Roland KOBIA is the Ambassador of the European Union to Ethiopia since September 2021. Before that, he was the EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan, after having been EU Ambassador to Myanmar and Azerbaijan. He has been specialising for over 30 years through different geographic and thematic angles in foreign and security policy, peace/conflicts and mediation as well as in transition countries, issues he also teaches as a Professor at the College of Europe. Capital caught up with him to talk about the EU and Ethiopia relations. Excerpts;
Capital: What are the relationships between Ethiopia and the European Union (EU)?
Roland Kobia: That is an important but wide question! First let me thank this excellent review Capital for giving me the floor today. The European Union has wide and deep relationships with Ethiopia for a long time, some of our EU Member States having relations going back 500 years! Like a centenary tree, our partnership therefore has very deep and solid roots compared to countries that came to Africa recently. Our relationship faces all that even when sometimes there are strong winds breaking a few small branches. New branches will grow again. To summarize this partnership, I would say that the EU is here to support peace, security, stability and prosperity, but also people-to-people contacts. Ethiopia and the EU have a “Strategic Engagement” since 2016 signed at Prime Minister’s level, a relationship we have with only a few selected countries. This is an objective testimony of the importance we attach to Ethiopia.
Of course, for two years, Ethiopia has been undergoing a dire war in the North, which has negatively impacted many people across the country, and notably in the regions of Afar, Amhara, Oromo and Tigray. On behalf of the EU, I want to express my sympathy for all the pain and suffering that the people of Ethiopia have had to undergo because of the various conflicts. A war always has negative spillover effects on the whole political, economic, social and development spectrum of a country. A war makes relationships with neighbors and partners more complex, and prevents from tapping into the huge potential of Ethiopia. Our bilateral relationship today also falls within that overall context, which we hope will positively evolve soon.
Despite the war and the related challenges, and sometimes the irritants on both sides, there is respect and the EU has continued supporting the people of Ethiopia. Our partnership is wide-ranging covering many sectors. Contrary to what many think, the EU has imposed no sanctions on Ethiopia; the EU has also maintained its most preferential trade regime offered to Ethiopia and called “Everything But Arms” (EBA). This unique preferential and unilateral regime, which allows 7,200 products of Ethiopia to be exported to the EU without any customs duties (O% tariff) and without any limits (no quantitative restrictions), is still in place. The EU has also just decided to grant Ethiopia 9 billion ETB to help people most in need, particularly those affected by the conflict and drought, to get basic health care and for their children to go back to school. We recognize the current food crisis and the EU will help Ethiopia strengthen its domestic cereal food production. We are considering further engagement soon and along these lines. The European Investment Bank (EIB) has also been actively developing projects for Ethiopia for billions of ETB.
We should therefore look beyond understandable emotions, and look at the concrete and objective signs showing that the EU has always continued to support the Ethiopian people during these highly testing times for the country.
On the current peace talks and mediation. The EU is also globally engaged in peacebuilding, as our peace agenda is paramount. The EU has offered Ethiopia to accompany the AU-led peace process as a supporting party. As a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, the EU can offer wide means and experience at the service of Ethiopia and the AU, while of course fully acknowledging that this is a sovereign process that will be led and owned by Ethiopia. If the EU is associated in this political phase, it will make it easier for the EU and Member States to later mobilize their enormous financial potential for reconstruction and rehabilitation. Indeed, the EU is neither a development agency nor a bank that just gives massive money. The EU is a political entity that offers to participate at all stages of the political process. The EU cannot pay for what others have decided, as our populations and constituencies will no longer accept this under a very strained global financial environment, and the pressing needs we notably have in Ukraine. We might have to make choices at a given time.
Capital: Russia’s aggression on Ukraine and its overtures in Africa have left Europe anxious about the EU’s cautious pace to re-engage with the Ethiopian government. The challenge for European policymakers is how to pursue promoting European values in Africa, which sometimes means withholding funds, while Russia makes inroads by blaming the West for Africa’s challenges and offering no-strings-attached deals. What is your say?
Roland Kobia: Let’s look at things in the complex way reality deserves, and avoid simplistic and false ideas propagated by Russian trolls. I will not use the methods we condemn in using the same propaganda and disinformation used by Russia. I will give you factual information.
