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Ethiopia's ever-growing leadership role in the African Union

By Beza Gashaw
Tigrai Onlne - February 04, 2014

The 22nd Ordinary Session and the 24th Ordinary Session of the Executive Council of the African Union was held at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa under the theme of Agriculture and Food Security, launching “2014 Year of Agriculture and Food Security, Marking 10th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP)”.

African Union Head Quarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

For most Ethiopians and non-Ethiopian residents of Addis Ababa, African Union summits occur frequently that they are considered almost a domestic matter.

However, the latest AU meeting was a unique due to the fact that it was the end of Ethiopia's one year Chairmanship.

It was one year ago, just a few months after becoming elected b Ethiopia's Parliament that Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgne was elected as Chairman of Africa union. The time was shortly after the passing of former Prime Meles Zenawi and a time when several over-rated pundits were predicting leadership instability and other doomsday scenarios about Ethiopia.

However, African countries well-aware of Ethiopia's institutional strength decided to give the new Prime Minister an additional responsibility of managing African union affairs. Indeed, Hailemariam Desalgne didn't fail his compatriots. Working industriously, with his colleagues, the Prime Minister has achieved most of the priorities he set when he took over the chairmanship of African union in January 2013.

The primary one was that the preparation of the Strategic Plan of the Union for the years 2014-2017 under his Chairmanship. A process that still requires the need to mobilize all necessary efforts of member States, the Commission and other organs of our Union to ensure the implementation of the eight priorities identified in the strategic plan to make a difference in the lives of people.

One of the priorities of the period of the Chairmanship of Prime Minister of Hailemariam Desalgn was the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the OAU/AU. It was successfully marked with the Commission, member States and other relevant stakeholders by a collective reflection of the past, present and future under the overarching theme of "Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance".

Formulating a development framework that will be succeed the Millennium Development Goals was a key agenda of multilateral negotiations when Prime Minster Hailemariam assumed the chairmanship. He made it his priority that the formulation of the post-2015 Development Agenda as well as in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals During this formulation process shall "ensure that the progress made thus far in achieving the Millennium Development Goals is sustained and that Africa’s development priorities are fully taken on board" and Africa be able to speak with one voice on the basis of an African Common Position. Under his Chairmanship of the AU, a specific committee was tasked to study the process and prepared a report that urges the Assembly to take the necessary action before negotiations on the formulation of Sustainable Development Goals commence next month.

The Chairmanship of Prime Minister Hailemariam was also a time when the cooperation and partnership between Africa and its strategic partners saw significant progress. He attended, with a delegation of African Union Commission officers, the 3rd Africa-South America Summit, the 5th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V), the 3rd Afro-Arab Summit and the 12th Annual AGOA Forum. These partnership forums, he said, served as platforms to advance Africa's development agenda and further strengthen its partnerships to ensuring mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. The Prime Minister also delivered Africa's key messages on the ongoing global climate change negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw (COP-19) at the G-8 and G-20 Summits.

The other major preoccupation of the Chairmanship during the past year was the issue of peace and security, especially in Mali, South Sudan and Central African Republic, Madagascar, Guinea Bissau “to rescue these countries from falling into the abyss” and help them restore peace and stability and addressing their internal challenges.

Emphasizing the need to build on the progress achieved in the past year and calling for more effort to address some of the still emerging challenges of the continent, Prime Minister Hailemariam handed over the Chairmanship of the African Union to the President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. He pledged his full support for future work on these issues and for advancing the objectives of the Union.

Ethiopia's role was not limited the direct activities of the Prime Minister that are very briefly listed above.

One of the five items adopted by the African union executive council was Ethiopia’s proposal for the Establishment of an African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (African CDCP). The proposal would help to coordinate continent-wide efforts to tackle health problems and enhance Africa’s self-reliance in disease prevention and control as explained b Ethiopia’s Health Minister Dr. Kestebirhan Admassu.

Ethiopia was also elected by the Executive Council as a member of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) for the next two years. The criteria for the election includes, "contributions to the promotion and maintenance of peace and security in Africa;  experience in peace support operations; capacity and commitment to shoulder the responsibility that membership entails; and participation in conflict resolution, peacemaking and peace building operations in Africa."

Ethiopia have also made new arrangements to facilitate a conducive environment for brainstorming and exchanging ideas among Africa's foreign ministers on critical issues relating to Africa’s Agenda 2063, and the state of the African Union.

Among those a notable one is: The three-day Ministerial Retreat of the Executive Council. The retreat, which is the first of its kind, was held in in Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara Regional State hosted by and under the Chairpersonship of Ethiopia with the overall theme of “Defining Agenda 2063 for Africa”. The three-day meeting identified key drivers of Africa’s transformation.

