Girma Birru, Ethiopia's Ambassador to the United States, talks about the historic relationship between the two countries, the current American presidential election, the civil unrest at-home and his hope for Ethiopia's Diaspora in the United States to be more engaged and integrated in their adopted country. Fortune staff Writer Tamrat G.Giorgis, also picks on issues of legacy the former Industry Minister wants to leave behind, as his ambassadorship approaches its decade-long anniversary.
Fortune: The American foreign policy towards Ethiopia has remained the same since the Peace Corps era of the 1960’s, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Do you think there will be a change in policy anytime soon?
I don’t think there will be a major change and from the Ethiopian government perspective. We too don’t see any change coming from the United State’s side. The relationship between United States and Africa started just after the Second World War on very basic issues. Security, regional stability, trade, democracy and human rights as the anchors. Such a relationship cannot be a blanket policy. Africa is not a country. We are a continent of 54 countries with differing perspectives and points-of-view. The areas of engagements will remain the same.
Q: There is a widely held view that Ethiopia’s relations with the United States is strong, particularly in areas of security and regional stability. Some characterise this twinning as ‘Complicated’. What’s your take on this?
Never knew about the ’complicated’ label.
Q: That’s the question, is it complicated?
Both countries need each other in the areas mentioned above, and it is not in favour of any one party. Such mutual interest is respected. It’s complimentary relationship. And that cooperation is not about defence equipment exchange. Ethiopia does not buy a single bullet from the United States. We focus on regional security and share intelligence information. It is both countries’ interest that the region is stable. I see no complication in this.
In the human rights and democracy forum, yes we do collaborate on this too. Obviously the models of democracy vary from one country to another. I know of no one super model or any country claiming to have the perfect one. So naturally the way the two countries frame democracy is not the same. It is a work in progress on mutual understanding. We learn from our own experience as the United States has developed its own over many years, and is therefore more experienced in the area. Take election processes, they definitely matured in that.
Q: But that too under scrutiny now that Donald Trump already has raised red flag. What do you think?
With that too, looking into the processes, campaigning, tolerance and overall organisation is still intact. We have so much to learn, yet it is still is an area that we may not fully see eye to eye. On such differences we have reached an agreement not to agree on such issues.
Q: Let’s look back on history of the relationship. In the early 1960’s and 70’s the relationship was rooted on security cooperation. Kegnew was stationed in Asmara. Beginning mid 1970s, with presidency of Jimmy Carter, the cooperation policy was focused on human rights front. Is there a possibility that the focus would change with the new elected president of the United States, with the focus be human rights anew and security on the backside?
Things have changed after the Cold War. The security dilemma and nature of conventional war as it used to be during the emperor and President Carter is no more the issue. Terrorism is the new global challenge. I don’t think you can graduate from issues of security to that of a human rights issue, but you can always do it in parallel. They are not mutually exclusive. I know the United States gives highest value on human rights and democracy, but not to the extent off sacrificing the whole cooperation areas for that.
Q: What has been your experience with the American State Department?
In 2009, I was part of a delegation that came from Ethiopia. We held an intimate discussion with the department to help us define and put a road-map on having a good and a valuable relationship. We focused on the issues of security, human rights, democracy and economic cooperation at priorities. We made a commitment to evaluate our progress every three months. I have noted, many positive developments and progresses have occurred since.
Q: You were a noted Ethiopian trade minister before your appointment as ambassador. If you look at the relationship between Ethiopia and America, is aid still the preferred engagement more than trade?
I believe both engagement, in aid and trade, are important to Ethiopia. It is possible to make the economical cooperation bigger than it is. If you see America’s economical relationship with other African countries, it is the same, with the exception of those that are oil producers. I am beginning to notice traffics of American investments coming to Ethiopia, in recent years.
Q: Can you give me some examples?
Take the pipelines from Djibouti from Addis for instance. That is a 1.5 billion dollars worth of project. The Kotbae project, in Shashamane, that is a four-billion dollars project that originated from America. There are more and each are encouraging progress to our countries’ interest. Considering the capacity of the American economy, there is more that can still be done. This is about 1pc of the total investment from the U.S. to Africa.
From our perspective, we have to advocate for trade more and encourage potential investors to visit Ethiopia and experience why the country is a good destination for foreign investments. We will continue to do that. Attracting investors requires much effort from our end.
Q: Are you concerned with the current political and civil unrest in Ethiopia? It seems, it has impacted foreign investments.
In the short term, I am. It is unfortunate to those who came from abroad to invest, considering they had ample choices to invest elsewhere. It is also sad for the local investors, who put much resources and time in their investments and to see it destroyed. Let it be known, these types of incidents happen in many places in the world, more so, in small emerging economies, like that of ours. We have began to communicate with those impacted and with those potential investors. Investors to experience Ethiopia first-hand.
It is the fundamentals that investors should look at, not particularly the small bumps.
Q: What are the fundamentals?
A: The first one is basically, the availability of resources (in Ethiopia) and the potential profits on investment. Ethiopia has a 70pc population that is bellow the age of 30. That is an attractive component for any investor. We have a disciplined population that is ready and willing to work. To those in agriculture, our land is exceptionally good and soiled. We do have a strong proactive government that is supportive of development and advocates for peace, stability and prosperity.
What we are currently seeing in the country is a mere protest and that will be addressed. Policies will be reformed to reflect change. Good reforms are not just good to investors but to our citizens as well.
Q: What kind of political reform(s) should we anticipate from the government?
First, we need to see a reform that is inclusive than be exclusive to citizens who feel like they are left out to the vast changes that are taking place in the country. The civil society should also be more engaged in the process. Our civil societies are often elitist. We want to see young people and women become better actors in our mutual public agenda. So, allowing the civil society to organise itself and create an environment for dialogue is the first thing.
Secondly, political organisation in Ethiopia should be more reflective of the population, via electoral reform. Reforming our electoral system, currently only based on a single party majority, should be changed. At the end, the most important thing is to engage with our youth and create job opportunities for them. Private investment and opportunities of self-employment should be encouraged.
Q: What do you think your noted legacy will be? How do you want to be remembered as a long-term Ethiopian Ambassador to Washington?
A: As a diplomat, I cherish the milestone moment, when we successfully invited and executed the visit by President (Barack) Obama to Ethiopia. I feel, as a government, we did a good job facilitating the historic moment that will be remembered for a long time. It is the first time, a seating U.S. president made a visit to our country.
Maintaining good relationship between Ethiopia and United State was important for me and I made it a personal mission. Looking at Ethiopians in America, it has always been my wish that they aspire to be more engaged and integrated into the American process and system. I will continue to reflect on the golden years of my time in a good country, representing an equally good country.
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