Stephan Auer (Amb.)
The German Ambassador to Ethiopia, Stephan Auer, is successfully handling the recent changes in Ethiopia and Germany, the perilous situation in today’s world. He tries to maintain equilibrium amid the Ethiopian crisis, the Russo-Ukrainian war, and tectonic shifts in geopolitics. The Ambassador discussed recent developments and geopolitics in the diplomatic community with Ashenafi Endale of The Reporter. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Can you tell us about your first impression since you came to Ethiopia?
Stephan Auer (Amb.): I have been in Ethiopia since August 2020. This is my first assignment in Africa.
It has been an interesting time. I wanted to go back to my roots because I was born in Africa. I was born in Morocco and grew up in South Africa. So I believe I am well suited to serve in the capital of Africa, Addis Ababa.
Was there any specific objective you were planning to achieve in the Europe-Africa relationship when you were assigned to Africa?
The relationship between Europe and Africa is crucial because the development of Africa is essential for Europe and vice versa, and what happens in Europe affects Africa and vice versa since we are neighboring continents. In Europe, we have had a lot of confrontations and conflicts. The way the past world wars were handled has integrated Europe and reformed the union.
I served as a German diplomat in the EU for four years. What I learned there is that economic and political integration is something that is very beneficial for Africa and Europe. Being in the center of Africa, Addis Ababa, I believe we are well suited to contribute to the political and economic integration of the two continents.
A single nation is just too weak to ensure energy security, food security, peace and security, and other challenges. We need to work together to solve our mutual challenges. This can be done best through regional integration.
Through integration, we can also become powerful. For instance, Russia attacked small nations like Ukraine. But it cannot attack big and powerful nations. So regional integration can help us become powerful and stand up to adversaries. If Ukraine had such powerful regional integration with NATO, Russia would not have attacked.
So such integration is crucial to achieving peace, prosperity, and social cohesion.
There have been ups and downs both in Ethiopia and Germany. Ethiopia has been through a two-year war, and Germany is facing spillover effects due to its proximity to the Ukraine-Russia war. Ethiopia needed diplomatic assistance from the rest of the world, and Europe needed it from Africa. Did these dynamics have a significant impact on Ethiopian-German relations?
Indeed, we have very strong bilateral relationships. Since it was established in 1905, the relationship between Ethiopia and Germany has been very good, and it was greatly strengthened after 2019, when Ethiopia adopted the reform partnership. Germany wanted to support the reform process in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s political and economic fields have been opened by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).
Ethiopia has strategic importance. The stability of Ethiopia is important for the stability of the Horn of Africa and beyond. So we wanted to contribute to the stabilization of Ethiopia. We wanted to ensure peace, development, and prosperity in this important country.
In the past two years, we have had this conflict in the northern part of the country. This has been a risk for the entire Horn of Africa, not just Ethiopia. But we are very encouraged by the recent peace agreement and permanent cessation of hostilities signed in Pretoria and the declaration signed in Nairobi. It indicated the hope that this conflict will be solved permanently and peacefully.
The agreement opened the possibility for full diplomatic engagement again.
Europe has been pushing for a peaceful resolution for the past two years, and on the other hand, the Ethiopian government has been blaming foreign governments for breaching Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Do you think this has soured diplomacy between Germany and Ethiopia?
We always believed there was no military solution to this conflict. But currently we are seeing a positive, mutual development in our diplomatic relationships. We are very concerned regarding the reports of human rights violations and atrocities committed in the North.
The joint investigation report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights indicated atrocities that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, which need follow-up. The perpetrators need to be brought to justice, and we count on our talks with the Ethiopian government regarding their accountability. Humanitarian access is also crucial for all parts of Ethiopia, not just the Tigray region. Then, I think we can fully engage.
Of course, we never really disengage. We have always remained here. We just refocused on a people-centered approach. We support the peace process and the reconstruction process. We are also contributing to the World Bank’s recovery projects.
It seems Germany has been moderate while some European countries have been harshly critical of the Ethiopian government. Do you think Germany is deviating from the rest of the EU? What is the position of Germany since Brexit?
Germany is not deviating from the Union. Not at all. We have been strongly condemning this brutal Russian attack on a sovereign country. It is a terrible violation of war rules. Every international law is violated in this war.
As president of the G7, Germany also supported the Ukrainians’ fight against Russia, financially, economically, and equipment-wise. We accepted more than one million refugees in Germany.
We are also considering the negative impacts of Russian aggression on the European continent and other continents, particularly Africa. Germany has been financing the food security challenge created in Africa due to the Russian attacks on Ukraine. It damaged Ukraine’s production capacity and export facilities.
