Former Trade and Industry Minister Girma Birru has been posted in Washington D.C. for almost a year now as Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States of America. In an interview with Capital’s Kirubel Tadesse who was there on a work visit, Ambassador Girma candidly answers questions ranging from how he is adjusting with the new job to the status of Ethiopia’s key and complex bilateral ties often complicated by the reportedly large opposition-sympathizing Ethiopian Diaspora there. Excerpts:
Capital: The last time we spoke was in May 2010 and you told Capital that you were looking into your heart on what your next duty would be. You ran for a parliament seat, so the expectation was you would continue in your ministerial post or other capacities and remain in Addis Ababa. Now you are here as an ambassador which leaves your constituency unrepresented in parliament. This is a bit confusing for many; how did your transformation to the ambassadorial post come about after you ran for a parliament seat?
Ambassador Girma Birru: Yes, when we talked then I did tell you I would follow my heart. About taking this post, I was looking into it as a possibility even when I did run for parliament. So it was not that big surprise for me when I took this office because my redeployment out of the executive arm, by the time I was running for parliament, was already decided. And it was a subject we had discussed at the party level. It is not that very new to leave an executive post; what I was looking into and what my party was looking into was where I could serve if I left the executive arm. It was also my choice to be posted as a diplomat abroad and in particular, to be here [the US] was something I have accepted with pleasure.
At any rate it’s not only me who has run for parliament and vacated his post – there were some others. And I don’t think legally it is wrong to assign someone who has been elected as MP for a mission abroad. My constituency would not be disappointed because whenever my representation would be critical within my own party I can be at my parliamentary seat. But at this stage as my party has majority seats, my own voice in terms of day to day operations in parliament is not that important. However, I have not resigned from my parliament seat.
Capital: It is the first time in many years that you have lived abroad; you have been here for almost a year now. How is the overall transition playing for you and your family?
Girma: I was posted here on 27 of December . In my government service I worked in the policy formation and execution area. This is a new post but when I was working on the policy formation and execution area in my previous capacity, I was frequently going out of my country to do some diplomatic work in addition to what I was doing as a minister in various capacities. Apart from permanently taking the assignment, my interaction with the foreign mission and institution isn’t as such new, except that of course, I am now permanently working on diplomatic activity.
For me and my family the adjustment was not very difficult as such. But it takes one some time to adjust because you miss your immediate colleagues, friends, and close relatives with whom you have been working and living. And more than anything, one may miss the environment, the dynamic environment in which Ethiopia is showing progress and development every year. Luckily we have Ethiopian Television coming directly here, we have 24 hour service of ETV, and so we follow what is happening in Ethiopia. We are frequently in touch with our head office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so we don’t feel that much detached with what is happening in Ethiopia.
Capital: One of the sectors I imagine you deal with is the Ethiopian community here. There is a large Ethiopian Diaspora particularly here in Washington DC; what has been your relation with the community so far?
Girma: It is improving and I am very optimistic.
One broadly can categorize the Diaspora here into two groups. The first group is Ethiopians living here for a variety of reasons but who have kept their Ethiopian nationality. The other is of those who have taken American citizenship. The Ethiopian government gives slightly different types of services for the two groups. For the first category we have to be able to protect their rights as much as possible according to the laws of the country. For the others, by citizenship they are Americans, but we provide and facilitate ways for them to be able to participate in the socioeconomic development of Ethiopia.
In doing both activities we have seen improvements. Most of the Diaspora is very positive towards what is happening in Ethiopia. As you can imagine the silent big majority are those who have good hearts towards what is happening in Ethiopia. There are some angry, vocal extremist groups which we have back home as well – it is not only here. As much as possible we are trying to tell these ones what is happening in Ethiopia and explain to them there is a chance to participate in the socioeconomic development of Ethiopia; we don’t seem to be seeing eye to eye so far. But from time to time even their group is being reduced and coming to the mainstream group who are thinking positively. We will see.
Capital: Whenever the embassy holds events, for example business forums, I am told members of the Diaspora show up at the gates of the meeting halls and hold rallies including carrying banners and pictures of people killed in the 2005 post election violence in an effort to embarrass and discourage those taking part in the meetings. How strong a challenge is this minority group you mentioned to your effort in promoting the country’s interests?
Girma: I don’t think it will stop us from doing what we have to do; because this thing has been there for the last twenty years. In fact if you compare what is happening today to fifteen or twenty years back, you see that these days the number of people they mobilize are very small. The maximum number the vocal group that is spearheading these demonstrations can pull is not more than 200 or 250. This is the maximum they pulled out during the Growth and Transformation (GTP) meetings; when you compare this with about 500,000 Diaspora living here, it is very insignificant.
