‘Focus Africa Programme, which is the precursor of IAFS, was initiated by BJP in 2002’

Former education minister of Ethiopia, and one of the most articulate members of Delhi’s diplomatic community, Gennet Zewide shares her views with Hardnews on how traditional ties between her country and India could be strengthened 

Sadiq Naqvi New Delhi 

What are your expectations from the new BJP government?

Ethiopia and India are two ancient civilisations whose relations go back to the first century, when Indian traders brought silk and spices to Abyssinia (the former name of Ethiopia) and took back gold and ivory to India.

Today, the engagement of the two countries has expanded to multi-sectorial activities of trade and investment, capacity building, technology transfer, and so on. There are many Indians who have invested in areas of textiles, leather, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, agro processing, manufacturing, hospitalities, with a capital of $5 billion. Actually, Indians are the second highest investors in Ethiopia.  Many Indian professors teach in Ethiopian universities; likewise, many Ethiopian students are pursuing their education in Indian Institutes of Technology, Science and Management, under both Ethiopian and Indian scholarships. Our trade has increased from a mere $300,000 a few years ago, to close to $1 billion today. Therefore, it is my hope and desire that the multi-sectorial activities that the two countries have engaged with will be further multiplied as the new government is keen to have good relations with Africa. The multiple sectors in which Africa and India are engaged at continental, regional and bi-lateral levels as expressed in the I and II India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) are demonstrations of a cooperation and partnership based on mutual interest. In fact, the Focus Africa Programme, which is the precursor of the IAFS, was initiated by the BJP in 2002 when it was in power. Thus, I expect a more stretched and enhanced engagement in the next IAFS III which will be held in December 2014. 

How is the turbulence in the Middle East affecting African nations, especially ones that have a sizeable Muslim population?

Africa is the closest continent to the Middle East. North Africa is not only close to the Middle East geographically but also linked to the region through culture, language and religion. Similarly, the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia is located, shares history, culture and economic links with the region.

Political turbulence has claimed and is still claiming thousands of lives in Syria, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq where attempts for brokering ceasefires have repeatedly failed. Whatever is happening in the Middle East has a direct and/or indirect impact on Africa as Africans living in the Middle East are affected by the war and our business and trade relations are vulnerable and so on.

Despite the fact that Islam as a religion is a peaceful one, it is wrongly and unjustifiably associated with terrorism and fundamentalism where peaceful followers of the religion are  stereotyped as terrorists. Of course, any act of terrorism is criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of the motivation by whosoever is committed. But labelling followers of Islam as terrorists without distinction has negative consequences in many African nations, my country included, that have a sizeable Muslim population since it is groundless and intolerable. For instance, the followers of the two major religions in my country (Christianity and Islam) lived together amicably in harmony and peace for centuries and are still living as such.

But terrorist and fundamentalists movements operating in neighbouring countries like Somalia have tried several times to disrupt our peace. So far, we have contained them and are focusing on our development agenda of inclusive economic growth, establishing good governance and deepening democracy where ethnic, religious and gender equality is recognised and respected.  I believe that economic development, where people, regardless of their ethnic and religious origin, participate and benefit, is a fundamental element to ward off terrorism.

But terrorism in all its form and manifestation constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. Therefore, it should be tackled not only by one country, region or continent but internationally. 

What should be done to contain violence in  neighbouring South Sudan? How is it affecting Ethiopia?

South Sudan’s political situation is still fragile, although a cessation of hostilities agreement has been signed by the government of South Sudan and the Opposition. There are still challenges in the implementation of the agreement. Of course, when violence erupts in any country it affects not only the people of that country but also its neighbours. As an immediate neighbour of South Sudan, we are affected by the situation as the property and lives of many Ethiopians who lived in South Sudan have become vulnerable, many South Sudanese have fled to Ethiopia as refugees, and so on. The Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD), which is  East Africa’s regional trade bloc whose member countries are Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Sudan and South Sudan, is mediating between the South Sudan government and the Opposition to bring about a lasting peace.  Ethiopia, as current chair of IGAD, is playing an important role and the chief mediator, Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin, a seasoned diplomat who understands the situation of the region very well, is also an Ethiopian.