First, Russia, in its “cooperation” with African countries, actually has many strings attached. I am sure your readers are not naïve. These strings are less visible and certainly less transparent, but they are very strong. From the geopolitical game of counter-influence and the political “pay back” moment they will require from countries they “help”, to the economic dividends Russia expects to gain as its economy is weakening fast, there is also the immediate veto power at the UN Security Council that Russia offers as a compensation to the fact that they cannot offer much more. Russia is simply on an overall quest to destabilize the world and to create chaos to ensure they have a free hand to exert leverage and reconquer countries that have become sovereign and independent to recreate their lost empire. Today, Russia is simply the main colonizing power in the world.
Second, the European Union goes well beyond defending European values, we support, promote and defend “Universal Values” enshrined in the United Nations Charter, of which Ethiopia rightly prides itself to be a founding member. The sovereignty, territorial integrity of a country, respect for international humanitarian law and for human rights – these are universal values accepted and signed by virtually all countries of the world. They are applicable everywhere, in Europe and in Africa, and they should also apply to Russia that should respect the treaties it signs. So, when the EU criticises Russia for its unprovoked aggression on Ukraine, it is not a question of taking sides for the West or the East, it is not a return of Cold War paradigms or a request to align with one or the other, it is essentially about protecting the fundamental values mentioned above, which have been signed and ratified in the UN Charter. Without the UN rules, the world may slide into further chaos and anarchy. Today it is Ukraine’s plague, who will be next tomorrow?
Third, of course, Russian advances on the African continent are noticeable. But what does Russia bring effectively to the people of Africa, how does it improve the lives of Ethiopians? The EU and its Member States have been partners of Africa, and of Ethiopia in particular, for a very long time. Our partnership as mentioned above is multi-faceted, and does not limit itself to weapons and military cooperation. The EU is for Ethiopia the second largest economic and trade partner (imports and exports), and also second for Foreign Direct Investments. The EU and Member States are also in the top three of Development Aid partners. In 2020 alone, the EU and Member States gave grants to Ethiopia at the level of 55 Billion birrs. The EU offers the whole package: large amounts of development programs notably for social sectors (education, health…), humanitarian assistance against natural disasters (drought, locust, floods…), cultural exchanges, strategic engagement, trade and foreign direct investments generating wealth. European companies are indeed very active and have a strong presence, creating thousands of jobs with good working conditions, and stand ready to invest further, once the situation in Northern Ethiopia normalises.
Finally, when you look at cultural, people-to-people contacts, where do Ethiopians aspire to go? Well, those who can are sending their children to school in Europe or in the US, not in Russia.
All these are objective, factual indicators. I rest my case!
Capital: The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance said that 40% of Ukraine’s population needs humanitarian assistance. How is Europe dealing with this crisis at its borders? With the aggression of Russia on Ukraine and the increasing EU commitment to support Ukraine, how much will this affect Africa? African countries are struggling to recover from the impacts of Covid 19, as well as a worsening climate crisis that is driving Africans deeper into poverty. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy says nuclear war could be a reality. Is that a possibility?
Roland Kobia: The EU has made it clear that, for the time being, there are no reductions or redirections of aid from other countries because of the war in Ukraine. The EU helps Ukraine with additional funds, without this impacting Ethiopia. But nowhere are funds unlimited. Today, crises are multiplying around the globe. Most countries turn to Europe to help them, not to Russia that has no money. It is also clear that humanitarian and reconstruction needs in Ukraine are rapidly increasing as the aggression lasts. The EU will operate an assessment soon that will include the question of cooperation performance with our partners. Given the magnitude of the crisis, it seems inevitable that the need for support in Ukraine will resonate in the question concerning the re-allocation of funding, specifically if funds are under-used or cannot be linked to tangible progress because of the situation in any given country.
In the year that I have been in Ethiopia, I have spoken to many people and most are well aware of what Russia is doing to Ukraine, even if they do not speak out. Ethiopians are too smart to be fooled by Russian propaganda. This is not a “European war”, it is a direct and unprovoked attack on the territorial integrity of a sovereign state – a blatant violation of the UN Charter. If we allow this to happen to Ukraine, it could later happen to any country, even in Africa.
On the nuclear question, Ukraine simply does not possess nuclear weapons; it gave up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s and Russia was one of the states that committed to guaranteeing its security…! So, the threat of a nuclear war could simply only come from Russia, definitely not from Ukraine. I express my sincere hope that Russia will not come to this brinksmanship scenario as this nuclear Armageddon will impact Russia itself, Europe and the whole world.