There is a shipment of 25,000 tons of wheat, first donated by Ukraine. Germany financed the shipment cost of EUR 50 million from Ukraine to Ethiopia, which will arrive soon. So we are trying not only to stop this war but also to alleviate the repercussions of the war.
It concerns me that there is no unified condemnation of Russian aggression. When it comes to addressing many of Africa’s challenges, Africans have repeatedly requested European solidarity. Now there is an existential threat in Europe, and now we are asking for Africa’s solidarity. Some African countries are more forthcoming than others. But we have to stand together to tell Putin to stop the aggression.
Some analysts say Europe eased up on the human rights violations in Africa so as not to lose Africa’s vote in the UN to Russia. For instance, the western camp did not take action to stop the conflict in Ethiopia. Is that the reason why Europe has been giving much more attention to the Ukraine war than the Tigray war?
I do not see that as the reason. We need to be careful here. The conflict in Ethiopia is an internal conflict. The Ukrainian crisis is a different one. It is a Russian aggression against a sovereign country.
What we insisted was that the parties solve the conflict based on the constitution or the international laws that Ethiopia has signed. This includes international humanitarian laws and allowing unfettered humanitarian access. We also condemned foreign interference in this internal conflict. But in general, this was not an easy situation to deal with.
The Ethiopian government values Germany’s principled stance greatly.
Do you think the global power polarization, extreme categorizations, and global competitions can be policed by the existing structure of the UN? Many people say that the UN needs to be changed to fit the needs of new global powers.
Reforming the UN could not succeed until now. There is a growing desire to restructure the UN Security Council and change the veto system. However, I am skeptical. There must be coherence between the UNSC and the UN General Assembly. That is why we say we need a unified voice at the UNGA when it comes to voting on the resolutions. It must have the same binding voice as the UNSC. The council needs to reform.
Basically, the industrialized world needs Africa to exploit its resources and serve as a source of raw materials. How can Europe and Africa create a mutually beneficial relationship when they are not on equal footing?
There were a lot of issues raised and identified during the AU-EU summits. There are numerous initiatives aimed at assisting Africa’s development. There is around EUR 150 billion allocated to develop Africa’s infrastructure, including roads, railways, the internet, energy, and others.
Germany is also supporting the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement. We want it to succeed because it will increase intra-trade and industrialization in Africa.
As the fourth-largest economy in the world and champion of industrialization and trade, Germany is well placed to share experiences with Africa. We export consumer goods to Africa. But we want Africa to develop and add more value to its products. We want a peaceful, wealthy, and prosperous Africa because what happens here has implications for Europe.
We want Africa to develop from where it is now into a very industrialized continent. To that end, we want to share our expertise and experience.
How is Germany engaged with the AfCFTA?
Germany is very much engaged with the AfCFTA. We are providing expertise on the negotiation issues, customs unifications, rules of origin, and all these complications. We are collaborating with the AUC and the AfCFTA secretariat in Accra, Ghana, to provide capacity building. We are also supporting the infrastructure development for AfCFTA.
It is easier to ship a cargo from Djibouti to Amsterdam or Rotterdam than from Djibouti to Mombasa. This is ridiculous. We are helping develop railways and corridors. These are very important to facilitate intra-African trade. We are also working on bankable infrastructure projects so that private companies can invest in intra-African trade. We are also working on standardization and “made in Africa” labeling.
China has also made considerable efforts to tap into economic cooperation in Africa. They have introduced more packages for Africa and are competing with the western camp. Do you think both the west and China can coexist in Africa together, or one has to win the competition?
These two have different approaches to Africa. There is the Chinese system, and there is the open, liberal, and democratic model of the west. Africa has to choose which model and relationship approach can make Africa’s growth more sustainable. Africa needs development that is not detached from human rights. I am quite confident that the western way will prevail. If you ask them, young Africans want to travel to Europe, if you ask them. I can hardly see why they want to go to China.
Europe is also well positioned to help Africa achieve the SDGs, Agenda 2063, and other overarching global and regional targets. One of the success stories of Germany is that small enterprises are the backbone of the economy. We are trying to share this with Africa. Germany comes to invest and stay here. Our investors are very committed; they focus on sustainable investments. TVETs are also one of the biggest success stories in Germany, which we are sharing with Africa, including the strong work in Ethiopia.
For instance, the US is demanding Ethiopia allow international human rights experts to investigate the violations during the Tigray war, as a precondition to allowing the African Growth Opportunity Act. Meanwhile, China approved a USD 300 billion scheme that allows Africans, including Ethiopia, to export duty-free to China without regard for human rights. How can you hope the western model will prevail over the Chinese model?
To begin with, the goods that can be exported duty-free to China are limited. For instance, only around 1,700 items out of around 7,000 are being exported. Europe, on the other hand, has much more liberal, generous, and open trade facilitation policies. Under the Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative, you can export anything without paying taxes or duties. It is much more massive.
