By Christian Tesfaye
It took hours since coming into effect for the warring factions of South Sudan to break the cease-fire that was signed three days ago. The armed opposition accused the government forces, and vice-versa, of violating the ceasefire. It left the world to wonder if the humanitarian crisis the nation is engulfed in would not subside soon, that the political stagnation which has displaced 2.4 million people, according to last year’s report by the Human Rights Watch, will continue in the foreseeable future.
For Ethiopia, the supposition is terrifying. It is a country that barely has its affairs in order, let alone to be able to cope with a constant inflow of migrants.
This is propagated by the fact that the last couple of years have not been particularly triumphant for the country. If it was not the crippling El Nino-induced drought that would have likely been a greater disaster if not for aid from donors, then it was unrests in the most populous regional states of the country. If it is not a lower level of gross domestic product (GDP) than has been the case most of the first half of the decade, then it is a debilitating forex shortage that is hampering businesses dependent on hard currency in the country. Thus, for the Ethiopian government to consider helping neighbours may seem hypocritical.
For the most part though, the nation, much like its geographical position, has had the good fortune (in the most grotesque of senses) to hide behind its northern (Eritrea), eastern (Somalia) and, for the last six years, western (South Sudan) neighbours as a locus for peace and prosperity. Similarly, it has been a consolation for its people and government, a signal, that all could be worse, even if there are mountains left to be climbed.
Alas, Ethiopia has served as the adult in the room that is the East African region. There has not been much diplomatic development between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, but refugees from the latter country have been welcome in the nation.
Likewise, the country has sent its troops across the border to Somalia, to help in the fight against militant groups such as Al-Shabaab. The Somali central government that came into being five years ago owes much of its territorial gains to countries like Ethiopia, who played their part in the African Union’s (AU) peacekeeping missions.
And when the ceasefire agreement between the government of South Sudan and the armed opposition led by Riek Machar was signed, it was in the AU’s headquarters in Addis Abeba. For the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) which led the efforts to get the agreement signed as part of the Revitalisation Forum, this was a great success, if not marred by recent developments.
Being the fastest growing country in the continent and having the fourth largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa has its perks, but it also comes with responsibility. One of these is playing a part in the nation-building processes of countries such as Somalia and South Sudan. And doing as such should not be seen as an altruistic gesture, but a politically smart move for the prosperity of the region, including that of Ethiopia’s.
Germany is doing the same thing. A high-level visit by Chancellor Angela Merkel, during the State of Emergency, was not a validation of Ethiopia’s growing significance in the eyes of the world, but an indication of its strategic importance to developed countries such as the members of the European Union (EU). Migrants knocking on the doors of the continent that has long painted itself as a humanist, liberal utopia, and continued resistance by Europeans to the inflow, and the dark façade this is betraying, has made it mandatory for the EU to nip the problem in the bud.
Working with the neighbours of failed states, or close to failure, such as Ethiopia is thus paramount. European donations are simply that – smarter ways of looking after oneself.
And as nihilistic as it may seem, there is nothing wrong with Ethiopia following the same route. This is a country that has multiple supply constraints. Last year alone we imported 2.5 million tonnes of wheat. Sugar shortage is similarly a recurring problem, and the nation has never been able to meet its clean water and power requirements. There is no sense in pretending that this is a country ready to support more people, more demand, as citizens of neighbouring nations keep fleeing war and hunger.
The prescription is not building a wall though as the United States President Donald Trump would have us believe. It is also deporting migrans when we fully know it would be condemning them to an uncertain future.
The answer is to keep doing much of what the Ethiopian government is trying to achieve at the moment, if not step up the efforts. Working to ensure that these countries have strong institutions – even if we lack them at the moment – that could prop up a democratic system should be the singular goal of Ethiopia aside from fighting Al-Shabab. Without those, there is nothing to ensure that a similar incident to the one that ensued in South Sudan – where President Salva Kir accused Machar, his then deputy, of a coup d’etat – does not recur.
France could serve as an excellent example here. A content and stable neighbour such as Germany has meant a reliable trading and ideological partner. A disgruntled and economically battered one though has meant two successive invasions.
(Christian.firstname.lastname@example.org) Is Fortune’s Op-ED Editor Whose Interests Run Amok in Both Directions of Print and Audiovisual Storytelling.
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