighted the risks to peace and stability posed by outside powers using African countries as venues for proxy wars.
The Elders left Ethiopia encouraged by the pace of reform to date, but gravely concerned by the savage violence persisting in regional conflicts, especially South Sudan. They reaffirmed their determination to do all they can to help support a sustainable and fair peace for all the people in the region, and to stand in solidarity with all those striving for justice and human rights.