Passive Foreign Affairs Service Makes Effective Foreign Policy Unhelpful

Oct 31 , 2020.

Abiy Ahmed (PhD) almost lost his life while posted as a radio operator in the late 1990s, during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. He is the only survivor of a platoon boarded on a tank that was hit by heavy artillery. The whole episode of the war was needless, avoidable and regrettable. But it is a reminder in the pages of history books about the terrible cost of war when diplomacy fails.

Two decades on, Abiy would become Prime Minister. Within only months of holding office, he would strike what was perhaps his most significant accomplishment in office: a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea that won him the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. He has yet to earn it.

Two years on, it is little less than a marvel that Abiy meets periodically — officially as well as informally — with President Isaias Afwerki but without appearing to move the strategic partnership between the respective counties they lead any closer. Eritrea's President comes to visit for seemingly mundane of occasions — to tour an industrial park or two and a coffee plantation, as well as a newly landscaped park. They appear as cordial as ever, keep to a busy schedule on visits, and part ways without any indication of the future of the relationship between the two countries. This is while the basic tenets of the Algiers Agreement on rulings from the boundary and claims commissions remain untouched.

At best, it is nothing but a personal affair. The longer it continues, the more it offends the fact that the countries lack policy frameworks institutionalising the long-sought process of normalisation of the relationship. Without a meaningful institutional arrangement, it will remain all about the personal and political interests of a few individuals holding onto state power than the long-term interests of either country.

This is a phenomenon that, to a lesser degree, exists everywhere within the foreign affairs service, where the institution put in place to oversee it is disempowered. What remains is a foreign affairs office overshadowed by the person of the Prime Minister and the significance his office exerts. The reminder is passiveness on the diplomatic front with a consequence that is being felt on issues that matter to the country.

A case in point are the negotiations with Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). A major blunder was the tactical failure when Ethiopia agreed to an observer role by the World Bank and the United States, a decision that was walked back as it was too clear that Ethiopia would be arm-twisted into signing a deal contrary to its national interests. To a smaller degree, the poor state of affairs of the foreign service could also be seen in the government’s response to the uncalled for remark by President Donald Trump that Egypt “will blow up the Dam.”

He claimed that Ethiopia's leaders had defaulted on a promise they had made to his country over the GERD. And the jury is still out on what the nature of that promise was.

Neither was there any substantive content to add from the government’s side any more than the patriotic diatribes that have little meaning or purpose outside of Ethiopia’s borders. That too was in the Amharic version, which was in sharp contrast to the wishy-washy and watered-downed tone in the English version.  It only exposes much of Ethiopia’s strategy, or lack thereof, when it comes to foreign adversaries that have been only playing catch-up by responding to the surprises thrown at the country. Egypt is on the offensive on the diplomatic front, despite its weak standing in defending its claim for historical rights.

Contrast this with the grassroots, concerted effort by diaspora communities that have been effective at making use of digital technology to influence the discourse and drum up support from pockets of the international community. What ought to be making this all the more depressing should be the place from which the foreign service starts. It speaks for itself that Prime Minister Abiy may not be the first leader to run the show on the foreign policy front to the detriment of the institutionalisation of the foreign service. To be fair to him, it is often the case that the head of government is generally allowed leeway in setting the foreign policy agenda, even in countries where the legislative bodies are protective of their powers on the domestic front and where institutions are robust.

The unique situation of Ethiopia is nonetheless two-pronged. On the one side, the administration inherited a foreign service that has historically been disempowered and deinstitutionalised. This is despite its formalisation as a part of public administration as a ministry by the Ethiopia government 113 years ago. The Foreign Ministry probably only had institutional agency when it was being overseen by Emperor Haileselassie, who served as minister for 13 years before taking the throne, and when the head of government, Empresses Zewditu, was politically weak. The use of the service for rewards or a position of demotion was also a tradition begun by the Emperor.

Circumstances have not improved ever since, even with Seyoum Mesfin’s almost two-decade stint as head of the Foreign Ministry. Personification continued to be a leading factor, overwhelming chances of institutionalising the foreign service. Not even Teodros Adhanom, now chief of the embattled World Health Organisation (WHO), delivered on his promise of building an institution out of the individual domain of the foreign affairs service.

But this administration’s effort at protecting and advancing the interests of the country in the international arena is further complicated; there appears to be no consistent vision articulating its foreign policy.

Drawn up in 2002, the country’s foreign relations guideline remains one that belongs to a different time with a highly divergent sets of circumstances. It is a detailed document holding national security as the central objective of foreign policy. In its attempt to view foreign policy through the lens of development and peace, and the region-by-region basis through which it attempted to define relations, it remains a valuable document. However, it belongs to circumstances that no longer hold true.

There are more countries in the Horn, after the addition of South Sudan, and Ethiopia is the biggest economic powerhouse within its vicinity. Djibouti has grown to become military real estate for big powers. Beyond the Horn, Ethiopia finds itself at a time when middle powers, such as those in the Middle East, are more assertive, multilateral institutions are decidedly weak, and the world is no longer unipolar.

All of these have a bearing on Ethiopia’s national interests as it was made clear by the GERD affair. It is then only disingenuous to hold that Medemer, Prime Minister Abiy’s guiding directive, presents enough of a clear picture in the exercise of foreign policy. A notion that lacks clarity just about on any issue, it is what has been ascribed in Medemerthat members of the foreign service were hoped to digest and use as a guiding principle in their diplomatic missions abroad. It is a book that espouses nostalgia of a retributive nature in restoring the dignity of citizens abroad and granting priorities to the neighbouring countries.

The disconnect between Ethiopia's senior diplomats and the Prime Minister cannot be felt more starkly than the existence of a foreign policy draft that has yet to make it past the Council of Ministers. Under a drafting process since last year, its limbo status is nothing more than an indication of the low priority foreign policy holds for this administration.

It also serves as a showcase of the problematic conditions the affairs of the state find themselves in. Matters that have to do with the more mundane aspects of public administration — and do not deal directly with the threat to peace and stability — do not gain nearly as much attention as they inevitably should.

From today’s unsettling perspective, the matter of imbuing the foreign service with consistency, vision and purpose does not sound urgent. Even the utterly unprecedented circumstance of Ethio-Eritrean relations, which has been hanging on the goodwill of the leaders of the two countries, is rarely pointed out anymore.

But in a rapidly evolving world, a disempowered foreign service dependent on the Office of the Prime Minister, cannot avoid being a weak link in safeguarding the wellbeing of its people. The GERD - being built within national borders, developed to utilise domestic resources and financed locally - is a reminder that Ethiopia is not an island and should not be treated in public administration as such.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 31,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1070]

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