Like climate change, nuclear contamination knows no border and would affect us all wherever we are. It would change the world forever.
Capital: The European Commission recently authorized €81.5 million in humanitarian funding for education and health projects and said that the projects would occur “outside of government structures”, can you elaborate?
Roland Kobia: This is in fact not humanitarian funding (which we give in addition to that for over 130 million euros), but part of our continued development cooperation with Ethiopia. The envelope you mention has now increased from 81.5 to 160 million euros (9 billion birrs). More could come when the situation allows. The aim for the use of these funds is to support the populations of Ethiopia through the rehabilitation of damaged infrastructure like schools or health centers, and to support the provision of services particularly in the conflict-affected Regional States of Afar, Amhara, and Tigray. We will partner with EU Member States to support the Ethiopian people.
Because of the ongoing war, we will work mostly with UN and NGOs. To give you one example: our aim is to provide school feeding for up to 50,000 children to help them improve their diet and to re-gain strength. This will hopefully also motivate them to go to school and to continue their education after a time of high disruption and trauma. The reason why the funds will transit through NGOs and International Organisations is that we need to be able to explain to our European taxpayers that there is no risk that their personal money intended for education and health be used directly or indirectly for conflict-related expenditures. This is a policy we have throughout the world, not only in Ethiopia. As soon as the war will be over, that peace shall prevail, a return to normalization with EU funds being increased even further and channeled through government’s budget, will be possible.
Capital: Can you define EU’s role in the negotiations between the Tigray rebels and the government of Ethiopia today? What do you think would be the best solution for the conflict in Northern Ethiopia?
Roland Kobia: The best solution to the conflict is obviously peace and a negotiated political solution whereby all Ethiopians can again live and work together peacefully. War is always a failure of politics, with lasting societal effects. People want peace, and the economy needs peace. There can be no other possible end to this than for the warring parties to cease hostilities immediately, to sit down together and discuss how to move forward peacefully in the highest interest of the whole Ethiopian nation. The Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF are now in South Africa for talks under the auspices of the African Union. This is a step I warmly welcome, and that I encourage parties to continue with resilience. It will not be quick and easy, but it is certainly worth.
This is where the EU could come in. We are ready and willing to support the AU-led peace process and African solutions to the challenge Ethiopia is facing. Cooperating and supporting do not mean interfering. The EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa, Dr Weber as well as all Member States in Ethiopia are ready to support constructively. Without being included in the process, it will of course be more complicated for the EU to help and work in a balanced and constructive way with the US, UN and IGAD.
In the meantime, we do not wait, we work and act. At present the EU has about 5 billion birrs engaged in peacebuilding activities aimed at preventing and mitigating the impact of local conflicts in borderland areas of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan, and to promote economic development and greater resilience. Additional 550 million birrs are in the pipeline notably to offer possible support to the National Dialogue process together with activities in support to people who have directly been affected by conflicts.
Capital: When the war in Northern Ethiopia ends, would the EU support the reconstruction?
Roland Kobia: Again, the EU has been very clear and consistent all along: we are ready to fully re-engage with the Government of Ethiopia and normalise cooperation once three key points are met: cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of foreign troops; unfettered humanitarian access; and accountability for crimes committed by all parties in the context of the war. These benchmarks are neither conditions nor transactions; they are key enabling factors for the aid to be possible and efficient. Funds are there earmarked for Ethiopia, so the button just needs to be pushed when the time comes !
The EU is traditionally the main partner around the world to which countries turn for reconstruction help. We can do that. We have already started with the current 9 billion Birr envelope, for the rehabilitation of health and education infrastructures. The full envelopes of the EU and Member States will be mobilized when peace comes.
A last point that should not be underestimated is the influence the EU can have as a triggering factor. Many partners usually wait and see how the EU and its 27 Member States position themselves on aid (as the main development partner in the world), and take cues from our position. Not to forget that our presence through Member States in the boards of International Financial Institutions (World Bank and IMF) is also influential.
Capital: How does EU look at private sector and business development, trade links with Ethiopia?