The retreat also developed two propositions: A Ministerial Committee, which will work together with the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank to finalize Agenda 2063; and An African platform where political and business leaders as well as all other concerned stakeholders could regularly meet to brainstorm about the continent’s development and integration agendas.

The success of the Bahir Dar Retreat led the Council into deciding that it should be institutionalized in the future.

Ethiopia's role in the African Union is not a one-time matter; In fact, it is an outcome of her foreign affairs and national security policy. As a founding member, Ethiopia continuously fought for the realization of the objectives of the Union. It did its level best, both covertly and overtly, to assist the countries under colonialism to gain their independence. It can also be said that there was hardly any occasion when Ethiopia was refused political and diplomatic support from Africa when it was needed. This mutually beneficial relationship has continued with added vigour along similar lines after the adoption of Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy.

Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy attaches great importance to the country’s relations with other African countries both at the level of bilateral relations and in the context of the continental organization, the African Union. Ethiopia fully subscribes to the AU’s vision for an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa providing and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.

Ethiopia has done all that it can to champion the cause of Africa in global forums on agendas ranging from fair trade and debt relief to the negotiations on climate change. Among other things this has resulted in Africa achieving a considerable bargaining position as a unified bloc with a common agenda. Africa today has become one of the powers in the newly emerging multi-polar world.

Ethiopia also works closely with the AU and its institutions in seeking peaceful solutions to the conflicts in various parts of Africa. It is actively involved in peacekeeping operations in Darfur under the auspices of the AU. It has been supporting the AU’s mission in Somalia out of its conviction that African problems are better solved by Africans themselves. This is an issue that Ethiopia feels particularly strongly about.

Although Ethiopia enjoys healthy diplomatic and political relations with other African countries, bilaterally and in the context of AU, there have been limitations arising from the overall challenge that the continent faces in fostering unity. Overall economic ties between and among African countries are still weak. Ethiopia does not have significant economic relations with African countries except those in the Horn of Africa. Enhancing economic cooperation is the key to realizing the AU’s goal of African unity. Additionally, more needs to be done in terms of improving the existing cooperation in areas of conflict resolution and peace. Ethiopia is very aware of the value of acting in a united manner in ensuring that Africa’s voice is heard properly in global forums. On a national level it also recognizes that continued support for, and cooperation with, the AU helps its own voice to be heard more loudly and clearly in international forums.


It is with this clear understanding that Ethiopia continues to further encourage and expand its role in the AU not only in the interest of continental unity but also to promote its own national agenda of regional peace and development. One of the main areas of Ethiopia's contribution is the maintenance of peace and security in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Liberia.

Ethiopia has a long and proud history of supporting United Nations peacekeeping operations. Our participation goes back to early 1950s when Ethiopian contingent deployed to Korea under the United Nations and guided by the principle of collective security. Since then, Ethiopia has participated in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia and currently participating in Darfur as well as South Sudan. In this regard, the United Nations Interim Force for Abyei (UNISFA) is entirely composed of  over 4, 000 Ethiopian troops. Today Ethiopia is the fourth top troop contributing country to the United Nations Peacekeeping operations and the leading country from Africa. It has been demonstrated on a number of occasions that Ethiopia's peacekeeping forces have been discharging their responsibilities with high level of professionalism, dedication and courage.

In Sudan: Sudan had been locked in a bloody civil war for about 22 years starting from1983. According to available information, roughly two million people have died as a result of war, famine and disease caused by the conflict. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed on 9 January 2005 in Nairobi.

Ethiopia played a key role in bringing the two sides to the negotiating table to sign the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Among other things, the peace treaty provided South Sudan with autonomy for six years, followed by a referendum on independence.

In January 2011 referendum, the South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted for independence making South Sudan Africa’s newest nation. However, within few months a flare up of tensions occurred in the bitterly contested Abyei region. Subsequently, North and South Sudan signed an agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to fully demilitarize the central region and allow in an Ethiopian peacekeeping force.

According to the agreement, signed in Addis Ababa by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir Maryadit, Northern and Southern forces will be replaced by an Interim Security Force for Abyei (ISFA), composed of Ethiopian troops. 

Both Khartoum and Juba praised the Ethiopian government for the role it played in the peace process. The Ethiopian government had been instrumental in bringing the two sides together and showing readiness to take honest responsibility of being there to secure Abyei and make sure the two sides are going to accept. The role of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi personally and the role of the Ethiopian government has been very crucial to this process. Both Sudans hailed the Ethiopian government for the relentless and diplomatic efforts it exerted to peacefully resolve the conflict.

