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Africa Confidential, January 2011

Interview with Hailemariam Desalegn
Africa Confidential interviews Ethiopia's Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn

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Africa Confidential: How has your take-over been? Have there been many changes to make?

Hailemariam Desalegn: Things have gone pretty smoothly. There haven't been any transition problems because the party is thinking in strategic terms and there haven't been problems for me to shift. I haven't encountered any problems yet so I think it is going very smoothly.

AC: What are the things that you want to implement or change?

HD: The basis for my policy in Foreign Affairs is the policy document which has been prepared some years ago. This document puts that Ethiopia needs to have diplomatic discourse, in terms of economic diplomacy, at the centre of all our jobs. So I have to focus on economic diplomacy and how to go about it. With the new Growth and Transformation Plan in place, we have to implement the gap that should be filled by the foreign engagement that we are doing. So that's the main issue that I focus on, but of course, in order to secure growth and development in the coming five years, rapidly, we need our sub-region, the Horn of Africa, to be peaceful and stable.

So in this regard, I need to focus on the IGAD [Inter-Governmental Authority on Development] countries and on the Sudanese peace process and the Somalia issue (it is also very critical that they have a stable government, complete the transition period properly and have a permanent, elected government in Somalia), and also, to normalise relations with Eritrea, which is also very important for the stability of the Horn of Africa. We feel that the role that the Eritrean government plays is not according to our wishes: it should play a constructive role and start engaging in terms of normalising relations so that both friendly countries have a peaceful and stable environment. So, the focus is on economic diplomacy but our vulnerability is based on our local condition, not based on factors from the outside. So we should focus on our economic development, which should be very rapid and should be shared – not with a trickle down approach. So my focus is on fast economic development which is shared between all Ethiopian citizens.

AC: What is necessary for GDP in terms of FDI or internal investment?

HD: It depends on the situation. Our main engine of growth will remain agriculture as the majority of people are living in rural areas. However, this should give way for industrial development to take over. So in the leadership, after five years, we assume that it [agriculture] will be taken over by industry, so we have to focus also on industrial development, especially in the manufacturing sector where we plan to increase our local capability with technology transfer and technology accumulation so that we are capable of doing our own jobs. Technology transfer is one of my best opportunities this time and one of my main jobs will be engaging the diplomatic community in trying to transfer technology in terms of infrastructure development. That infrastructure development is very important this time because if you want to have industrial development take place then you must have infrastructure develop in a very fast way. So in these terms we need to transfer technology and the capability of building infrastructure to our own companies and professionals. But, for the time being, we need to have foreign investors coming in to do this infrastructure development, mainly economic infrastructure, transport infrastructure, power infrastructure and so on. So we have very large and ambitious plans and we lack domestically some of the resources. As Foreign Minister, it is my job to focus on the foreign aspects of this development. So economic diplomacy becomes central to my work.

AC: In terms of global partnerships, do you get the sense that Ethiopia needs to make the choice between East and West, considering some Western concerns about Chinese investment and involvement in Africa?

HD: The thing is that Ethiopia acts according to its national interest. Our national interest in terms of economic development and economic infrastructure is to have very fast development, which is shared. If we focus on economic diplomacy, then we have to see which countries can support us in terms of infrastructure. We have a very good and very friendly relationship with both China and the United States and, as far as the relationship is concerned, we have nothing against both countries. But we have advantages with both of them. If you take the Chinese, they are now a powerhouse in the world in economic terms and they are also supporting developing countries without any conditions in terms of giving loans for infrastructure development. So, for our advantage, we focus on the Chinese relationship in terms of infrastructure development and trade and investment, technology transfer, which is very important. The Chinese are willing to support us in these things so we focus on China, India and, to an extent, Brazil, because these are emerging economies and they can support us with technology transfers, with loans and grants for infrastructure development. So that's our interest, we have nothing against the United States. It is not ideological, but practical.

