Articles - February 2020

A Prize for Ethiopia Is a Prize for Africa

Ethiopian Envoy reflects on the significance of his country's prime minister receiving the Nobel Peace Prize
Roland Flamini

Ambassador Fitsum Arega of Ethiopia was in a celebratory mood when Diplomatic Connections interviewed him in Washington on a windswept Autumn afternoon. Earlier that day, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had been declared winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019, and Ambassador Arega had a personal reason for cheering the news: prior to moving to Washington as ambassador, he was Abiy’s chief-of-staff.

The Ethiopian leader received the prize “for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea,” according to the citation – a reference to the 1998-2000 war, and the nearly 20 years of stalemate that followed between the two nations. As a senior member of Abiy’s staff, Ambassador Arega had been closely involved in the reconciliation effort. He told Diplomatic Connections that he had been present when Abiy and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki had signed the peace accord earlier this year, raising hopes of an end to the tension between the two rival nations.

Abiy took office in April 2018 following the surprise resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. He immediately launched a program of reform and reconciliation aimed at transforming Ethiopia’s tightly regulated political and economic space, beginning with a settlement of the border dispute with Eritrea.

Three months into his tenure, Abiy had announced that Addis Ababa was prepared to accept the border established through United Nations mediation following the end of the conflict – something successive Ethiopian leaders had refused to do for almost two decades. In President Afwerki, the young prime minister (43) found a willing interlocutor, and a rapid mending of ties followed, with embassies re-established, borders re-opened, and airline flights resumed.

“The Prize was given to Africa, given to Ethiopia, and I can imagine how the rest of Africa’s leaders will take it positively to work on the peace-building process in our country,” said Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed following his nomination. In fact, the agreement was widely welcomed in the region. The standoff between the two neighbors had been acting as a brake in development across much of the Horn of Africa, and beyond. Abiy Ahmed himself has followed-up the bi-lateral deal by acting as intermediary in several regional disputes, including between Somalia and Kenya, and in establishing a power-sharing agreement in Sudan between the opposition coalition and the ruling military council.

But both sides quickly discovered that years of tension were not going to be swept away by the stroke of a pen. Even as the prize was announced, there were still problems between Addis and Asmara, the Eritrean capital. Cross-border freedom of movement, one of the key conditions in the agreement, is reportedly not going as smoothly as the Ethiopians had hoped. And when Prime Minister Abiy opened the restored imperial palace gardens, long closed to the public, as “Unity Park,” in October, observers noted that the presidents of Uganda, Kenya, and Somalia were among the distinguished guests, but not President Awerki of Eritrea.

The prime minister’s other problem is that not everybody in the country with Africa’s second largest population welcomed his whirlwind changes – and certainly not the ethnic groups (there are 86 such groups in Ethiopia) that have lost power and privilege as a result. Abiy has sacked regional administrators accused of corruption, granted an amnesty to many Ethiopians opposed to the former government and living in exile, freed the media from tight control. He has also slimmed down the cabinet from 30 to 20 ministers, and introduced gender parity. The president of Ethiopia and the country’s chief justice are also both women. 

In the interview, Ambassador Arega said one reason behind the prime minister’s actions was to make Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa generally, more attractive to direct foreign investment. Ethiopia is at the same time one of Africa’s poorest countries and the nation with the world’s fastest growing economy, with 8.7 percent GDP growth in 2015, according to the International Monetary  Fund.

But that growth was driven mainly by public investment, the ambassador argues. He recalled that in his earlier post as Commissioner of the Ethiopian Investment Commission potential investors in the U.S. and Europe would mention concern over Ethiopia’s – and the region’s – security situation and lack of democracy as reasons for not investing.

Prime Minister Abiy was changing that, argues the ambassador. Bloomberg reported recently that, in his first year in office, Abiy had attracted $13 billion of inflows, including direct foreign investments, a lot of it focused on infrastructure.


Diplomatic Connections:  Congratulations on the nomination of Prime Minister Abiy as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019. As someone who was – and is – close to the prime minister, as well as a former member of his staff, what are your thoughts on this?

Ambassador Arega:  Thank you. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office, he quickly  realized tension with neighboring countries in the Horn region was holding up economic progress, and creating widespread hardship and dissatisfaction. There was much to do. The economy had been growing rapidly for the last 15 years, but mainly fueled by public investment and sovereign debt. Domestic private investment was negligible. 