When it comes to human rights, it is in the interest of the population itself. We respect human rights. If the exporters can produce in a way that respects human rights, that is a plus. We do not want Africa to be the world’s social crisis epicenter.
Your export model should not be a replacement for your human rights model.
At the current US-Africa summit, the US has pledged to include Africa in the G20. However, Africa has been requesting UN restructuring and seats on the UNSC. Do you think this will alter global geopolitics?
This new era we are witnessing since the Russian attack is a watershed moment. It is a direct attack on international law, and we have to defend it. Countries like Ethiopia and Germany are much smaller and weaker and cannot defend themselves alone against the biggest military power. There is a rule that says “might is right,” but international law must protect the poor, weak countries.
Africa must play a prominent role in a rule-based international law. It must be represented in an international forum like the UNSC. But in order to do that, Africa must have a position on global issues, and it must speak up loud and clear.
Africa has been doing this with climate change, for instance. But Africa is not doing the same with this Russian attack on a rule-based order. So we need a strong and more assertive African voice. Your representation in the UNSC, which Germany strongly supports, is critical.
What is Germany’s plan and expectation if the Russia-Ukraine war is prolonged?
We are concerned about the consequences for Ukraine. Putin is using food, energy, and electricity as weapons of war. He is destroying infrastructure. People are freezing. Putin no longer exports gas to Europe. He is trying to put us under pressure, but we will resist. This is a very important fight for Putin. We have to defend our values against a dictatorship. This is the reason I believe Africa must speak up in the effort to put an end to the war that Putin started.
Given NATO’s advance into western Russia, can we say the Ukraine war is unprovoked?
The Russian war was unprovoked because the expansion of NATO did not happen. NATO did not grow in size. It is made up of countries that have joined NATO. They want to join NATO, which provides collective security and defense. NATO has no aggressive strategy to attack other countries. It has Article 5, which protects member countries against aggression from other powers. That is why these countries want to join NATO. They were rightly concerned about Russia.
Ukraine also wanted to join NATO. They were right to ask for membership. We have seen Russia attack Ukraine, just to recolonize what they had under the Soviet Empire.
But this is also giving rise to south-south cooperation, which includes a group of countries that support Russia.
This is simply Russia’s war against the West. What we need to overcome is this positioning. South-south, north-south, and such do not help. The world is facing the same challenges: climate change, energy crisis, security, development, poverty, and hunger. We have to tackle these together. Such categorizations set us back from the progress we have achieved. For example, during the COP27 in Egypt, we made some headway.
There are a lot of refugees in Germany, mostly from Africa and specifically Ethiopia. What is the plan to integrate these refugees?
We have this very generous asylum system in Germany. People who flee due to ethnic, political, religious, or gender violations get asylum.
During the Nazi regime, we prosecuted a lot of people. Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. As a result, we grant political asylum to those who have legitimate reasons and return those who do not. We also need migration due to demography. The German industry needs skilled foreign industrial workers, so we are attracting foreign workers into the German economy.
There is an increase in foreign military forces and mercenaries in Africa. You can see the French presence in West Africa, the Wagner group in central Africa, and even Sudan. This is contributing to the coups, conflicts, and regime changes in Africa. Do you think the relationship with Africa is shifting from diplomacy to implanting favorite regimes through military interventions?
I do not think so. On the contrary, I think we see that Europeans are disengaging from Africa. For example, my country has stated that it will withdraw its troops from Mali by 2024. We support African-run peace support operations.
But if we talk about the forces and mercenaries on the ground in Africa, it is a different story. Wagner is, for instance, engaged in the Sahel, the Central African Republic, and other areas. We see this as a big concern. They are exploiting and looting the countries. There are some authoritarian regimes in Africa that want such mercenaries because they help these regimes stay in power.
To the contrary, our approach is based on education, social, economic, and security cooperation.
These unconstitutional changes occur in Africa mainly because people are dissatisfied with the services some African governments provide to their people. The root solution is to satisfy people. African governments need to give solutions to public needs instead of looking for military solutions, which end in unconstitutional changes.
Our approach is development. One good example is the withdrawal of German troops from the Sahel region.
Dozens of superpowers have military bases in Djibouti. Do you see any risk in the region?
The superpowers are interested in the region because of its geopolitics. There is a development need and also competition in this region.
We want to secure access to the open seas in the region, and we want human rights protected. There are a host of pirates in the region. There are Chinese companies trying to monopolize the trade routes.
According to some reports, Germany has reduced its financial assistance to Ethiopia since the Ukraine war. Is that true?
