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Ethiopia: We’re growing fast, but it’s not enough

Posted on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 17:05

It was a diplomatic conundrum that needed urgent resolution. Tedros Adhanom, Ethiopia’s indefatigable foreign minister, had arrived in Accra for the launching of The Africa Report Debates, organised in conjunction with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation on 20 November.

Given Ethiopia’s impressive economic growth over the past two decades, Tedros had been asked to lead the debating team in favour of the motion that “development should take priority over democracy”.

A ministerial career

1965 – Born in Asmara
1986 – Began working for the health ministry
2005 – Became Ethiopia’s health minister
2011 – Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Humanitarian Award for malaria research
2012, November – Named minister of foreign affairs

After all, since the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991, many of its national policies have been framed around the defeat of poverty.

When the EPRDF’s founding leader Meles Zenawi – who died in 2012 – was asked about his government’s goals, he shot back that he would consider its policies a success when Ethiopians were able to eat three meals a day. In the 2015 elections, the ruling party won every seat in parliament.

So far, so clear. But half an hour before the debate, Tedros was sitting across the table from philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, who was leading the opposing team, arguing that democracy had to take priority over development. Far from making their respective cases, they seemed in resolute agreement on the issue. “There is a problem with your debate,” smiled Ibrahim.

Alpha and Omega

Tedros was adamant that there was no conflict between political and economic goods in Ethiopia. “For us, the twin goals of democracy and development are the alpha and omega of our country’s survival,” he insisted, quoting Ethiopia’s foreign policy statement.

That argument, of course, would be strongly disputed by the myriad opposition groups in Ethiopia, let alone international lobby groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. However, in a few short minutes of negotiation, a compromise motion was concocted in line with Tedros’s position and it won widespread support in the hall in Accra.

These days, Tedros is used to winning arguments, reeling off statistics about Ethiopia’s economic record to applause from foreign development experts. “Of course we’re growing fast, but it still is not enough to bring structural change. And we’re working hard on that, on really attracting investment, especially in manufacturing,” he told The Africa Report after the debate.

The government has reduced poverty by a third and increased primary school enrolment to cover 95% of the population, a fourfold increase since 1991. And that is the answer from Addis Ababa to those who criticise the country’s democratic deficit.

Since the low point of the 2005 elections, when the government imposed tough restrictions on civil society and the press, the balance of the argument has shifted towards Ethiopia’s development record and away from concerns about political pluralism.

That awkward trade-off between praising Ethiopia’s progress on development and raising concerns about human rights, treatment of opposition politicians and freedom of the press was evident in the remarks from US president Barack Obama and other officials in 2015.

But from the scores of finance and foreign ministers at the UN Development Summit in July, there was general applause for Addis Ababa’s economic record and precious little criticism of the political issues.

Some of this is self-serving. Security is the other part of the argument: Western and African governments alike are happy for Ethiopia to take a robust lead on regional security. Ethiopia is now part of the African Union’s force in Somalia and has been working closely with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government.

The main track in Somalia should be political, Tedros added: “The regional leaders and the federal government [of Somalia] now have a platform to coordinate their efforts […]. They are sitting to address the differences they have. That political process can help isolate Al-Shabaab, weaken it.”

No country is immune

When asked why he thought Ethiopia’s security apparatus was more able than Kenya’s to fend off terrorist attacks from Al-Shabaab, Tedros diplomatically explained their differing histories: “No country is immune […]. We suffered our own attacks before, some 10 or more years ago. We tried to learn from that experience, to overhaul our security system and make it more community-based. Starting from the border to the centre, when people see some suspicious activity they inform our security apparatus.”

Eritrea, which went to war with Ethiopia between 1998-2000, is the other big regional security problem for Addis. Political dissidents and those fleeing military service have joined a flood of migrants from the neighbouring country.

“The migration issue is very serious,” says Tedros. “We have four camps in Ethiopia where we host close to 200,000 Eritrean refugees, and the saddest part is we have 3,000 unaccompanied children. You have seen the report presented to the UN Human Rights Council […] the crimes they [the Eritrean government] are committing are really serious.”

At the same time, Tedros opposes plans by some countries in the European Union for a €200m ($212m) aid package for Eritrea to reduce migration: “It’s only addressing the symptoms. They haven’t even included conditions to stop the brutal behaviour internally and externally. By focusing on migration, the EU is only addressing its own problem – not Eritrea’s problem, not the neighbourhood’s problems – so they will only get the same destabilising behaviour.”

Yet for Ethiopia’s other neighbour, Djibouti, where a few countries have established military bases, Tedros seems confident that neither the build-up of international forces nor 2016’s national elections will provoke a crisis.

Indeed, the Djibouti-Ethiopia relationship is at its strongest, he adds: “We’re very close. We under- stand each other […]. We agreed to have full economic integration and we believe that will lead to political integration in the future. If you consider the hardware, we have really done a lot.”

The two countries are now joined via a new road and railway network, an electric power interconnection and now a regional water supply project.

Chinese schemes

Beyond the region, Ethiopia has been consolidating ties with China, despite Beijing’s economic rebalancing and slowdown: “I actually expect more investment from China,” Tedros explained. “We were there in September with our prime minister [Hailemariam Desalegn] and we met the central government and had the chance to go around three provinces.”

The two sides discussed several new schemes to build manufacturing plants, big infrastructure projects and large agricultural and food-processing operations.

“As you know, in China wages are increasing and there are lots of companies ready to migrate […]. They’re looking for a combination of incentives that can help them and also sustainable growth when they go somewhere in Africa.”

With China’s rate of investment in Africa down 40% in the first half in 2015 and its national income growing more slowly than forecast, Tedros’s optimism about Beijing’s appetite for trade and investment will be put to a severe test in the next year. ●

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