In drawing up his plan to take the country forward into a peace time economy, PM Abiy realized lasting peace with neighboring countries in the Horn region, particularly with Eritrea with whom we had a no-war, no-peace situation for two decades, is vital to the continued dynamism of our economy. He made it clear that we must not be prisoners of the past and must move forward and invite Eritrea to the peace table.


Diplomatic Connections:  In other words, it was Prime Minister Ahmed's initiative that started the peace process?

Ambassador Arega:  He made it official in his inaugural speech before parliament. I think it was also the desire of the Eritrean government. They were waiting for a genuine partner, and they found one in Prime Minister Abiy. The leadership of the Eritrean government’s response was that they were willing to negotiate. I remember the prime minister was touring all the regions, and we were in one of the rural areas at a town hall meeting when we heard that, at the Eritrean national day celebrations, the president of Eritrea had announced that the government was ready to send the first delegation. The prime minister announced on the spot that he would welcome the delegation (consisting of the Eritrean foreign minister and a presidential adviser), and he did so at the airport personally – a warm gesture, ignoring protocol. Then, one Sunday, to everyone’s surprise we found ourselves in Asmara, the Eritrean capital (signing the agreement).


Diplomatic Connections:  He also had to sell the idea to the Ethiopians, is that correct?

Ambassador Arega:  Indeed. Because of the decades old animosity between the two countries, there were pockets of resistance with any kind of peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea. But the vast majority of the people were very happy and they showed their approval in the rock-star quality reception President Isaias received when he visited Ethiopia in July 2018. It was really not difficult to sell the idea of peace to the people of Ethiopia. Ethiopians and Eritreans have strong bonds of family and friendship. They share common culture and traditions. The things that are common to the two peoples far outnumber the temporal political differences. I would also add that the feeling in Eritrea was the same because PM Abiy’s visit to Asmara was received with such good will people were chanting his name as he and President Isaias were driving in the streets.


Diplomatic Connections:  Was this then the start of Abiy Ahmed’s strategic and radical reforms?

Ambassador Arega:  Yes. Within the first 100 days what he did was freed all political prisoners, who had been charged with treason, some of whom were facing death sentences or life sentences. Other regime opponents had been exiled out of the country. They were invited back. They trusted what he said and they were granted amnesty, as he had promised. He also unblocked more than 265 websites, to which access had been barred. He reshuffled the cabinet, reducing 30 ministers to 20, and to underline his support for gender equality, named 10 women among the new appointees, as well as the president of the supreme court, and the president of the country – the only serving woman president in Africa. Women are now in key ministerial positions like trade and industry, transport, and defense.


Diplomatic Connections:  There was opposition to these reforms - an unsuccessful coup, and even an attempt on the prime minister’s life.

Ambassador Arega:  At the regional level, yes. All change meets with resistance as people who had benefitted in the previous regime lose their positions and their perks. At one very big mass rally organized by Prime Minister Abiy's supporters at which he spoke, there was security, but there were also people who were opposed to his changes. They got in among the crowd and two people died in the clash and about 20 or so were injured, but it was somehow brought under control.


Diplomatic Connections:  The Peace Prize citation mentioned only Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s contribution to healing the rift between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but hasn’t he also acted as intermediary in other international disputes in the Horn of Africa?

Ambassador Arega:  He has done a lot in bringing peace to the region, though that is still an ongoing process. In South Sudan, for example, for two years, the peace process was halted - until he reached out to different African leaders, including South Africa and the African Union to help in bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table. He invited both leaders to his office, and he persuaded them to shake hands and re-start the discussion after two years. He also intervened in the dispute between Kenya and Somalia, and also between Djibouti and Eritrea. Prime Minister Ahmed brought all the region together. For example, he has just restored and reopened the grounds, closed to the public for decades, of the 19th century former imperial palace – and still the seat of government -  in Addis Ababa. It’s called Unity Park and it was inaugurated in the presence of all the regional leaders: the Sudanese prime minister was in attendance, the South Sudanese president, the presidents of Kenya and Uganda, and also Somalia’s president, which is an indication of the chemistry that he has to bring these leaders together.


Diplomatic Connections:  What has been the economic impact of the peace arrangement with Eritrea?