Last June South Sudanese President Salve Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar agreed to form a transitional government, which is a big step towards resolving a devastating conflict in the world’s youngest nation. Hence, government and rebel negotiators are slated to start talks on the formation of a transitional government of national unity. They also agreed to re-commit to the two previous ceasefire deals and allow unhindered humanitarian access to more than one million people who have been displaced. So I am hopeful that the violence will stop and peace and stability will prevail in the country soon. 

Do you think that big businesses from India and other countries investing heavily in agricultural land in Ethiopia is having a negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of the local communities, beside playing  havoc with limited resources?

Land allocated to both domestic and foreign investors is largely in uncultivated areas where there are virtually no or few farmers. We want investment in these areas as it provides opportunity for infrastructural expansion and development that is designed to lift our people out of poverty.

Proposed land to be allocated to foreign investors is about three million hectares, which is about five per cent of the arable land in Ethiopia. So, Ethiopians still have 95 per cent of the arable land to cultivate. Further, farmland is being given to foreign investors on a lease basis for 25 or 45 years, based on the crop type. Of course, when we invite foreign investors, especially from India and China, it is not looked upon favourably by some quarters and it is labelled as ‘land grab’. The Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 forbids land to be sold and/ or bought, so nobody would be allowed to grab land. But investors are invited by the government to become part of our development partners through developing the land, creating infrastructure and jobs in areas where people would not be displaced. So far, we have not seen major conflicts with inhabitants except with a few who are instigated by politically motivated groups. 

What are the areas where India and Ethiopia can think of taking the partnership forward?

India and Ethiopia can collaborate on lots of political, social, economic and global issues of governance such as UN reform, sustainable development, a fair deal at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), counter terrorism, environmental protection under the frame-work of South-South cooperation. Further, they can work together to deepen their economic cooperation in agriculture, trade and investment, capacity building and information technology. 

The issue of the Renaissance Dam is yet to be resolved. Do you see any positive signs from the
Egyptian government?

Ethiopia’s approach to the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is essentially based on four principal pillars: a win-win approach, equitable and reasonable utilisation of Nile water, no significant harm, and genuine cooperation. The sole objectives of GERD are economic development of Ethiopia and support for regional integration. As energy generation from GERD will enhance regional and economic integration through power interconnections, we hope trust and confidence will be built in the region. In addition, among the major benefits to downstream countries, GERD will hold back a very substantial element of the huge quantities of sediments carried by the Blue Nile. This will significantly increase the reservoir capacity of the Aswan Dam as well as protect irrigation canals and equipment from damage in both Sudan and Egypt. It will check the destructive floods that have so often hit downstream countries by regulating the flow of the Nile throughout the year and will support the flow arriving at Aswan Dam.

The Ethiopian government’s announcement of building the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile  initially caused some worry in Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia has made a number of efforts to assure that the construction of the dam follows the results of objectively and scientifically studied environmental impact assessment and dam security. The government of Ethiopia has repeatedly given assurances to the downstream countries that the dam will be environmentally-friendly and will not significantly affect the flow of water; rather, it will enable regular flow of water, and decrease siltation and flooding to downstream countries.

After a brief uncertainty, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Deasalegn and the newly elected Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, held discussions during the 23rd African Union Summit last June in Malabo about GERD. Both leaders agreed to respect the principles of international law and resume participation in the Tripartite Committee on the dam which would allow for the implementation of the recommendations of the International Panels of Experts (IPoE). Therefore,  tripartite talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will be resumed and two proposed studies, including a hydrology simulation model and a trans-boundary social, economic and environmental impact assessment, will be conducted. Hopefully, the meeting between the leaders will provide a strong and firm foundation for a new chapter of improved and enhanced bilateral relations and regional cooperation.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2014