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Widening the scope: Ethiopia’s diplomatic activity amid unrest

On 15 February 2021, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Ethiopia Demeke Mekonnen embarked on a foreign trip which started with a short two-day visit to Ankara followed by a longer visit to India’s New Delhi for four days. The trip comes at a time of growing unrest in Ethiopia. Internally, Ethiopia suffers a humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, aggravated by the ongoing violence between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), particularly in the inaccessible central part of Tigray. 

The repercussions of the war in Tigray together with the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country cast a pall over the country’s economy that has been going through its worst economic crisis over the past years. Externally, the situation isn’t any better. On one hand, Ethiopia and its neighbour, Sudan, are engaged in an escalating dispute over Al-Fashqa area and both are threatening military escalation. On the other hand, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam negotiations reached a deadlock after the failure of several rounds of talks. To that end, Ethiopia pinned hopes on its foreign minister’s visit to Turkey and India to produce outcomes that would help the country overcome the current unstable situation.

Trip Route 

During their meeting on the sidelines of the official inauguration ceremony of Ethiopia’s new embassy building in Ankara, Mekonnen and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, echoed the strong diplomatic relations between the two countries that extend for more than a century. In the course of the visit, the two counterparts held discussions on the preparations for the third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit to be hosted by Turkey this year. The strong interest of the two countries in deepening the ties comes at a time of substantial increase of bilateral trade volume between Turkey and Ethiopia, amounting to $200 million in the past two years, rising up to $650 million in the last year, in addition to the presence of more than 200 Turkish companies operating in Ethiopia. All of this qualified Turkey to be the “second biggest investor in Ethiopia after China which has total investments of $2.5 billion”, declared Yaprak Alp, the Turkish Ambassador in Addis Ababa. 

Aside from the economic dimension, the visit gains a great political significance given the recent political developments in Ethiopia. The outgoing Somali president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo, is a joint ally of Turkey and Ethiopia. During his ruling, Farmaajo helped Turkey open a military base in Mogadishu, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, counts on Farmaajo’s support for achieving his regional project, which might explain what have been disclosed lately regarding the involvement of Somali troops in the Tigray conflict. The growing tension in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and the opposition placing pressure on the outgoing administration to hold elections, put Turkey’s and Ethiopia’s interests in danger if Farmaajo was forced to respond to the opposition and lost the presidential elections due to the growing public discontent towards his internal and foreign policies over his five years of presidency.

The visit also served to discuss topics related to the Ethiopian-Sudanese strained relations against the backdrop of the unfolding border dispute at Al-Fashqa in Sudan as well as Ethiopia’s intransigent stances in Renaissance Dam negotiations. Simultaneously with Mekonnen’s visit to Ankara, the Spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia Dina Mufti stated in a meeting that Ethiopia will welcome any mediation efforts from the Turkish government to settle the border dispute with Sudan. On the ground, there is no chance that these statements would amount to much more where Turkey has lost its influence in Sudan after the departure of Al-Bashir in April 2019. Moreover, Mufti’s statements came in contradiction with what Ethiopian officials repeatedly stated regarding favoring African solutions for African problems, including Ethiopia’s conflict with Sudan.

On concluding his visit to Ankara, Mekonnen headed to the Indian Capital, New Delhi, in a relatively long visit that lasted for four days during which he met with the External Affairs Minister of India Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, where they exchanged views on matters of common interest. The two ministers expressed their satisfaction with the recent trends in trade volume between Ethiopia and India and the increasing investments of Indian companies in Ethiopia, particularly in the information and technology sectors. Today, there are over 600 Indian companies operating in Ethiopia.

The two ministers jointly inaugurated the newly-constructed Ethiopian Embassy building in New Delhi. The visit also included discussions on the current preparations for the fourth India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS). Historically, the first IAFS was held in April 2008 in New Delhi while the second IAFS was held in Addis Ababa in 2011 and, in 2015, the third IAFS was hosted for the second time by New Delhi. Ethiopia’s News Agency reported that the two ministers signed a memorandum of understanding between the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in India and Wollo University in Ethiopia.