Ambassador Arega:  The peace dividend means a lot. When I was promoting investment in Asia or in Europe or in America, the gridlock between Ethiopia and Eritrea was seen as a security threat by potential investors. We tried to explain “The border is far, and there’s no need to worry. The Ethiopian economy is growing.” Some of (the potential investors) never believed that. Now that’s gone, and they say it’s time to invest. We’ve also started discussions on cross-border infrastructure projects, like the railroad. This afternoon, I was holding talks with some Italians, following up on talks between Italian Prime Minister (Giuseppe) Conti when he visited Addis, and our prime minister was in Rome. Also, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank, the European Union, and the Africa Development Bank are all working to create cross-border infrastructure projects in the Horn of Africa. There have been two meetings between the finance ministers of these countries and the discussion is going in the right way.


Diplomatic Connections:  Mr. Ambassador, you are not a career diplomat, and this is your first ambassadorial post. What is your reaction to working in this profession?

Ambassador Arega:  Deep inside of me I believe I need to serve my people, my country. So in every situation, I try to learn quickly. I’m very happy here learning a new skill, I’m acclimatizing well. I’ve visited 16 of the United States, reaching out to the diaspora, meeting different companies, and attending trade conferences. I believe most diplomatic work involves selling, and our foreign policy requires economic diplomacy as well as political diplomacy.


Diplomatic Connections:  What advice would you give to a newly arrived foreign ambassador on how to operate in Washington?

Ambassador Arega: So I say, you have to listen to people. There is wisdom in our embassy where some members of the staff have been here for some time and they have good knowledge. You have to reach out to other diplomats and to U.S. officials at the State Department. You have to accept that you are new to the place and the position. You have to learn. As long as you are committed you catch up quickly. Listening is very important, and so is the use of technology.


Diplomatic Connections:  Do you tweet?

Ambassador Arega:  A lot. I have the biggest following in my country in terms of individuals. More than 105,000 now.


Diplomatic Connections:  I know you talked about the difficulty of getting foreign investors, but you have a growth rate of – what? 10 percent, and is that going to continue?

Ambassador Arega:  Yes, a little lower then that. We have designed a PPP arrangement where public and private come together on infrastructure projects. As I speak, we have $7 billion in PPP projects, including solar power projects, hydro-power projects.


Diplomatic Connections:  And your main foreign investors are?

Ambassador Arega:  China is leading, but the Chinese in Ethiopia are different from those in other African countries. We don’t open up all the economy; we attract investors where we are lacking. So the Chinese you find in Ethiopia are mainly involved in infrastructure and manufacturing, not in transport or in trading.


Diplomatic Connections:  What about U.S. investment?

Ambassador Arega:  We are happy to learn that the U.S. government has allocated a $60 billion fund for investment coming through the International Development Finance Corporation, to do business mainly with Africa.  We believe this fund will spur significant new investment opportunities for American investors in Africa and Ethiopia.

So direct investment by U.S. businesses will be the future in Africa. It's worth repeating, we welcome all U.S. investments in Ethiopia. Hardly a day passes without someone contacting me about investments in Ethiopia. Our embassy is ready, willing and able to provide support and facilitate requirements for any U.S. investors in Ethiopia. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was able to join American investors in Ethiopia. I had the opportunity to show them around different parts of the country. They were impressed. My message simply is this to any American investor: Go visit Ethiopia and you will be convinced that there are few better places put your money than Ethiopia.


Diplomatic Connections:  Isn’t Ethiopia a land-locked country?

Ambassador Arega:  We call ourselves a land-linked country because we have a railway line connecting the capital to Djibouti’s Port of Doraleh. And that’s the fastest railway, electric-powered.


Diplomatic Connections:  In terms of your bi-lateral relations with the United States, what would you like the U.S. to do that it’s not doing?

Ambassador Arega:  The U.S. is now helping us a lot in many ways, but we really want them to push what they have already started, and that’s bringing more investors to Ethiopia. And also, we are now reforming; we have a three-year homegrown economy reform program which alleviates our foreign currency shortage to support the manufacturing sector. We approach the World Bank to secure some money, and the U.S. is also doing its best to help, but we want that envelope to increase.


Diplomatic Connections:  What about security?

Ambassador Arega:  We have a very good security partnership, which is working very well. We had our joint defense bi-lateral meeting here in Washington in December.


Diplomatic Connections:  Do you have problems regarding Ethiopian immigrants?

Ambassador Arega:  Never at all. We have a very good relationship.


Diplomatic Connections:  Thank you, Ambassador Arega.  On behalf of Diplomatic Connections, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

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