Following the signing of the peace agreement, Ethiopia has offered to send a contingent of troops to act as a buffer between Northern and Southern units in monitoring the demilitarized zone. Then, on the request of the UN and the AU, Ethiopia deployed a peacekeeping force to ensure border security, including policing a demilitarized border zone that the sides have already agreed to.

On Somalia: Ethiopia first entered Somalia in 2006 to remove the now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had ruled most of southern Somalia for six months that year.

Al-Shabab emerged as the radical youth wing of the UIC as it battled Ethiopian troops. The first contingent of Amisom troops arrived in Somalia in March 2007, with Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Uganda now providing the force’s soldiers.

Despite Amisom gains, Islamist fighters still hold sway over many small towns and much of rural Somalia where they have imposed a strict version of Islamic law. Its soldiers are hit almost daily by al-Shabab roadside bombs, ambushes and rocket attacks. Last year, the UN chief Ban Ki-moon asked for a “surge” of extra troops for the AU force in Somalia, known as Amisom, fearing reversals in advances made over the last few years.

Ethiopian forces have been operating in neighbouring Somalia for several years, helping the UN-backed government fight the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Shabab group. Ethiopian troops have officially joined the African Union mission in Somalia known as AMISOM, giving a boost to the security force as it continues to battle against al-Shabab militants.

Ethiopian soldiers have served a critical role securing areas in the west of the country, acting independent of the AU mission. After operating two years on their own to fight al-Shabab, more than 4,000 Ethiopian troops will now operate under the AMISOM mandate backed by the United Nations. Ethiopia’s contribution takes the AU force to the 22,000-strong level mandated by the UN Security Council. AU force spokesman Colonel Ali Aden Humad said that Ethiopia, with its experience in some parts of Somalia, will help AU troops take more ground from the insurgent group.

Ethiopia's role has been commended by several notable personalities and in diverse forums around the world.

United States Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto said: "We must all work together to end the crisis in Darfur.  Ethiopia's role, as a cornerstone of stability in the region and on the continent, is particularly important."

Indeed, Ethiopia has been widely appreciated for her efforts against terrorism and providing security to Africa and for providing much attention to consolidating the role of a peacemaker in the region. Through her former Prime Minister, Ethiopia played a pivotal role in mediating Sudan and South Sudan, did much to stabilize Somalia as the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government came to an end, as well as contributing to the UN peacekeeping forces to Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan and Burundi. The Prime Minister's achievements in promoting peace and stability in Africa were widely recognized not only within Africa but also internationally. In 2009, he was awarded Rwanda’s National Liberation Medal, the “Uruti,” for helping to liberate Rwanda and end the genocide in the country; and he was also given the World Peace Prize for his contributions to global peace and his efforts to stabilize the Horn of Africa through the work of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority for Development.

Ethiopia played a significant role in a number of international fora and summits, producing a series of successful economic alliances. Ethiopia's PM co-chaired the Beijing Summit, which led to the adoption of the Beijing Action Plan for China-Africa relations, and attended G20 and G8 Summits on behalf of Africa. The results of these led to significant economic progress, cultural exchanges, and support for Africa’s development of international political, economic, trade, and financial systems. 

Another key area of Ethiopia's role is the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) is a program of the African Union (AU) adopted in Lusaka, Zambia in 2001 with its radical new approach to pursue new priorities and approaches to the political and socio-economic transformation of Africa.

Ethiopia is an active and committed member of the NEPAD Heads of State Implementation Committee. It has significantly contributed to NEPAD’s dealings with the international community in forums like the G20 and other economic forums as well as spearheading NEPAD’s activities within the African Union.

Before concluding this article, it is worth noting some of the praises Ethiopia achieved through her former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who was chosen to lead and represent Africa a number of regional and international organizations. Among those, as a co-chair of the Global Coalition for Africa which brought together senior African policy makers to build consensus on development issues. as Chairman of the executive committee of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development NEPAD, and had the honor to represent Africa at G8 and G20 Summits.

The English Prime Minister – David Cameroon commended Ethiopia's Prime Minister's role in the following words: ‘’Meles Zenawi was an African leader who unreservedly and honestly worked to create a strong and united Africa. He had been acclaimed for his ardent support of African Renaissance throughout the continent.’’

Similarly, Sussan Rice, Ambassador of the USA to the UN paid tribute to Ethiopia's role: “Prime Minister Meles Zanawi had been the advocate of stronger Africa, gallantly struggled against terrorism, persevered from Uganda through Liberia, from the Sudan through Somalia to maintain peace and reconcile disputes. He had tried to accomplish the millennium strategy, toiled to work on climatic change. He had dispatched a peace keeping force to Abie. He, thus, had practically proved his determination to secure peace” 

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