Multidimensional motives

Since the outbreak of the conflict in Tigray last November, Ethiopia’s official foreign trips have decreased remarkably. With the Ethiopian foreign minister announcing an upcoming foreign trip, it was expected that he would head to a number of major countries, capable of helping Ethiopia overcome its internal and external challenges, including the US and Europe. However, Demeke’s decision to head to Ankara and New Delhi was motivated by a number of factors:

1- Strained relations with the US and EU

Ethiopia’s relative importance to the US policy in the Horn of Africa has been steadily declining for years. Early in 2016, the US announced closing a drone base in Arba Minch, south of the Capital of Ethiopia, which served for years as a hub to launch remotely-piloted aircraft and hit targets belonging to the Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen group in Somalia. The decision to close the base came as the US tends to rely more on its drone bases in other hotspots in Kenya, Djibouti, and Somalia. Over time, this deterioration in relations have been manifested in many ways, including recently Trump’s administration decision to suspend part of the US annual aid to Ethiopia for its intransigent instances in Renaissance Dam talks. This halt comes at a time Ethiopia’s economy is facing headwinds. 

With Trump leaving office, the Ethiopian government placed hopes on the new American administration to radically change the US policy towards Ethiopia; however, on 19 February 2021, the US State Department Spokesman Ned Price announced the US decision to “de-link” its aid pause from its policy on the Renaissance Dam talks, confirming that the continuation of the paused aid of $272 million will be assessed based on a number of factors to be discussed with the Ethiopian government, in a clear reference to the humanitarian and political crisis Ethiopia has been facing since the outbreak of the conflict in Tigray in November. 

In addition, on 10 April 2018, Congress passed Resolution 128 on “Supporting Respect for Human Rights and Encouraging Inclusive Governance in Ethiopia”. The resolution was primarily issued after days of Abiy Ahmed’s tenure as a Prime Minister with the aim of supporting him, but it can also come into operation at present to hold accountable those involved in human rights violations in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions and impose international sanctions on them under the Magnitsky Act, which the Biden administration and Congress Democratic majority support.

The American position towards Ethiopia wasn’t confined only to aid suspension as many voices in the American decision-making bodies demanded imposing sanctions on the Ethiopian Government. In this respect, two members of the Senate called on the US government to impose sanctions on any Ethiopian official, political or military, to be found guilty of human rights violations during the conflict in Tigray. This resolution received bipartisan support after it has been introduced by Democratic Senator, Ben Cardin, and Republican, Jim Rich, last December. 

Ethiopia’s relations with the EU haven’t been any better. In January 2021, the EU has suspended the aid for Ethiopia of $107 million until humanitarian agencies are granted access to the Tigray region to provide help for people affected by the conflict. Responding to the Tigray conflict, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, described the situation is Tigray as being “beyond a purely internal law and order operation” adding that they “receive consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence and mass murder that could possibly qualify as war crimes.” Borrell’s statements caused an overt crisis between EU and Ethiopian government which labelled, in an official statement, the UE’s positions as “unbalanced and don’t reflect reality.”

2- Balancing the potential shift in Sino-Ethiopian Relations

The recent opening up of relations between Ethiopia and India comes as the Sino-Indian competition in the Indo-Pacific Region intensifies and extends to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa after India reached an agreement with Japan allowing it to use the Japanese military base while China had managed to establish its first military base on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean, in Djibouti in 2017. This Sino-Indian rivalry offered Ethiopia a new opportunity to break free from China’s growing clout since the past three decades. Beijing has been the main creditor to Ethiopia with 50 percent of the country’s external debt owed to China. Worse, the outbreak of Tigray conflict increased the fluctuation between Ethiopia and China which prompted Chinese Companies including China Gezhouba Group and China CAMC Engineering to flee the conflict area, the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle, which is considered an important industrial hub all over Ethiopia.

On 10 February 2021, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, had a phone conversation with his Ethiopian counterpart, Demeke Mekonnen. The conversation passed on mixed messages including China’s willingness to assist Ethiopia with COVID-19 vaccines, its hopes of peace and stability for Ethiopia, and its “expectations” that the Tigray Region will restore normal production and life. The Chinese minister stressed the importance of Ethiopia holding inclusive dialogues to safeguard national unity at an early date. These messages were unlikely to be welcomed by the Ethiopian authorities with various Ethiopian officials, including the prime minster and foreign minister, repeatedly rejecting foreign interference in the Tigray conflict. China’s renewed confirmation on the necessity of containment of tension in Tigray stems from the crucial role played by Tigray People’s Liberation Front in reinforcing the Sino-Ethiopian relations at various levels. The current Ethiopian practices against China’s “old friends” such as the murder of Seyoum Mesfin, ex-foreign minister (1991-2000) and Former Ambassador in Beijing (2011-2017), arouse China’s indignation.

