500 years of relations


Ethiopia and Portugal have had an old history of friendship. Their history, which dates back to the late 15th century, has now flourished into a successful diplomatic relationship. Although Portugal only re-opened its Embassy in Ethiopia as recently as 2002, the Embassy has been involved in several events aimed at bringing the two countries together. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle sat down with the Portugese Ambassador to Ethiopia, Antonio Luiz Cotrim, to discuss the history, diplomatic and cultural ties between the two countries.
Capital: Tell us about the historical ties between the two countries.
Antonio Luiz Cotrim:
According to documents, the first Portuguese presence in Ethiopia was through Pedro da Covilhã, who came to Ethiopia in 1494, via Cairo, in the last days of Eskender’s reign and then died here later on. So our relationship started a long time ago.

Capital: When did formal diplomatic ties between Ethiopia and Portugal begin?
Like I mentioned before, our relationship goes back a long time. I can inform you that next year, we will begin the commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of Ethio-Portuguese relations. In 2014, 500 years will have passed since the arrival of the first Ethiopian diplomatic legation to Portugal. It also means, in global terms, the first Northeastern Africa diplomatic mission to Europe.
The historical “Mission”, was lead by Matthews, an Armenian born in Egypt, and escorted by a young aristocrat related to the king, and the legation was given an audience, by the Portuguese king D. Manuel I, in Lisbon, on the 4th of March 1514.
This “Commemorative Cycle” – the arrival of the Ethiopian diplomatic mission to Portugal in 1514, and the arrival to Ethiopia of the Portuguese embassy in 1520 – aims at having an effective, positive and lasting impact, and scoping out mutual understanding and knowledge, including nowadays.
Within this context, we consider this “Commemoration” as a crucial “tool” not only to remind and to
make possible the “revival” of our common old Historical Past, but also and very importantly to deepen and strengthen our contemporary days!
We will be doing this Commemoration together through a number of events that will last until 2020. There will be a lot of cultural events, conferences, exhibitions, and so on.
Going back to your question, I would like to emphasize that, during the Emperor Haile Selassie’s era, in the sixties, when Ethiopia was on its way to becoming the headquarters of the Organization for African Unity (OAU), the Emperor said that it was not possible to have relations with Portugal because we were a colonialist country. So, we were requested to leave Addis. Our Embassy at that time was where the Israeli embassy compound is now.
It was only in 2002 that Portugal reopened its embassy in Addis Ababa and since then we have had a very good relationship.
Capital: 2002 is very recent. Why did it take that long to reopen the embassy?
Well, there were several reasons and challenges. One of them was that we had to deal with what happened during the colonial period, go through the African independence era etc, etc. All that took a bit of time, as you can imagine. Only, on the 25th of April 1974, after the so called “Carnation’s Revolution” Portugal became a democracy and the Portuguese colonies became independent, within a long process that ended in 1999.
Capital: How did relations evolved since then?
We have signed several agreements with Ethiopia, namely the Agreement on Education, Science, Higher Education, Culture, Youth, Sports, Tourism and Media Cooperation and, more recently, last May, during the 50th anniversary of UA/OUA, we also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ethiopian government on various issues, including political ones. Despite the economic crisis in Portugal, we are doing our best to bring the two countries closer. We have some projects on the table, and we’ll see how it will work.
Capital: What about in a more cultural way? How are relations in that regard?
On the cultural field, I would like to tell you that we have been able to edit a book called “History of Ethiopia”, co-sponsored by Spain, written in Portuguese by a Jesuit priest in the 17th Century. It was a “critical” translation, critical in a sense that everything needed to be explained in footnotes, because it was written such a long time ago. The book is outstanding; it reveals a lot about old Ethiopian History – at that time, your King has allowed the priest to get access to the old archives of the Palace, with documents written in “Geez”. At the same time, the priest describes all daily life at that time, in the XVII century, because he escorts your king on his trips in Ethiopia. It’s really a fabulous book, written in Portuguese and now translated, 2 years ago, to English. If it were to be made into a movie someday, it would be an amazing one.
We have also co-sponsored several cultural events such as film festivals and concerts.