Of course, there is an ideological element because the Chinese place no conditions. In terms of ideology, they support us. But if you see the United States, they have a number of ideological conditions. We feel that some people misunderstand. Ethiopia is within the line of market economies. We have our own model, which we have learned from the Asian Tigers, where the government has to have a greater stake in development because there are many market failures that the liberal way of doing things cannot answer. So that's why we call ourselves a developmental state and it should be understood that we are working in a market economy which is in line with the whole market economic system but with a different way of doing things and it is also a democratic, developmental state. This is important for us as Ethiopians. Not only for Ethiopia but for Africa, we should follow our own way and method.

So I think there should not be conditions in supporting developing countries because it is better that they develop faster than be hampered by conditions. We need policy space to do things our way, but we do commend the US for supporting us with social infrastructure like health and education, even though they are not very active in terms of trade and industry with Ethiopia. We feel that there should be a policy change from the US; if they have a policy change, then we are ready to cooperate with them. If they can support us with infrastructure development, especially economic infrastructure then that is very important to us. We also thank them so much, because achieving our MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] in health and education is very important and the support that the US is giving us in this regard is immense. We also feel that, in our GDP, we focus on fostering investment and trade in the US as well. They must open the door for Ethiopian exports. Of course, there are some provisions in terms of AGOA [US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act] and others, but we still need some FDI from them. There is no closed door for investment in Ethiopia for any country. As far as our policy is concerned we are open for all countries. There shouldn't be any resentment in terms of this and also no concern as Ethiopia is working for its national interests and we are friend to both China and the US.

AC: The way investment is run at the moment, would you say that the US is more in the old style whereas China and India are allowing for development investment rather than aid ?

HD: In some ways, you can say that the US has to do something better for Africa and developing countries in terms of development. The most important thing is for developing countries to develop fast; it is better for the world as a whole. So I think they have to see that the focus on economic development is very important. Wherever there is rampant poverty then there will be a number of consequences. So fast growth in Africa and other developing countries is very important for Africa and the world as a whole. We need to have the space to compete in a global setting rather than be given aid and be coached to such an extent in our economic development. We should be given policy space and each country should have its own way of developing. For the last seven years, Ethiopia has witnessed double digit growth and this is a sign that our economic policy is working very well. If we continue this pace of development, we can double our economy in the next five years. This means that we will double our income for our community and so we will reduce poverty by 50%. So it is better to support Ethiopia and other developing countries in terms of economic development than conditional aid, which puts Africa in poverty reduction strategy rather than economic development strategy. We shouldn't remain slow and non-revolutionary. We want to have a revolutionary way of doing things so that we can have a fast-track development.

There is a technical solution. In the downstream countries, a lot of water is lost through evaporation and this could be harnessed so that there is less waste. So we can save water and use it for the upstream riparian countries. One thing is that the loss has to be managed. Secondly, there is mismanagement of the Nile itself in Egypt. Proper usage and management would mean that we can save water that the upstream countries can use. So without harming significantly the downstream countries, especially Egypt, the upstream countries can have some room to use the water in an equitable way. On the other hand, if you take Ethiopia, our aim is to increase power generation [via hydroelectric power], which is not consumptive, the water returns to its course after producing power. There are environmental as well as economic benefits to building dams on the border of Ethiopia so that we can harness the huge hydropower potential that we have in the Nile.

The project in the Nile Basin Initiative does no harm to the Egyptians but the problem with them is that they don't want to see Ethiopia develop. Why should they hamper us from developing our hydropower potential? There is no reason.

AC: What is the response to such accusations?

HD: I think that they want to hamper any development in the Nile river because they are not willing to see Ethiopia develop. We feel that this is ill-minded kind of thinking in terms of Ethiopia. We can even have an interconnected power system with Sudan or Egypt and other African countries. This is a mutual benefit if hydropower is developed in the Nile Basin. So, we feel that this is not a proper stand that Egypt is taking and we feel that we need to make a stand and say that this is a win-win situation for Ethiopia...Egypt was trying to secure its objective by trying to hamper the funding from the international community for some of these projects on the Nile, especially hydropower projects. So they have been working this for years but this strategy no longer works because Ethiopia is becoming capable of doing its own work using its own resources. The most important thing is to have a cooperative agreement which benefits all of us without confrontation. This is very important and I think that it is time for Egypt to come to see that the cooperative agreement is very rational, very reasonable and also brings a common ground for all of us for the future. It is also very important for the fighting of climate change in the future because climate change is beyond our control. If we cannot fight together, Egypt might lose in the long term, even without Ethiopia using any of their water, because if Ethiopia doesn't work in the Highlands to manage the water then climate change can bring a lot of changes.

