France and Ethiopia have one of the oldest diplomatic relationships in Africa, starting as early as 1836 but formalized in 1897during the reign of Emperor Menilek (1889-1913). This relationship led to the construction of Ethiopia’s only rail line, the 781km Ethio-Djibouti Railway in 1917; however, cultural and social ties between the two people’s have lagged behind. Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie recently spoke to Shoki Ali Said, the Ethiopian born president of the Association of France and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, about the association, the developmental, social and cultural work its currently doing, and about his thoughts on development in the country he left as a child.
Capital: Could you start by introducing the mission you brought with you to Ethiopia?
Shoki Ali Said: I am the committee president of the Association of France and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa the area supervisor for the Grand Lyon Department (Department in France is one of the three levels of government between the regional and the commune), and Villeurbanne city. The delegation is led by Professor Henry Lumley, director of The Human Paleontology Institute, who led a group of 35 people from France to attend a two day conference at Alliance Ethio-Francaise. They are also planning to facilitate the collaboration between the University of Medicine of Lyon and Addis Ababa University which is the objective of the trip; to do something for the country of my birth.
Capital: What were the previous and current activities of the association?
Shoki: I currently, survey the cooperation and plans division of the Association in Addis Ababa. For instance, there is a program to help sanitation workers in Addis Ababa, and I also finished supervising the construction of the Dire Dawa Maternity Hospital, at a cost of 55,000 Euros. We also helped in the drilling of boreholes for potable water projects, which can be used by about 40,000 people in the vicinity of the city of Dire Dawa. This was done during the last six years.
Capital: What other activities are the association and its members, some of whom are of Ethiopian lineage, engaged in?
Shoki: My association works with Ambassador Teshome Toga, the Ethiopian Ambassador to France, to develop better ties, especially in the field of economics. In Dire Dawa, my birthplace, I’m involved in various activities. I have 35 people in my delegation to discuss the economy, development, and for the first time, to organize a summit at Alliance Ethio-Franciase “On the Future of Humanity” and talks on the possibility of constructing a museum of human origin in Addis Ababa, with guests such as Professor Henry de Lumley. Our association plans to do this every September and another one is being planned to coincide with January 7 (the date of the eastern Orthodox Christmas). These expositions will each be for a month.
Capital: Recently, the socialist party, of which you are a member, won the elections in France. What do you believe it heralds for relations between France and Africa in general, and Ethiopia in particular?
Shoki: I am a person who has French citizenship, but my heart is with Ethiopia, and I believe what I’m doing will contribute to its development. I can’t really say what political impact the election in France will have in Ethiopia. What I can say is that I’m a French politician, and that my children were born there. From the discussion I had with the new French ambassador to Ethiopia, Brigitte Collette, Ethio-French relations are going to be strengthened, in unity of purpose and cooperation. In this regard I expect diplomatic relations between the two countries, which are more than a century old and one of the oldest in Africa, to continue to grow stronger. .
Capital: What other meetings have you attended since you got here?
Shoki: There is a conference called CODATU (Cooperation of Urban Mobility in the Developing World) taking place now (October 22-24), on transport development in Africa. 250 people are currently participating, from North America, Latin America, Europe and Africa. I have been attending the conference, which has been held every two years for the last seven years, and I had hoped that this conference, dealing specifically with urban transportation, would be held in Ethiopia. With the help of the current and former Ethiopian Ambassadors to France as well as the former Ethiopian Ambassador to Cote D’Ivoire, I organized the conference this year in Addis.
Capital: You’ve said previously that preparations are underway for the construction of a museum of human origin in Addis Ababa. What’s your role in organizing such a venture?
Shoki: Ethiopia is recognized internationally as number one in terms of the history of human origin. A country where nine ancient human fossils have been found should be able to have a museum. Ethiopia, in order to capitalize on its fame in this regard, has to build a modern museum to attract tourists and keep its heritage intact and to replace the small, overcrowded museums we have right now. We’ve discussed this with the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Aman Abdul-Kedir, and also with the Mayor of Addis Ababa, Kuma Demeksa. Demeksa has given us a plot of land in Addis to build the museum, so we believe the project will proceed at a fast pace.
Capital: What is the current status of your efforts to bond cities like Lyon or departments like Grand Lyon with cities in Ethiopia to form sister cities?
Shoki: We’ve been able to bond Departments like Grand Lyon with the city of Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar and Harar with the city of Chalmessin while Dire Dawa has bonded with Villeurbanne city. But we’re looking for more opportunities for Ethiopian cities along this line.
Capital: What would you say is the benefit of these bonding programs between Ethiopian cities and their French counterparts?
Shoki: The benefit of these programs is the sharing of experiences between the two sides, as well as development programs and exchange programs that allow the two sides to learn from each other.
Capital: There was a workshop at Alliance Ethio-Francaise called “The Future of Humanity,” on October 20 and October 21st. What would you say was achieved during the two-day conference?
Shoki: When foreigners come to Ethiopia, they come to a country that many people think is mysterious, and they are pleasantly surprised and happy with what they discover. This is what happened with the more than 30 people who came with me. There were also people who came for a two-day stay, mainly for the conference, paying their own expenses, and they said their experience of Ethiopia was so positive that they plan to visit with their children in the future.
Capital: Have you encountered any challenges in you endeavors so far, trying to promote Ethiopia to a French public and in forging a relationship between the two countries?
Shoki: In my experience, so far, when I approach officials from different cities in Ethiopia with the proposition of bonding agreements with a French counterpart, the response I’ve gotten has been enthusiastic, so much so that, they aid us in attaining the necessary documents carrying on work. Grand Lyon Department, which has a lot of experience in the handling of city affairs such as sanitation and Addis Ababa city for instance, made a three year agreement after a short negotiation. Mayor Kuma is expected to come to France and sign the cooperation agreement soon. The agreement will help professionals from both cities to come and exchange ideas and cooperate on things of interest and concern for both sides.
Capital: As a person who left Ethiopia as a child, what changes have you noticed on your recent trips back?
Shoki: I was away for the last 27 years and when I left Dire Dawa, at the age of 11, there were not many high schools and only two universities in Ethiopia. Today, I see there are about 32 universities. I believe that the good work should continue without anyone becoming complacent. In many respects I would say Ethiopia is the second most influential country in Africa, next to South Africa, whether it is in diplomacy, economic development, or political strategy. I think this is because of its preoccupation, not only with its own interests, but also with African interests as a whole, on the world stage. Also, I like the fact that you’ve kept your peace, your religious harmony and that many of your citizens keep their Ethiopian identity while living in diaspora.