Hailemariam Desalegne takes a page from Meles Zenawi's playbook

(Daniel Berhane)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam’s visit to France last month came as a surprise.

One would assume, his first bilateral visit outside Africa would be to London, given the parade of British officials who visited Addis Ababa in recent months – at least one senior official, per month, on average since last January.

No other country sent as much delegates – as the Brits did since January – in all eight months of Hailemariam’s Premiership.President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne

The Brits officials have sufficient reasons to come in row. Their trade and investments grew several fold in few years time. Britain is the second biggest provider of bilateral Official Development Assistance(ODA) and it is crucial as it aimed at enhancing the capacity of public service provision and governance institutions.

No less important is their role in defending Ethiopia’s performance in western donors circle.

The claim by the Human Rights Watch, in 2010, that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) lobbies on behalf of Ethiopia and undermines collective action by donors may be exaggerated. But the sheer growth of British assistance – both in quality and quantity – certainly influenced other Europeans, who might have thought otherwise. That made the Brits target of rights groups’ accusation as an “accomplice of human rights abuses”.

Lately, however, the Brits became increasingly critically of Ethiopia’s domestic politics and policies. Though it is not clear to which domestic or regional change it should be attributed, it appears the Brits are testing the waters to expand the reach of their influence, which was thus far much-limited to cooperation on regional and security affairs. After all, human right is a standard western policy instrument to tilt the balance of relation in their favor in countries ranging from China to Venezuela.

The peak of this emerging approach was seen last February, when Dep. PM Nick Clegg told journalists, in Addis, that his meeting with the Ethiopian PM “much of the discussion with Hailemariam was centered around” issues raised by Western rights groups.

Some Brits columnists downplayed Clegg’s statement as “too soft” or not indicative of serious pressure rather meant to placate criticisms. But, it seems, equally likely that he indeed drilled the Ethiopian PM. At least, if Addis Fortune‘s account is accurate, Clegg repeated some issues to the point that Hailemariam had to say “don’t try to squeeze our hands”.

Whichever the case, it undermines Hailemariam’s stature, who can not afford to be seen weak among colleagues who are in no mood to make major changes. It also sets a ‘bad precedent’ for future visiting dignitaries. The trend, in the past couple of years, among visiting officials, was to raise their concerns briefly and receive long lectures in response – which they would barely mention in public.

Thus the reason, it seems, that Hailemariam took a page from his predecessor – Meles Zenawi – playbook. That is: Diversify friends so as none of them be too bold.

I am referring to his decision to honor France with his first bilateral state visit outside the neighborhood. Of course, he went to Doha and New-York earlier, but those visits were in multilateral context, as French papers underlined to their readers.

Indeed, Hailemariam’s travel was not a spontaneous one. Both Addis Ababa and France have several issues to talk at the level of heads of governments.

France wishes to get a piece of the action in Ethiopia’s multibillion dollar projects of energy and infrastructure. The trade relations between the two nations had quadrupled in less than a decade, though it started from a low base. The French are also laboring to recover their influence in Africa – from investment to military adventures – which they need to legitimatize and cement by making public appearances with every coming African Union Chair-person.

Indeed, a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of a key player like Ethiopia must be ideal for President Francois Hollande, who is expected to request more international mandate for his unilateral intervention in Mali, at the conference in Brussels in May.

Hailemariam’s visit is also the fruit of years of effort by Mr. Gomprez – former French Ambassador and head of the African desk at Quai d’Orsay (the French Foreign Ministry) until recently – who is seen as pro Ethiopia and lobbied Elysee Palace to recognize the strategic importance of Addis Ababa.

Hailemariam certainly wishes more French investments and strengthen the bond with the country that calls the shots in Djibouti. He must have enjoyed the joint press briefing at Elysee Palace where Pres. Hollandee barely mentioned human rights issues.

Of course, Hailemariam needs to carry out his duties as President of the African Union, though many believe the main reason that he grabbed that post is to start his tenure as Prime Minister with stronger international stature.

All these are, however, doubtful to be Hailemariam’s primary reason for honoring Paris with first bilateral visit.

The fact that there was no ground-breaking deal at the end of the visit negates the speculation by some that, unlike London or Beijing, Hailemariam’s presence was needed to ink high profile agreements. If there was an eye-catching development in Paris, it was Hailemariam’s remark at the joint briefing that “Ethiopia is quite determined to work closely with France, especially to find, once again, a win-win solution for the use of the Nile waters.”

An invitation that President Hollande loved to hear to get a foothold in an issue that entirely belonged to the Anglo-Saxons for a century.

Of course, the Brits are not going anywhere. Nor should they.

All Hailemariam needed to show was that he can befriend someone who got as much, if not better, say as the Brits, at the European Union and the World Bank tables – the two multilateral institutions from which half of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Ethiopia comes.

The Brits are too smart to miss the signal and to displease Hailemariam when he arrives in London in May.


* A version of this piece was published at my weekly column at Addis Fortune on April 28, 2013.

Daniel Berhane

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