AC: Do you think they'll sign the agreement?

HD: They have to sign because this is important for both of us. If it continues as it is, then I think that we will both be harmed.

AC: Is Egypt keeping Sudan from signing?

HD: The Sudanese have their own reasons. We don't feel that Egypt is prohibiting them. Sudan is an independent country and should sign for its own benefit, not for the Egyptians. This will also benefit them as well as all the other riparian countries.

In the beginning we have a very good spirit to cooperate and that has to continue rather than Egypt trying to have some ill-minded strategies to destabilise Ethiopia so that it can't develop fast. This will no longer work because the situation is changing. The Ethiopian people are content with the government and with fast growing development so they [the Egyptian government] will not be successful in supporting anti-peace elements in certain areas because that doesn't work. Most of them are coming into peace with Ethiopia because the situation on the ground doesn't allow them to be insurgents and to destabilise Ethiopia. So that strategy has failed. The only strategy that Egypt should follow is the cooperative agreement. We don't think that Egypt will go to war for securing its benefit. War can destabilise all, not just Ethiopia, and there has never been any history of successful war with Ethiopia. We feel that they won't go for that. Some people are raising the idea of water wars, but that would benefit no one. What would benefit all of us would be a cooperative agreement. This is in place and the door is open for Egypt to sign until May 13 2011. This is the only way that we can have a win-win benefit.

AC: Where are you hoping to get the sixth signature from?

HD: We feel that the remaining two countries out of the seven in sub-saharan Africa will sign very soon. They are in the process of looking at the benefits. Although the Egyptians are trying very hard to hamper them from signing, these are independent countries which can think and decide for themselves. There are a number of rumours that Egypt is bribing these countries but we don't feel that that is the correct way of doing things if it is happening. These countries are sovereign countries. They are the ones that initiated the negotiations. They are the ones who have engaged in negotiations for 13 years and then concluded with all of us that signing of the agreement was important. Because of elections they have been delayed in the signing and we hope that the East African Community has decided on a common stance and that they will sign very soon.

AC: If there is going to be an independent Southern Sudan, would you count on their vote?

HD: The most important thing is to have the Sudanese process concluded in a peaceful manner. If the South decides on an independent country then the most important thing is not the Nile issue but the North and the South having a stable government and for their people to peacefully coexist. The Sudanese issue is an important issue for us; we have very cordial relations with both parties, North and South. We know that the Sudanese are very generous people and they deserve to have a peaceful country. So we support the peaceful conclusion of the process itself. The CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005] gives a good basis for the negotiations and it is all going smoothly, as is the referendum. We would like to see it all concluded peacefully. If all is successful, the Nile issue will not be a big deal for them. We have a very good friendship with both South and North and also a blood relationship. Ethiopia normally takes a neutral position, supporting both. We see that both North and South Sudan have many common positions; either they sink together or they swim together. They cannot have one viable, the other messed up. They understand this and they are negotiating in a very calm and friendly way and this is a very important step forward. We believe that they have much responsibility, courage and capability to conclude the referendum and we will accept whatever the Southern Sudanese people decide.

They should also have a soft border because the colonial border often doesn't matter in Africa because the people's border is usually the most important thing. So we feel that they have a very good process going on and we are optimistic that it will be peaceful. This is more important to Ethiopia than the Nile issue. We have no preference for a united or a divided Sudan.

AC: Can you see a similar situation arising in Somaliland?

HD: Somaliland is very stable at the moment and we have a very good relationship with their administration that we hope to continue. It is a very important area where we can cooperate. We have a stake there because it's an immediate neighbour and we have agreements with the administration over Berbere port etc. We are moving smoothly in this regard.

