Wider Eurasia
Ethiopia and BRICS: Regional and Global Dimensions

With the BRICS forum, Ethiopia got a new platform for cooperating with member states on specialised issues like finance, technology and global governance matters, which also positively enhances trust among the members states; Ethiopia is due to benefit substantially over time, writes Dareskedar Taye, Lead Researcher at the Institute of Foreign Affairs, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, one of the oldest nations in Africa, is twice as big as France and three times the size of Germany. Situated in the Horn Africa, it is a land-locked nation less than 60 km away from the Red Sea; it is also near the Indian Ocean, which borders neighbouring Somalia. Ethiopia’s population has been growing rapidly since the beginning of the 21st century due to its exceptionally high birth rate; it was home to 67 million people in 2000, but by 2023 this figure had had grown to 126 million.

In its diplomatic endeavours, it has always maintained a strong presence, especially since the second half of the nineteenth century. Since then, major changes at the global level have exerted their influence upon Ethiopian diplomacy, sometimes in positive ways and at other times with adverse consequences. Ethiopia had already established bilateral relations with most European powers by the 20th century, namely Britain, Russia, France and Italy. It took only several years to expand bilateral relations with other major powers of the time. Ethiopia embraced multilateral diplomacy as early as the 20th century by joining institutions like the International Labor Organisation and International Telecommunications Union. Ethiopia joined the League of Nations with the assumption that the members would truly commit themselves to the principles of collective security. However, Ethiopia was not only invaded by another member of the League; still other members gave the invading nation their blessing. Despite being betrayed by the League of Nations, Ethiopia was not hesitant to sit with other nations to help establish the United Nations immediately following WWII.

Afterwards, Ethiopia shifted its focus towards Africa, where it played two important roles. First, as a free African nation at a time when almost all the others had been colonized, Ethiopia pursued a policy of supporting liberation movements in different parts of the continent. Following the independence of many African nations in the late 1950 and early 1960s, the diplomatic focus of Ethiopia became establishing an African platform that would help the continent determine its fate on its own. The effort culminated in 1963 with the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) with the vision of advancing pan-African ambitions. Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, then became the capital of Africa following a decision by OAU to make Addis Ababa its headquarters. Now, Addis Ababa is the political capital of Africa and the gateway to the continent.

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The geopolitical landscape has changed beyond recognition in the time since the first Russia-Africa Summit was held in the autumn of 2019, laying the groundwork for an ambitious programme to expand Russia’s cooperation with Africa.

Ethiopia tried at one point to promote a common African position during the Cold War. It also participated in numerous South-South cooperation platforms as well as the non-aligned movement. It is only after the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution that the country shifted its foreign policy orientation from the neutrality principle towards an ideologically-driven approach. Ethiopia joined the Soviet bloc and consolidated its bilateral relations with then-Soviet Russia and other socialist nations. The tendency of practicing an ideologically-driven foreign policy, however, ended with the Cold War.

Ethiopia had to confront new dynamics following the conclusion of the Cold War, both at home and at the global level. Domestically, the state pursued policy reforms embracing the privatisation of parastatal institutions and the liberalisation of policies and regulations, shifting the country towards a market economy. A new constitution which embraced a federal state structure, democratic governance and the market economy was put into place in 1995. As Ethiopia was endorsing domestic political and economic reforms, the world was experiencing the emergence of America as the only superpower, where the system was shifting towards a unipolar world.

The policy reforms within started to bear fruit at the beginning of the 21st century. To mention some of them briefly: 1) Ethiopia experienced economic growth in every year since 2000. While the rate of growth varied, it was by any measure positive growth, and has had a positive impact on poverty reduction. 2) The reform and resulting growth trajectory have been supplemented by foreign direct investment, and states like China and India have emerged as alternative sources of investment finance. 3) Ethiopia has begun to exercise foreign policy independently in its relationship with the great powers. During this period, Ethiopia has maintained strong political, economic and security-related relations with the US and EU on the one hand and with China, Russia and India on the other hand.

Maintaining independence in the rapidly changing global order has remained a national responsibility, particularly over the past fifteen years. During those years, the world witnessed a reconfiguration of power following the 2008 financial crisis, the emergence of China as its second-largest economy, the rise of BRICS as an alternative global governance arrangement, and the general rise of the East. Russia, which had offered an ideological alternative during Cold War, has also shown tremendous changes in its posture amid the changing global order. It is an era of change with an impact which has been felt across the world.

Ethiopia’s accession to the BRICS forum has provided an impetus to its diplomatic efforts in a changing global order. Joining BRICS has meant a lot to Ethiopia.

Cultivating diplomatic trust with BRICS members

The more two or more states work together on a diverse array of issues for a long period of time, the greater the possibility is that they will cultivate diplomatic trust. Grand visions like regional integration or free trade areas are realised after many years of engagement at different levels of diplomatic engagement. The BRICS forum will also help Ethiopia expand the scope of the interaction it already maintains with the member nations. It is true that Ethiopia has good bilateral relations with most of the old and new members of BRICS. Ethiopia and Russia have a history of more than 125 years of bilateral diplomatic relations, and within the past five decades, the two nations have had strong security-related relations. Indians were among the first school teachers in Ethiopia in the early 20th century and now there are strong economic and political relations between the two. With China, Ethiopia has strong relations as manifested in the form of diplomacy, investment and infrastructure. South Africa and Ethiopia have maintained cordial ties since the times when the South Africans were fighting Apartheid. With the BRICS forum, Ethiopia got a new platform for cooperating with member states on specialised issues like finance, technology and global governance matters, which also positively enhances trust among the members states; Ethiopia is due to benefit substantially over time.

Diversification of friends and financial sources

Ethiopia is a developing nation in dire need of external financing for use in fully realising its development goals. The world is no longer fully controlled by global financial institutions established under Bretton Woods. New sources of financing are now available from the BRICS member states and from the institutions which were established by BRICS. For Ethiopia, member nations are important sources of investment financing, and Ethiopia needs to capitalize on it. Institutions like the New Development Bank will also be an important source of financing for Ethiopia.

Standing with other like-minded states in an era of a changing global order

History proves that great power transitions are usually accompanied with violence and shocks. As the world is heading towards change, it is wise to be on the side of like-minded states and to avoid the possible challenges that we may encounter in relation to that change. As BRICS is composed of major states from Africa, the Middle East, Eurasia and South America, the possibility exists that it will defend the interests of the developing nations and voice the concerns of these nations collectively.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.