Ethiopia's Gambit in a Shifting Geopolitical Chessboard

Aug 26 , 2023.

In the rain-drenched streets of Addis Abeba, there was a distinct ripple of optimism last week. The reason? The BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa - opened their embrace to include Ethiopia.

For Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), who was in Johannesburg attending a summit, this act affirms Ethiopia's rising stature in a world order undergoing seismic shifts. The jubilation in Ethiopia's power corridors is palpable.

The BRICS alliance, first coined in the 1990s, represented emerging economies that once contributed a mere 17pc to the world's economy. Fast-forward to today, and this group commands an impressive 31pc of the 105 trillion dollar world economy, a feat worth noting considering the 29pc share by the Group of Seven (G7) countries.

More than mere numbers, this shift underlines a deeper tectonic move. This coalition seeks to offer an alternative to the liberal order birthed and bolstered since the Second World War.

The primary mover in the G7 has traditionally been the United States. But for the BRICS, it is the leviathan, China, a symbol of towering trade and tantalising investment possibilities. Six new entrants have now been welcomed into the BRICS fold, with Ethiopia and Egypt from Africa, revealing the group's ambitions. The other countries enlisted include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Argentina, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Their inclusion marks a geopolitical shift of note, as many began to see these emerging markets holding the promise of the future.

A few weeks ago, the streets of Addis Abeba were a spectacle of grandeur. The visit by the UAE's President, Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was for Prime Minister Abiy not just another leader's stopover but a "Dear Brother" and a reliable ally in turbulent times gracing him with his valued presence.

Historical records depict Ethiopian rulers and leaders often leaning on external might to bolster their reign. Emperor Hailesellasie, Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.), and Meles Zenawi are but a few names in this long chronicle of external reliance.

The Emperor owed it to the British to reinstate himself after the Italian occupation and to tame the rebellion from Tigray. If not for the Royal Air Force bombing the hills and mountains of Raya, he would have been challenged to clamp down on the revolt. Credit goes to Cuba and Yemen, whose troops fought and died alongside Ethiopians in fending off Somalia's incursion in the late 1970s. Mengistu relied on Russian military advisors and their generous supplies of weapons in his failed attempt to win the insurgency in Tigray and Eritrea in the 1980s.

Albeit differently, Washington's political and diplomatic support and military aid were no less crucial for Meles's invasion of Somalia two decades later.

The UAE has been a rock for Abiy, notably when three billion dollars poured into Ethiopia, galvanising the country's morale during his early days in office. But it would be a mistake to consider this relationship merely one of convenience. The UAE is embroiled in a power-play, attempting to stamp its authority in the Middle East, where the great powers seem to be waning.

Whether the United States is abandoning the Middle East is a fiercely debated subject among the pundits following the region. A broader consensus is emerging, however, that America is deprioritising the Middle East, opening a space for middle-powers competition to fill the vacuum. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel are fighting to claim their place in the wider Red Sea arena, with small countries such as Qatar and UAE asserting themselves using their economic leverage.

Across the globe, it is becoming patently clear that the liberal global order is being redefined. China and Russia, with their burgeoning economic influence, are sculpting a world that does not prioritise individual freedoms in the same vein as the West. The narrative is shifting towards community wellbeing over individual rights, and a more opaque governance system. Accountability of those who hold public offices and the transparency of decisions they make on matters of public interest are hardly their forte.

Illustratively, financing from the UAE for projects in Ethiopia remains lacking transparency.

Mild parliamentary rumbles over the vagueness of project funding met with cheeky retorts from the Prime Minister. He suggested that those curious about the financing of the flashy Unity Park might as well buy tickets to Abu Dhabi. Such brashness, while evoking chuckles, raises serious questions about the financial prudence and transparency of leadership.

Ethiopia's fiscal laws affirm the need for heightened transparency. Recent diktats on financial transactions with China and the undisclosed financial intricacies of a special economic zone signal the government's opaque tendencies. Prospective investors awaiting the launch of the anticipated capital markets may find it hard to trust a system that seems to shuffle its financial cards behind a veil.

The challenge here is not just about the economy. The core ethos of the country's governance is under the scanner. It appears to be a mélange of development-oriented state controls, neoliberal proclivities, and a tinge of autocratic management, all combined with a rather nonchalant attitude towards spending accountability. This cocktail could lead to dire fiscal and political ramifications.

Many of the Prime Minister's projects are marred by ambiguity in terms of funding. The general populace in a country with a shoestring federal budget, may soon find such opacity grating, if not outright outraging.

Ethiopia's newly chosen partners in BRICS bring along their contrarian cultures, particularly when it comes to public transparency. For those advocating for accountability within Ethiopia, international support might wane. The G7, traditionally the harbinger of humanitarian aid and developmental support, is seemingly retreating. Yet, it would be premature to assume BRICS is the de facto global powerhouse.

The road ahead is strewn with both challenges and opportunities. Despite its awe-inspiring 19.4 trillion dollars GDP, China is wrestling with economic tribulations. Russia’s military adventurism in Ukraine has left its economy gasping, with a projected growth of a meagre 1.5pc of its 2.1 trillion dollar economy. South Africa, another BRICS stalwart, struggles with a mere 0.3pc growth projection.

While rife with possibilities, this juncture could be fraught with perils for Ethiopia's leaders. It is akin to playing a game of high-stakes poker. The rewards are tempting, but the risks, all too real. The onus lies on Ethiopia's contemporary leadership to steer the country with sagacity, ensuring that they do not sideline their traditional partners while they leverage the BRICS' potential.

While the G7's influence seems to wane, heralding BRICS as the successor could be precipitous. The world order is in flux, and countries like Ethiopia, poised on the cusp of this transitional phase, must deploy a mix of wisdom, resilience, and a touch of good fortune. The global game of geopolitical chess is in motion, and Ethiopia's move is under the spotlight. Time, that impartial judge, will reveal if this gambit is a masterstroke or a mere folly.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 26,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1217]

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