We also did an exhibition, at the National Museum in March, under the title ‘Bridges’.  I decided to give the exhibition the title “Bridges” because it is a wonderful word that conveys the sense of linking people, countries, continents, cultures, religions and so on. At the exhibition, we had the chance to show a private collection and we also managed to mobilize young Ethiopian artists who participated in the event, not only helping to set up the exhibition, all the pieces but also to be guides for school students. The exhibition featured art collections from around the world including paintings, photographs, antique furniture and other pieces. And I would like also to emphasize that we managed to get sponsoring from the private sector, namely from Mr. Mohamed Geresu (“Mag International /Ling Long, plc”), who paid for the internal/external repairing of the former Crown Prince Palace, nowadays your National Museum., This experience was fantastic and should be just the beginning.
Capital: What kind of reactions did you get after organizing a cultural event like “Bridges”?
At the beginning, we saw that people were surprised and then they became delighted. Most people cannot travel around the world to see those kinds of works of art, so it was a unique opportunity for people to “experience” the world of culture, right in their own country. The Ethiopian people deserve to see these authentic pieces and much, much more.
Capital: What are your thoughts on the development of Ethiopia, and the way forward?
You know I am actually “African” – I was born in Mozambique. So when I came here, it was like coming back to a familiar place. Nothing felt strange.
All of us know and realize that your economy is booming and your society is growing and developing a lot, although at the same time a lot of contrasting things can be observed.
If you ask me personally though, I would like to see a more open society, to see in concrete terms that Addis Ababa is really the capital of Africa. When I went to Nairobi, Kenya, for example, I was amazed to see such an open society. I was able to see for example, art from all over Africa including Ethiopia, in Nairobi. I do not see that here, and you are the Brussels of Africa – more than one hundred Embassies, the Headquarters of the AU, plus other International Organizations, it means thousands of diplomats and high ranking people, experts, from all around the world. These kinds of things matter as well as others, but I do believe that it will be changing, opening your society more.
Capital: The Ethiopian government is paying a lot of attention to attracting foreign investment to the country. What is your country’s plan regarding that? Are there any investments coming from Portugal in the future?
There have not been any kind of investments made so far, till today, but we certainly do have plans to change all that. One thing I would like to underline again is that the society needs to be more open, more modernized. Ethiopia is still a very “socialist country” in terms of mentality and in practice, with impacts on the economy. Ethiopia is such an old and great country with massive potential. I have traveled all around the world and I am telling you that your people are fantastic, even the poor living on the streets – they are so “civilized” and humble. Ethiopians for me are so kind, so educated and so polite, but the country has not yet triggered off in order to utilize/mobilize its potentiality.
Look at the tourism sector, for example. You have a lot of potential in this area – your very ancient history, outstanding monuments, beautiful landscapes, the fantastic People and your cuisine is also unique. Ethiopia could have an amazing and developed tourism sector, but there are still some challenges that have to be overcome. I remember when I first went to Lake Tana. It’s such a beautiful place, but then I noticed a skyscraper building on the edge of the lake which was so ugly and out of place. Such things should not happen at all…!!!
Capital: Like you said, there is huge potential regarding the tourism sector. What are some of the experiences your country can share with ours regarding the sector’s growth?
Do you know how big the population of Portugal is? Ten million. Do you know how many tourists visit us each year? 16 million and above! As you can see, the number of tourists coming to visit us annually is larger than the population and Portugal is such a small country. You know how people love to travel when they get the chance to do so, and there are many that make plans to do just that. They usually do not say ‘I will save this amount of money to buy this and that’, but they actually do save to be able to travel.
I remember going to Gondar once. I arrived at the hotel, looked around and the weather outside was really nice; therefore, I explained my preference and that of my family to have drinks outside, but the Hotel personnel said that it was impossible for me to do that, even after I told them that we would pay for the privilege, but still they told me no. This kind of way of doing business does not work.
When you are told that you can charge whatever you want for something to be done, then it should be done. The business of the tourism sector is to cater to the needs of tourists. Most of the time, when people are on holidays, they do not usually worry about how much things cost; they are here to spend. But, of course, they want their needs to be met.
Capital: On a lighter note, you have traveled all over the world and you have been the Portuguese Ambassador to Ethiopia for two years now. What would you say is the best thing about this country?
For me personally, the People are the best thing about this country. They are very nice and extremely polite. When I go to other places for holidays, I really miss the people here. But there are still challenges facing the country and many things need to be improved. More investment in the education sector is required and it should be done as soon as possible.