Jawar S. Mohammed*
In recent years, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been pushing hard to signal to the West that they cannot use their leverage to pressure him into undertaking economic and political reforms that threaten his power. At times, he propagandizes his seemingly anti-imperialist “nationalism” against these so called “neoliberal” pressures. His most recent media briefing continued this anti-West rhetoric, but with a different vocabulary. He was blunt and appeared overconfident. He announced the closure of the Ethiopian embassy in Sweden, followed by a declaration that, since the economy will grow by 14.9%, Ethiopia could free itself from food aid dependence in a short five years. Whether this is Meles Zenawi’s lofty rhetoric, genuine attempt, or a shift in foreign policy directives, I believe it is an unwise blunder with far reaching consequences for everyone in the country.
Scandinavians Out, Brazil In
Ethiopia has a long, strong and productive diplomatic relationship with Scandinavian countries, and particularly Sweden, which has been among the earliest development partners of the country. In recent years this relationship has been cooling off. Yet Meles’ justification in closing Ethiopian embassy in Stockholm that “..there is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden…” is neither true nor the real reason why the embassy is being closed. First, during the over half a century long bilateral relationship between Ethiopia and Sweden, the Swedish people and government have been known for providing efficient and targeted developmental assistance. It was the Swedish people who financed the establishment of the Chilalo Agricultural Development Union (CADU) in 1967, which was the first project aimed to modernize Ethiopia’s agricultural sector. As a self-declared champion of agricultural development, the Prime Minister should have acknowledged the Swedes contribution to Ethiopia’s agricultural “modernization.” Even during his reign, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) has been the leading development partner for the country. SIDA’s support for research through the Science and Technology Commission and Universities has been crucial. Therefore, while the trade relationship might not be great, the claim that there is no significant development cooperation is baseless.
The Prime Minister also implied that the closure is a result of a shift in diplomatic focus on economic partnerships stating that “… we don’t have an embassy in Brazil. Brazil is a huge emerging country, and so we are now reassessing our diplomatic presence globally…” The notion of having diversified global diplomatic relations is obviously vital, but we do not have to shun one to please the other. Of course the point is not that we cannot run our diplomatic relations in both countries – we certainly can. The case of Brazil is presented here merely as a justification, and gives an apparently rational face to an otherwise unacceptable decision to the country’s national interest. The notion that to open an embassy in Brazil, the embassy in Sweden must be closed is not only unconvincing, but also misleading given that the embassy in Stockholm serves all Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway). Therefore, the target of this closure is not only Sweden but also the rest of Scandinavia. Since the collective economic contribution of these countries cannot be denied, only political dispute can explain the decision to close the embassy.
It’s no secret that some Scandinavian countries have been tough on the deteriorating human rights situation in Ethiopia, and have apparently tightened their stance over the past five years. They were particularly disappointed after Meles’ rubber-stamp parliament passed the Civil Society Law, which essentially disabled many non-governmental organizations in the country. After effectively killing off independent NGOs, Meles let the Scandinavians know that the only option they have was to channel their aid through the government affiliated agencies, which they obviously refused to do. Furthermore, during its presidency of the European Union, it is believed that Sweden has attempted to push the Union to pressure Meles into making democratic reforms putting them on the list of Meles’ top enemies. After the May 2010 election proved that Meles is not budging, the relationship hit rock bottom, and he is now just making the divorce official.
Ejecting the Scandinavians also serves Meles as a cheaper way of sending the signal to the West that he will not budge to any outside pressure. He knows that the Scandinavians, known for their non-interventionist stand and with little vital national interest over the region, are unlikely to tamper with his power. Taking such harsh measures against a potentially harmless target could be a cost effective way of telling other more powerful Western forces to back off.
Strengthening this warning is the declaration that the economy will grow astronomically and therefore, “Our hope and expectation is that over the next five years we’ll produce enough not only to feed ourselves but to be able to export”. In other words, the West should not dream of using aid as a leverage to challenge his increasingly totalitarian rule. I do not think Meles is foolish enough to delude himself into believing his own cooked up numbers. The real source of his overconfidence is the assumption that, with Al-shabab emerging as a serious threat, and China’s growing interest towards Africa, the West needs him more that he needs them..
Playing the East against the West
By emphasizing the shift towards strengthening ties with emerging economies such as Brazil, Meles is indicating that whatever he loses from the West, he will gain from the East, particularly China. Meles is right in a sense that, as far as economic growth is concerned, partnering with the emerging economies might be a better alternative. The West still remains paternalistic towards Africa, and no Western country truly wants to enter a mutually beneficial economic relationship with Ethiopia. In fact, America’s primary, if not only; attraction to Ethiopia is the strategic location of the country for its regional and global security. Instead of playing a positive role in helping the country pull itself from poverty and chronic conflict, the U.S. always wants to advance its security interests through aid-dependent, undemocratic surrogate regimes. That is why they did not push for real political change when the opportunities came, in 1991 or 2005 for example. Therefore, the Ethiopian people cannot count on the West to pull them out of poverty, and the emergence of China, a rising hegemony that aims to turn Africa into a market that consumes its output, could be the best bet.
However, does Ethiopia have to break away from the West in order to befriend the East? I do not believe so. Meles is thinking that he can play China against the United States in order to insulate his power from international pressure. But he is overestimating the impact of such a strategy, and as a result could be endangering the country’s interest, and perhaps even his power.
First, although investment is key to economic growth, it is not sufficient for an economy that is just starting to climb the ladder. For the foreseeable future, both budgetary and humanitarian aid will be necessary to keep the economy growing. Keeping foreign aid flowing helps to channel investment revenues back into the country’s economy rather than to divert it to humanitarian needs. In addition, without aid, a possible unexpected external shock to the economy could lead to greater crisis. Therefore, it is better to have a pragmatic approach that welcomes help from any available direction. I do not believe the pressure from the West could ever be strong enough to force Ethiopia to choose one side.
Second, some of Meles’ supporters assume that China could be the regime’s dependable guardian against any American incursion. To substantiate this assumption, they use the Burmese regime that has survived for decades despite completely antagonizing the West. But this is a gross misunderstanding. Chinese foreign policy is highly pragmatic, not ideological. Economic gain is their driving force; as such their policy decisions are based on cost benefit analysis. The Chinese economy is more interlocked with that of the U.S. than any other country. Expecting China to rescue poor Ethiopia in a case where the West’s interests are at stake would be the height of wishful thinking. Burmese survival is not the result of Chinese protection, rather a product of lack of serious U.S. rhetoric about that regime, as their economic and security interests in the country are insignificant. On the other hand, the U.S. sees Ethiopia as one of its vital national security partners. So far, Washington does not take Meles’ populist rhetoric seriously. Yet Meles should not discount the potential for someone to make a case for intervention, perhaps at least to prevent possible imitation by leaders of other countries. They would not have to match his noise in order to undertake such action. Yet more importantly, neither the U.S. nor China cares much about who leads Ethiopia. Their concern is that anyone who occupies the palace becomes their ally, and everyone who gets that chance during these times will have little logical recourse to do otherwise.
My fear is that Meles may be reaching a level where dictators – surrounded by “yes men” – start to believe their own propaganda. If that is the case, his recent moves could bring him down, and God forbid the country as well.
* Jawar Siraj Mohammed writes a regular political commentary on Ethiopian Politics. He can be reached at email@example.com. His writings can be accessed at www.dhummuugaa.wordpress.com