Deepening Democratic Norms Crucial For Self-Assured Ethiopian Foreign Policy – Analysis


By Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari*

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, and one of the 12 fastest growing economies in the world is heading to a general election on 24 May 2015. There is very little to suggest that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which came to power after a bloody civil war in 1991 should have much to worry about.

At the last elections in 2010, the EPRDF romped to victory with 99.6% of the vote. Even with a less charismatic successor to the late Meles Zenawi in the person of Hailemariam Desalegn, the opposition is decimated due to a difficult climate for political parties and dissenting voices. This guarantees a resounding victory for the effective and strong authoritarian EPRDF.

Irrespective of the difficult and at times illiberal domestic political situation, the Ethiopian government has carefully calibrated its relations with global powers, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Both the UK and the US today are, alongside the Nordic countries, among the largest donors to Ethiopia, operating a broad range of development and security cooperation instruments in the country. This illustrates the degree to which the Ethiopian government has been able to woo, through a pragmatic approach, policy audiences in the West that often link issues of human rights in Africa to aid and development.

While the Ethiopian government has proven to be an effective communicator of its domestic developmental objectives, this is only part of the narrative that deserves attention. Ethiopia’s foreign policy actors, both at the government and party level, often speak about visible and concrete development as the best form of communicating the successes of the EPRDF government over the past decade and more.

Without doubt, Ethiopia has transformed from the paralysis of the Marxist Derg regime to a more confident developmental trajectory under the EPRDF. To illustrate this point, over the past decade and more, two of the six critical Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been met – reducing child mortality and increasing access to sanitation. Moreover, the country has made encouraging progress in gender parity in primary education, as well as decreasing HIV/AIDS, and malaria. Progress in universal primary education has been made, although the MDG target is yet to be met.

According to a World Bank 2013 report, Ethiopia Economic Update II: Laying the Foundation for Achieving Middle Income Status, on the basis of current economic performance Ethiopia can achieve middle-income status by 2025. However, the report notes that this may in the first instance require additional policy adjustments that should create more space for the private sector in the economy. Second, the country should make significant improvement in its trade logistics. Ethiopia’s robust economic performance, including better macro-economic management that has kept inflation in single digits in recent years, has shifted international attention to the trade and investment opportunities in this vast and populous country. Unfortunately, other issues, including democracy and human rights, at least at the level of key bilateral relations, seem to have been relegated to the margins.

But, there is an important entry point to emphasise these norms, in particular after the elections. Ethiopia’s 2002 Policy and Strategy on Foreign Affairs and National Security frames the country’s external relations around three core themes: development and democracy; national pride and prestige; and globalisation. Even though the policy gives elaborate recognition to democracy as a crucial pillar in the country’s identity, much of it still remains declaratory and rhetorical. In fact, Ethiopian foreign policy continues to be ensnared in matters of national security as an existential question. While this is, at least at the level of domestic policy, a crucial concern with a hostile Eritrea to the North and terror threats from Al-Shabab in Somalia to the east, the limits of such a trajectory in the external relations of the country will be further exposed in the medium to long-term.

This is in no way to suggest that the country has not played a pivotal role in the region. Ethiopia has performed remarkably well in the area of peacekeeping, with contributions to over ten peacekeeping missions, particularly on the African continent. What is more, Ethiopia has also made significant contributions to IGAD through peace enforcement, mediation and intervention, including using the regional body as a catalyst for regional integration and development. But a strong security focus domestically and in the region limits its engagement in its neighbourhood to that of an emerging economic and military power.

Ethiopia is expected to play an increasingly important and confident role in continental affairs. The country’s growing economy and location as the multilateral capital of the African continent provides it with added leverage. However, in order to increase its share of the continental burden, giant leaps in its domestic order toward a more open and democratic system are crucial. Without these, Ethiopia may rise to become an economic giant, but it will remain an inward-looking normative dwarf.

Without doubt, Ethiopia is leading the way with regard to impactful development in the region. This is widely recognised. Two examples demonstrate Ethiopia’s potential to transform the region. First, although contested, with domestic financing, the USD$ 5 billion Grand Renaissance dam is estimated to generate 6,000 megawatts upon completion in 2017, making Ethiopia a hydroelectric powerhouse on the continent. Second, a railway line renewing the link between Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti 756 km has been under construction at a cost of roughly USD$3 billion. These notwithstanding Ethiopia’s influence can only expand further when its foreign policy successfully integrates development, democracy and human rights as demonstrable identities in its external relations.

After 24 May 2015, when the electoral dust has settled, it is this narrative – the nexus between the domestic and the external – which should preoccupy the EPRDF government. Ethiopia’s key bilateral partners with a long-standing commitment to democracy and human rights have the responsibility of assisting the country in this direction by cascading these to the top of their priorities.

*Dr Tjiurimo Hengari is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs.


The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has a long and proud record as South Africa’s premier research institute on international issues. It is an independent, non-government think-tank whose purpose is to encourage wider and more informed awareness of the importance of international affairs. It is both a centre for research excellence and a home for stimulating public debate.

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