Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has affirmed his commitment towards the realization of an Ethiopia that is free from foreign influences and is hopeful for an Africa that can break away from the bondage of neoliberalism. In a speech in acceptance of his second tenure in office, one of Africa’s youngest leaders was quick to castigate the imperialist sentiments that hover around Ethiopia and Africa at large.
This owes mostly to the 11-months unrest in the Tigray area that has led to wide criticism of Abiy’s State security and peace undertakings when he rose to political stardom. However, his speech is not new to dead and alive African leaders. One would be at pains to name an African leader who never uttered the same sentiments on paper or public domain. Talk of Edgar Lungu the former President of Zambia, the late nationalist Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the late Colonel Gadaffi of Libya, and the late John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania.
The list of African leaders who have sold a pan-African narrative is inexhaustible. Nevertheless, what matters is the nature of commitment and the extent of political will towards making this commitment a reality. Below are some of the key findings on the successes and failures of African leaders who envisioned the same policy as well as the misconceptions that come with this commitment.
Is Abiy Ahmed Committed to a sovereign Ethiopia?
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was embraced with both hands by the generality of Africans and Ethiopians as a young leader possessing youthful energy and pan-African vibrancy that came with the geo-politics of Ethiopia. Ahmed started off very well, implementing some positive economic policies that were centered upon the revitalization of the Ethiopian economy and democratization of the political space. His first tenure saw a decent overhaul of Ethiopian socio-economic policy and development. However, he failed to address the pressing unrest in the Northern region of Tigray. Reports of continued human rights violations and deliberate blockage of humanitarian aid have surfaced, creating relentless criticism from, mostly the United Nations and the West, in particular the U.S.
Reactionary politics at play
At the initial stages of his first term rule, Ahmed was a self-confessed ‘friend’ and strategic ally of the U.S. A number of economic engagements and political dialogue between the two countries were noted up until the coming in of China shook the strategic relationship. This, coupled with his ‘authoritarian’ approach to the Tigray ethnic conflicts worsened the once strong relationship. The continuous fallout with the United States of America has dealt a personality political blow on Ahmed’s leadership so much so that, he had to revisit the notion of an independent Ethiopia free from foreign stewardship. Unfortunately, this proposition seems reactionary rather than foundational since the Ethiopian government’s ties with the Chinese government have grown so deep that it cannot easily dismiss its influence. This then brings some form of the misconception that former African heads of States had with regards to what they termed “protecting the African States from foreign influence”, the same misconception that Prime Minister Ahmed is falling prey to.
Foreign influence is a complex annexation phenomenon that encompasses economic and socio-political activities that aim at changing the idea, culture, governance, or administration of a hosting State. It includes overt and covert mechanisms such as the extension of grants, aid, and cultural synthesis leading to the erosion of the purpose and idea of the nation that hosts or receives foreign influence. In international relations, foreign influence is mostly backed by the financial or military muscle that a State can have over another. Developing countries especially in Africa often fall prey to foreign influence. However, there is a misconception about the foreign influence that characterizes the speech by the Ethiopian Prime Minister given that Ethiopia is drenched in a debt dungeon it owes to China. Beijing accounts for nearly half of Ethiopia’s external debt had lent at least USD$15 billion between 2000 and 2020. A considerable amount of the debt was accumulated during Ahmed’s first term in office. Further, China was able to counterbalance demands from Western donors much to the appeasement of the Abiy government.
This is not surprising neither is the Chinese involvement in Africa a new subject. The look East policy that is preferred by most African States has been deliberately omitted from the foreign influence threshold. This sums up the political convenience bias that African leaders have when it comes to curbing the cancerous effects of foreign influence. Slowly, China has been penetrating the African territory while pushing a non-interference policy which is revered by African heads of State. Thus, Chinese influence presents a relationship of convenience since it creates a win-win situation for both parties. On one hand, China benefits from economic influence while on the other, African governments enjoy populist policies of consolidating power using the Chinese funds. This was the same trajectory that devoured the pan-African idea that was pushed by the African forefathers such as the late Michael Sate and Robert Mugabe. Chinese influence should also be viewed as a foreign influence. It does the same harm to Africa as did colonialism.
A case of double standards?
Inasmuch as Ethiopia would want to protect itself from all the various forms of foreign influence, China should also be on the agenda. Any protection outside of this would be tantamount to selective application of the pan-African initiative. What Ethiopia and Africa need is a holistic solution that deals with foreign influences in their various shapes and sizes. Legal scholar, Jeffrey Rosen argues that the problem with malign foreign influence is that it is less about coercion and more about deceptive or covert efforts where the influencing governments apply a friendly and underground approach.
This is the art that was mastered by China. She rarely uses her veto, barely meddles in internal politics, but bags a huge chunk of the African resource base. The commitment to protect Ethiopia from foreign influence should be a double-edged sword focusing on all the powerful global angles. The recent criticism Ahmed faced last week from the U.S and the European Union should not be the push factor for this commitment because the application will be biased only towards the European Union and the Washington administration. Critics of the former Nobel laureate have described his rule as conflated and his approach as selfish and with a quest for going with the tide whenever it so fits and for his glory. The implementation of his speech committing to protect Ethiopia from foreign influence will go a long way in vindicating his rule as a man of the people and a pro-Ethiopian leader of his time. Hence, his commitment should be genuine and not retaliatory.
What fellow African heads of State must learn?
The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been facing a number of backlashes from those who once backed him as an African powerhouse and doyen of democracy. Close analysis and views from the Ethiopian people suggest that they still believe in the capability of Abiy to steer Ethiopia into a secure and stable nation at the horn of Africa. Circumstances often whip politicians into line. The realization by Ahmed that Ethiopia has to ward off foreign influence should be embraced with open hands by any African who believes in the independence of African States.
This idea should, however, not be construed as a ticket for solemn dictatorships that thrive in hiding their citizens from international observation while perpetrating egregious human rights violations. It should be premised on the idea that Africa has been home to most terrorist attacks and political instability. This comes despite the fact that the United Nations and European forces have been actively determining the pace with which Africans should govern themselves. Hence, the foreign influence should be treated with utmost caution and suspicion. African leaders should team up starting from the Ethiopian capita; if foreign influence is to vanish.