President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö paid an official visit to Ethiopia on 15–16 October 2019. Peace and reforms, the position of women and girls, climate change and cooperation between Africa and Europe were among main topics during President Niinistö’s visit to Ethiopia.
The visit started with a meeting with President of Ethiopia Sahle-Work Zewde and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a freshly-minted winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. At the press conference held together with President Sahle-Work Zewde, President Niinistö brought up the efforts made in Ethiopia to achieve peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea: “It is of great significance also globally. It’s a fine example that a prolonged conflict can be resolved. It sends an encouraging message to all of us.”
At their bilateral meeting presidents also discussed the position of women and girls and climate change, both topical issues also in Ethiopia. Over the past few years, Ethiopia has taken steps to improve women’s position in politics and society at large. According to President Niinistö, this is one of the prerequisites for a functional society: “I believe that Finland would not be a welfare state if we hadn’t opened the doors for girls and women”.
Attaining peace through determination
Later that same day President Niinistö went on to discuss the same topics with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. For example, last summer Ethiopia planted no fewer than 300 million trees in a single day. President Niinistö expressed his pleasure at the fact that declarations have been replaced by deeds and action: “I’ve also tried to talk about this in Finland. For one thing, we share similar ideas regarding leftover food and recycling. A change in thinking carries a long way,” he concluded after his meeting with Finnish media.
Additionally, President Niinistö commended Prime Minister Abiy on his determination to achieve peace and push democratic reforms. “In a sense it’s impressive to see a person with such determination to go forward. The mindset is important,” he said.
President Niinistö and Prime Minister Abiy also discussed cooperation between Africa and Europe. Niinistö reported that according to Abiy, a growing number of African leaders are perceiving Europe as a key partner. The EU should, however, be able to pursue a more powerful and consistent foreign policy. “China and Turkey are active here, but Africa is close to Europe and there are a lot of issues that we both are interested in. Europe should play a role here,” he said.
Climate change calls for concrete deeds and results
Later in the afternoon President Niinistö talked more about climate change at the seminar Climate Action: Results We Can Measure. In his statement President Niinistö underlined the need for concrete deeds: “Targets are just a beginning. Only verifiable results matter. Only concrete deeds serve as a credible example to others.”
He pointed out that the impacts of climate change not only undermine sustainable economic development: “They also threaten peace and security”.
President Niinistö also took up the the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action co-chaired by Finland and Chile and its role in combatting climate change: ”Finance ministers control powerful instruments for directing incentives and financial flows. If those instruments, from taxation to fiscal planning, from public investments to procurement, really start to work for the benefit of the climate, the results will be immediate and concrete. With them, a carbon-neutral world will become much more realistic a goal. The Coalition already has over 40 members, including Ethiopia and Finland.”
Women, economy and equality
The first day of President Niinistö’s official visit ended with the She For Business event on women’s economic empowerment. It was hosted by President Niinistö and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women. Attending the meeting as a guest of honour was the President of Ethiopia Sahle-Work Zewde. President Niinistö has served as a HeForShe Imipact Champion for UN Women since 2015.
“Inclusion of women and gender equality are essential for sustainable peace and development,” President Niinistö said in his speech.
He pointed out that women are over-represented at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. Consequently, one of the key interventions to reduce their poverty is to improve girls’ access to education. Girls and young women need support from pre-primary school to the completion of education.
When addressing the efforts to support the economic empowerment of women, President Niinistö underlined the private sector’s role. “Socially responsible businesses could create jobs and business opportunities for women living in difficult circumstances.”
The rights of girls and women are among Finland’s top priorities in development cooperation in Ethiopia beside education, rural economic development, water supply and sanitation.
Greater equality in partnership and inclusive education
President Niinistö’s second day of visit started with a meeting with Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat. The topics addressed at the meeting included the reforms within the African Union, the partnership between Europe and Africa and the position of women and girls.
After the meeting, President Niinistö stated to the Finnish media that efforts are being made to achieve increasing equality in this partnership. The level of gender equality perceived as a matter of course in corporate cooperation would be worth emulating in development cooperation. President Niinistö reported that he had proposed to Chairperson Faki his idea for a closer integration of the development cooperation resources of European countries instead of each individual member country and their NGOs engaging in isolated efforts.
After his African Union meeting, President Niinistö proceeded to the Hamle 19 Elementary School at which he and the Ethiopian Minister of Education Tilaye Gete met school children, teaching staff and parents. He had discussions with the pupils about the education and Finland and thanked the school director and Ethiopian Minister of Education for smooth cooperation in the education sector: “It’s delightful to witness the fruits of our cooperation, cheerful children eager to learn new things. It’s more important than anything else.”
Education is one of the top priorities in Finland’s development cooperation efforts in Ethiopia beside land administration, water supply and sanitation. In the education sector, the main emphasis is placed on inclusive education, which means the design of facilities and development of education so as to give special consideration for children with special needs and girls in particular. The Hamle 19 School is one example of the assistance provided by Finland in support of inclusive education.
On Wednesday President Niinistö, together with Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat and the UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, participated in the HeForShe event organised by the African Union in collaboration with the UN Women. Additionally, Niinistö’s Wednesday programme included a lunch hosted by President Sahle-Work Zewde in honour of his official visit.
This was the first presidential visit between Finland and Ethiopia, and President Niinistö’s first official visit to Africa. Minister for Development Co-operation and Foreign Trade Ville Skinnari accompanied President Niinistö on the visit.