3- Growing debt pressures

Mekonnen’s visit to Turkey and India came as the first practical step after Ethiopia announced, back in November, its plans to restructure its external debt under the framework of the G20. The framework allows debtor countries to seek help from the International Monetary Fund to strengthen their economies and gives them the opportunity to re-negotiate their debts with countries and private creditors. Remarkably, Ethiopia’s call to creditors to restructure its debt was met with little response due to international concerns of economic mismanagement, and stalling of the privatization program for political reasons, let alone lack of transparency under the governmental domination of flow of economic-related data. 

Accordingly, Ethiopia’s external debt crisis played a major role in directing its diplomatic efforts to choose Ankara and New Delhi as destinations for its first foreign trips. After China, Ankara and New Delhi come as the two biggest creditors to Ethiopia outside the Paris club, with a total debt of nearly $300 million owed to Turkey and more than $40 million owed to India. From investment perspective, Turkey and India could have a major role in promoting direct foreign investment in Ethiopia which have shown a steady decline since 2016. Over the last century (2010-2019), the total value of direct foreign investments fell to $4.1 billion in 2010 compared to $3.01 billion in 2019.

4- The impact of Ethiopia’s internal political changes

The war launched by the Ethiopian federal government against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front reflected major shifts in the internal balances of power in Ethiopia. Upon taking office in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed introduced himself as an opponent to the ethnic divisions in Ethiopia after Tigray People’s Liberation Front controlled power and resources of wealth since the 1990s. However, the Tigray conflict that broke last November reflected the substantial shifts in Abiy Ahmed’s policy, who became almost exclusively dependent on the Amhara group as a political partisan. On declaring war on Tigray, a number of decisions have been made offering the Amhara political elite the most sensitive positions in the government and increasing their power. Prominent examples of this ethno-based political mobilization are Mekonnen’s combining the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and the appointment of Amhara President, Temesgen Tiruneh, as Intelligence Chief. Since his appointment as a Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mekonnen had exercised enormous powers that came at the expense of the active diplomatic role previously played by Abiy Ahmed.

For example, since the outbreak of the conflict in Tigray, Abiy Ahmed’s foreign activity was kept to the minimum. He only paid a visit to Djibouti to take part in the IGAD summit aimed at discussing a number of topics, most notably the Tigray conflict and another visit to the Kenyan Moyale, located on the border with Ethiopia, to inaugurate a border post, and, as a hidden motive, discuss the growing violence in the Ethiopian Oromia. Conversely, Mekonnen’s foreign activity was wider as he received various international delegates to Addis Ababa, such as Pekka Haavisto, the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the European Union Envoy, preceded by the British Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab. 

Mekonnen’s taking charge of the foreign affairs portfolio clearly reflected the backsliding of Abiy Ahmed’s policy that had dominated during the first months of his ruling and was marked by his desire to present himself to the Western world as a reformist leader advocating political and economic liberal policies, an approach that explains his diplomatic movements towards the West translated into early visits to the US, France, and Germany. Mekonnen, being a prominent figure of the Revolutionary Democratic Front and a former member of Meles Zenawi successive governments, adopted a policy that is in line with the broad outlines of the Ethiopian foreign policy of the past two decades, which have been proven successful in promoting domestic development without having to pay the high cost of policy conditionalities that oblige governments to implement reforms they deem “unnecessary”. Now, given the troubled relationship between Ethiopia and China, Turkey and India seem to be logical destinations for foreign affairs as this seems to be consistent with Ethiopia’s direction of promoting international partnerships that are economically beneficial but not politically costly.

Overall, although Mekonnen’s trip to Turkey and India didn’t achieve significant accomplishments in any of Ethiopia’s internal or external challenges, it has had a significant importance as it uncovers Ethiopia’s serious and in-depth diplomatic efforts aimed at the re-assessment of its foreign relations after its ties with some of the most effective global players had been negatively affected following its crises with neighboring countries.

Dr. Ahmed Amal
Chief of African studies unit

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