Roland Kobia: The EU is the second largest trading partner of Ethiopia. The EU through its 27 Member States is the second largest export destination for Ethiopian goods (12% of the total of all Ethiopian goods) and the second largest source of goods imported by Ethiopia (12.6% of the total, equal to about 70 billion Birr). Foreign Direct Investment from Europe is now close to EUR 1 billion (55 Billion Birr), and EU investors and businesses in Ethiopia are making direct and significant contributions to the economy in job and wealth creation.
More than 300 EU companies are active in Ethiopia, mainly in manufacturing, agriculture and services. Most are members of the very active “EU Business Forum in Ethiopia” (EUBFE), of which CAFE (French business association) and ENLBA (Dutch business association) are part.
I wish to repeat, as it is too little known, that the EU has a premium trade facility for Ethiopia called “Everything But Arms” (EBA), which actively supports and facilitates export to Europe under a very preferential trade agreement. In 2020, EU imports from Ethiopia of a value of 270M EUR, ie.15.2 billion Birr, made use of the preferential market access under the EBA arrangement. As a comparison with a better known system, the US system AGOA in the same year was half, with USA imports from Ethiopia at 127M USD (6.5 Billion Birr).
Very recently, The EU has also launched the “Global Gateway”, a new European Strategy to boost smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport as well as strengthen health, education and research systems across the world. The Gateway aims to mobilise up to €300 billion in investments, half of them for Africa ! Ethiopia could benefit from this major initiative when the context is conducive.
Capital: A recent study by the Pan African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PACCI) suggests that cereal grains, corn and fertilizers are not the only concerning factors when it comes to how the war that will affect Africa and its citizens; the increased price in oil, increasing dramatically the price of transport and subsequently increase the price of groceries and other products across the continent, pushing more people into poverty. Will this encourage more European investors to look at Africa as a possible long term option for investment?
Roland Kobia: I think I have made it clear that the EU works in Ethiopia to address these issues, through political engagement, trade facilities and development aid.
But, investors are private entities. What any investor mainly looks at is the protection of their investments and the predicatbility. This means they will look at regulatory frameworks, legal certainty and other factors that provide a conducive investment-climate business environment. Everybody including government counterparts agree that more can be done. European investors will certainly look at emerging opportunities in any sector, including in agriculture and food production. There is no doubt that Ethiopia has enormous potential in that field.
But neither you nor I should have any illusions: investors are businessmen and they will look for business opportunity. The better they strive, the better for Ethiopia. It is for governments to create the right environment to attract and keep them. It is for us development partners to help identify and to support such investments with the means at our disposal This requires of course a peaceful and stable environment, so first the war must end for this to happen. Security of our companies are also very important and should be resolutely addressed.
Capital: What does EU have to say to young people in Ethiopia?
Roland Kobia: Thank you for this question, it is an important one. Ethiopian youth has a major role to play in today’s world but we know they face many obstacles and challenges. The EU has therefore established the “Youth Sounding Board” to listen to the youth and facilitate dialogue to find solutions. EU will support capacity building and specific trainings for its members. Youth members representing all regions in the country have been elected and will focus on different topics like the green deal, social and governance sectors, peace building and communication.
Further, the EU already supports several youth actions, such as the ‘Stemming Irregular Migration in Northern and Central Ethiopia’ program created greater economic and employment opportunities, especially youth and women, and the “Promotion of Sustainable Agro-industrial Development” Program which supports the upgrading of youth and women’s skills in the agro-industrial parks. And let’s not forget the Erasmus+, which is the flagship EU program for education, training, youth and sport. It provides support to local training institutes and encourages European study exchange to Europe, co-operation and learning among young people.
The Youth is the future. The European offer to support Youth is already today.
Capital: To end on a personal note, what are your impressions of Ethiopia, having been EU Ambassador here for a year now?
Roland Kobia: Before coming to Ethiopia, people I talked to praised the country for many reasons, but in particular: its proud and engaging people, the beautiful and varied landscape, and its coffee. So far, I can confirm the people and the coffee. Unfortunately, due to the conflict I have not been able to travel as much as I had planned. Ethiopia is not limited to Addis Ababa. It is important for us, guests in your country, to travel across the country to understand each other better and work together.
I will not hide it has been a year so intense that there was never a boring moment. My family and I enjoy the high diversity, culture and history of the country. So, my hope is that we will soon see a peaceful Ethiopia, for the sake of the Ethiopian people but also to generate more regular relations between us at all levels.