The first thing is, we are here as diplomats promoting cooperation between Ethiopia and the US. In what we do in terms of promoting the interest of the two countries, they don’t have as such very important role because the interest between Ethiopia and the USA is by far higher than what they would think. Secondly, in the area where we try to support the Diaspora living here in participating in Ethiopia, this has to do with the interest of each individual – there is a limit in what they can do to stop this. If they go out and tell anyone it would be bad to take Ethiopian Airlines for example, it would be in the interest of each individual to decide to go with Ethiopian Airlines because it is the airlines that would carry them direct to Addis, speaking their language and proving their Ethiopian attachment. So there is a limit to what they can do in terms of stopping Ethiopians to participate in promoting Ethiopian interests. That is why their number and influence have been going down from year to year. Of course as you said they could stage demonstrations and embarrass people who would be coming into the embassy but at the end of the day there is a law in this country that would stop them beyond a certain limit. Actually the advice I always give them is to play a positive and constructive role instead of these sorts of roles that do not go with the interest of the Diaspora itself.
Capital: While cooperation in other areas seems to be doing well and is balanced, the trade tie heavily favors the US. And also while Asian companies like Chinese and Turkish companies are investing in Ethiopia, American companies are yet to embrace Ethiopian economy as a potential market. What seems to be the reasons holding them back?
Girma: You are right that in both investment and trade, the role the US business people are playing is not as good as the relationship we have with the US in other areas. It is however improving from year to year; the trade we have with the US has been increasing by 20 to 27 percent year on year – it is a good sign but when compared to what this country can buy what we are exporting from Ethiopia, it is not that big.
On the investment side it is true American investors are not coming in good numbers as they are coming from Turkey, China and India; but it too has been increasing from year to year and there is a clear mark. From this country the investments coming from the Diaspora stand number one or two in Ethiopia. While we are getting from the total size of the [American] economy is not enough, the number of investments coming from the US, including from the Diaspora, is a leading one. So it is not small. However, the big American companies are not coming to Ethiopia; they are not coming to Africa too. It is only very recently that America is observing that Africa is the last frontier for development. When Chinese, Turkish and Indian companies are coming in good number, that is when they are realizing that this place is worth exploring; they are waking up. And it is in fact because of that, that we had a good turnout during the Ethiopian American business forum held in October in Washington D.C. So it is a fact that the US has not been looking into Africa as a business place but things are changing and Ethiopia is getting its own dividend from the change that is coming.
Capital: Since you are posted here in the US as Ethiopia’s top diplomat, what has been the trend you observed in the Ethio-US bilateral ties?
Girma: Broadly the cooperation between the US and Ethiopia can be categorized into three major areas. The first one is working with the US in stabilizing the region; we have a common interest on this one. We have to work together to be able to fight terrorism and support the region to stabilize so that we can benefit from the continued peace there. In this area we are very much satisfied in general on how we are working together. And I see that we can fully see eye to eye on what we are doing there. We have a problem from Somalia, a terrorist force that is still operating and we have both an interest to see the activities of this terrorist organization clamped down. On Sudan, we work together to see both Khartoum and Juba working together to coexist peacefully. With regards to Eritrea which has been a destabilizing force for quite some time now, we have common interest to stop it from doing its destructions. So, in this area of assuring the stabilizing of the sub region, we see the US as a good ally and we are working together very closely.
The second area Ethiopian and American relationship focuses is on improving democratization, good governance and records of human rights in Ethiopia which is primarily the US interest in major foreign relation programs in Africa. On this we have some differences on how we see things but we regularly have a dialogue with the US on this issue. And we try to understand each other; how we see our own democratization and how they see it from their angle; we discuss and we see that our understanding of each other has improved over time. We may have differences in our opinions in certain things but we at least understand and respect each others’ positions. We continue to keep the dialogue on where we feel the difference.
The third one is on economic cooperation and emergency humanitarian assistance area. I think we have similar views; of course we have small differences on economic issues such as privatization of some companies and things like these but we have our belief on how to handle them. They may have their own belief but this is the place where we have small difference but we can work together.
On all the three areas we have highly civilized dialogues which regularly take place in Addis; the US mission regularly discuses economic issue with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, and governance and other areas with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So the dialogue mechanism is in place. The cooperation between the two countries is going well and I am happy on the progress.
Capital: In the latest State Department human right reports, the US government accused Ethiopian authorities of committing a variety of human rights violations, from arbitrary killings to abuses of prisoners in the Federal Police Prison in Makelawi. What has been the tone of your discussion with the US on the report?
Girma: Since the report of 2010/11 there has been a slight change. But it still has problems in the facts and on the conclusion they reach. We are not happy with much of the content of the report, but we have to admit that there has been a slight improvement from the previous years. They can have their own opinion but they must have their opinion based on the facts; our problem with them was with their “facts.”