AC: Are you smoothly moving towards recognition?

HD: I think that is not matured yet. We cannot say that we recognise Somaliland at this moment. What we want to say is a stable Somalia...and Somaliland is an important part of this. Of course, again, the decision stays with the people of Somaliland. If Somalia at large is peaceful, then that time will come later on. Now is not the time. First of all, we must secure a stable Somalia.

AC: Do you think that this can happen any time soon?

HD: We are not sure that it can happen soon but we are optimistic that it will be improving. The speed of the improvement will depend on the strength of the TFG [Transitional Federal Government] and the institutions at large. If they are strong enough to fight the anti-peace elements with the support of AMISOM [African Union Mission to Somalia] and the help of the international community, then things will change. That depends on the TFG, if they continue to be as weak as they are now, then the process will not be easy. There should be mechanisms that should see that the process goes smoothly.

AC: What's your Eritrea policy?

HD: Our Eritrea policy is very clear. These two peoples are very friendly; the normalising of relations, also with the governments, should come as soon as possible. We have accepted unconditionally the rulings of the Boundary Commission [on the border] and so this has to implemented but with a discussion because the implementation process needs something on the ground since it is a colonial rather than a people's boundary.

AC: Do you think that normalisation of government relations is possible with Eritrea's current government?

HD: If they come to their minds, then it is. They shouldn't see Ethiopia as a source of danger or instability. The Eritrean government is trying to destabilise Ethiopia, as the international community has recognised and sanctioned. This sanction, if implemented, will help them to behave properly. The difficult thing is the behaviour of the current government: if they behave properly, then we can sit down and talk and make a dialogue.

AC: After so many years of friction, can normalisation happen?

HD: It's our belief that it can but if not, then we can continue with the status quo for some years to come.

AC: The Prime Minister [Meles Zenawi] has made it clear that he will have left office by 2015, so there must be big changes coming in the EPRDF [the governing Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front]. Do you see yourself as being in the running to succeed him?

HD: This must be seen in a comprehensive and not merely an individual way. This is a succession of a whole generation of leadership. The EPRDF now has two generations of leadership, the first is that which was in armed struggle to overthrow the Derg. That generation is now becoming older and is tired after shouldering many responsibilities for many years, during the armed struggle and now...So the new generation must succeed and that process started years ago.

We have a strategic move for successive generations of leadership rather than one or the other person. So, in this regard, we have the second generation ready to move forward and being coached by the first generation. The Prime Minister is coaching us as a team, not individual this or that. This process is well planned and is going very smoothly.

The succession, in terms of government positions, comes from the party succession plan. I became Deputy Prime Minister simply because I became Deputy Chairperson of the EPRDF. The generation leadership succession strategy is in in five-year terms, whereby the second generation starts to replace the first at the beginning of the final term. So that has started. I am one of the second generation who has succeeded the first in this first place. In this process, nothing is individually focused but on the team of leadership. I have been elected, I must underline this, elected by the ERPDF Council to be Deputy Chairperson. So when the five-year term ends, then it is true that the Prime Minister has decided to step down as Prime Minister of the country because that is the end of the transition period of the succession. At that time, who will succeed him will be decided by the ERPDF Council by election. The ERPDF Council has 180 members and they elected the Chair and Deputy Chair.

AC: Will the Prime Minister remove himself from the Council in the next EPRDF elections?

HD: In the party, the only thing that we know is that he will be stepping down – but he must stay in the party. The party leadership is a collective leadership and I assume that he will remain in the party. The first generation leaders are not leaving completely; they will remain coaching and supporting in many policy matters and policy formulations. As individual leaders they will not be there, but as a collective they will be. Before they collapse they have to come and support the party on the back benches. This is an important transition process that has to take place and the EPRDF is doing this very wisely because the ultimate goal is the implementation of party policy and not individual policy. No room for ego.

AC: Is there a different feeling in the party now that this transition is in process?

HD: We have a clear understanding in the party that this is a collective and not individual process.