We are trying to work out on how these “facts” are built; we don’t want them to reach a wrong conclusion based on wrong data. On similar data they can have a different conclusion and we don’t have a problem with that, but they were starting from the wrong information, sometimes from a journalist views instead of looking into the matter itself. We are having a dialogue on trying to help the report be based on realistic things; if there is anything we have to assist them in getting the information right, we will do that and they can have their own conclusion; this is only fair. We want to follow this pattern and cooperation with anybody…whether a Human Rights Watch or others. If we can come this close, it is a progress and this is what we are working on.
Capital: What has been your discussion on the 2010 elections; is there something they mention to you as a concern when you hold discussion on the issue?
Girma: In the elections the US has a proper reading as opposed to many others; they know in Ethiopia during the last 2010 elections EPRDF and its allies have won 99.6 percent of the seats not 99.6 percent of the votes.
The votes that went to the EPRDF was about 80 percent of the votes which means some 20 percent of the voters who had their own differences but the democratic system has allowed EPRDF to come to the front. So they know this – they would have of course loved to see some opposition members in the parliament- that they raise – but I don’t think EPRDF is to be blamed for it.
Capital: After the enactment of the Civil Societies and Charities law, those who work in areas of advocacy and human rights can no longer enjoy funding from the USAID and other foreign donors. I was told the money that used be channeled via these projects into Ethiopia is not coming which means we are losing a significant amount of money; what can be done to still receive this money?
Girma: That is not what I know from the records. USAID has been a long term development partner to Ethiopia. And they have been working with the government very closely and the resources they have been bringing into the country were largely considered to be an effective credit. So they were not mainly financing rights based institutions, the mainstream financing was on development activities and that is what is continuing.
They have never seriously complained about changing this law, they have expressed concerns that it should be the right of every individual to get money from everywhere. But we told them money doesn’t come freely, there is always a string attached to the resource flow. For rights based movements it should be financed from local sources because rights have to do with citizenship; this is the case of rich countries so equally it should be the case for the poor. So I don’t think in principle they have a major argument against this; they mention the case of some countries that are doing it but I don’t personally find these arguments convincing, it is not convincing for my government. I don’t think because of the enactment of this law there has been a major resource shift from Ethiopia to other countries.
Capital: The latest development in Ethio-US ties includes the opening of a US military base in Ethiopia first reported by an American media. The assessment is that al-Shabaab is weaker than ever, both from its handling of drought which made it lose support on the ground and due to the fact that its funders are not able to continue their help. Allowing the US to open the base as part of ‘fighting terrorism’ when the threat is being eliminated or weakened doesn’t add up for many; what is your take on this?
Girma: First of all I think there is a gross misunderstanding in what the United States has in Ethiopia and what we mean by a military base. In Ethiopia the US as such doesn’t have any military base. A military base is from where you do a major military operation, where you have armaments and soldiers and from where you attack others to be able to protect your interest. In Ethiopia, they [the US] don’t have this sort of base as far as my knowledge is concerned. From the reports, what the State Department itself said, and from what I know, there is only a facility they can use for reconnaissance purpose. It is a place where you have a remote piloting service. So this is not a base and it is part of an intelligence and information sharing agreement between the two countries. I don’t think it is right to take it as a military base. For that matter I don’t see any problem if we had that sort of agreement, but for the time being there is no such concept as what you call a military base; it is only a facility which you can only use for reconnaissance missions.
Capital: These secret drones can be armed and can fire…
Girma: In the Ethiopian case they are not armed; the information from the Americans themselves said they are not used for any military operational purposes. It is only part of intelligence gathering and sharing service.
With regards to terrorism in the region, as things are fast moving, it is not very easy to hold one prediction. My own feeling is that the solution to terrorism in that part of the globe isn’t something that can happen in a year or so. If al-Shabaab would go away today but if the fundamental cause for holding terrorism around there isn’t addressed, it will come back under a different form, name and shape. So it is not a onetime fight; it is definitively a longtime fight. Yes, it is true that politically al-Shabaab is very weak but their military is there, it isn’t wiped out. What form and what shapes it will take, no one is sure. If the social and political system in Somalia would be totally right and would not give any space for them, it is one thing. Otherwise if the situation in Somalia as a nation isn’t going to change it is a matter of time before it takes another shape.
The recent global situation, particularly in the Middle East, might have had on some effect on al-Shabaab but this doesn’t mean terrorism is out of the region. My hope is that down the line if the region is going to be first politically stable and there is going to be economic growth, then there will be no space for terrorists. Otherwise if poverty is going to be there and extremism isn’t addressed and politically transparent and inclusive government in Somalia isn’t formed; it will still be a safe haven for terrorists.