No, it is not true. On the contrary, we have been increasing our support for Africa. When it comes to Ethiopia, we have doubled humanitarian assistance. It is not linked to the Ukraine war.
Our assistance to Ethiopia reached more than USD 82 million, the second largest amount.
In mid-November, we agreed with the Ministry of Finance of Ethiopia to increase our development cooperation with a more people-centered approach. After the recent peace agreement, we need to increase tangible improvements. This includes more contributions to the recovery of war-affected areas and climate crisis areas in Ethiopia, as well as economic shocks.
One of our top priorities is the restoration of basic services. We are providing additional support of EUR 30 million for productive safety-net (SPN) programs. We are also contributing an additional EUR 15 million to the World Bank’s recovery project. We are providing EUR eight million for the livelihoods of people in affected areas and EUR 35 million for drought response.
Germany is also preparing to provide large packages through the World Food Programme and other organizations.
We strongly support the peace agreement signed for a permanent cessation of hostilities. We are more than doubling our support in spite of what is going on in Europe.
The Ethiopian government has forecast that around USD 22 billion is required to reconstruct war-affected areas. How does the German government plan to contribute to that?
We plan to increase official development assistance (ODA) and other packages. We think the donors—IFC, the World Bank, and other organizations—will also contribute to that.
But the major plan is to leverage the private sector to come and bridge the gaps. Ethiopia needs to attract FDI into the country. For this to happen, you need to create a conducive environment. Peace and stability are crucial to this end. The cessation of hostilities is the first step in the right direction. The rule of law must be upheld. You have to fight corruption and protect investments.
That is why I am concerned about the conflicts in Oromia. There have been attacks on FDIs such as Dutch and Irish investments, which is very worrying. Foreign investors are highly connected. They communicate about how they can come and invest here. But it is very dangerous here. An investor might fear losing his workers. Thus, the business environment must be improved in order to improve FDI.
Ethiopia has a lot of potential. There are a lot of German investors interested in coming here.
We have only two percent of our trade volume with Africa. Even 15 percent of this two percent portion, goes to South Africa. This tells us there is huge potential we can exploit.
Volkswagen and the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC) signed a memorandum of understanding in 2019 to begin assembling vehicles in Ethiopia. Is there any progress, and are there projects in the pipeline?
If this government continues with the reforms, if the national dialogue succeeds, and if peace and stability are ensured, there is no reason why investors cannot come to Ethiopia. A lot of investors are interested in the huge potential in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is very qualified for FDI and has good, dedicated, and hardworking people. Why shouldn’t the German investors come?
Some parents have been complaining that the German school in Addis Ababa is forcing them to pay in euros. We have also reported on this complaint previously. Is the issue now solved?
Germany is a strong supporter of freedom of the press. We were surprised by the criticism. It was based on incorrect information.
The German school is extremely important for the German community. They send their children to keep their children in the German education system. Similarly, German investors here also want to send their children into the German school system. For instance, GIZ has a huge office in Ethiopia, and there are a lot of Germans working here who send their children to the school.
The school is a huge asset for Addis Ababa, attracting German investments and development aid.
This school was established a long time ago. Then came the Derg regime, which expropriated the school. But in order to continue teaching German children here, we established it as a German embassy school under the German embassy in Addis. The school is under the protection of the rules and regulations of the German embassy. This is done to protect the school from the impact of the regime changes. From the Derg regime onwards, it was known as the German Embassy School.
We continued this until 2007. Then we were approached by Ethiopian investors who highly valued the German education system. So we were interested in opening it up for the German friends in Ethiopia to benefit from the German education system.
We were aware that the tuition fee, which was very high for Germans, had to be affordable for Ethiopians. As a result, we reduced the fees significantly and allowed Ethiopian parents to pay in birr. So, now we have more than 60 percent of the students who are Ethiopian. They pay in birr. They continue to pay in birr.
The implication is that the costs of the school have been rising as the number of students has increased over the years. The school has to provide various programs to accustom the students to the German education system. The school pays in euros. So the school board decided a couple of months ago for all foreign nationals to pay in euros. But Ethiopians still continued to pay in birr, which is also declining.
So the Ethiopians have nothing to change. The only thing that changed was for the foreign nationals. The school board has taken a long time to discuss this with the parents and has given them a long time to think over it.
The school is governed by German rules and legislation. It applies to Addis or any other part of the world. The school has to finance itself. The German embassy gives the school a little bit of financial support from the German state. But the rest has to be covered by school revenue. The school has to be self-sufficient. So far, revenue has not been sustainable.
A large percentage of the parents agreed and started paying in euros. A small number of parents are adamant about continuing to benefit from the previous rule. But this is not sustainable.
We do not want to come back to this “expats-only school.” We want the Ethiopians to also benefit from the school.
So those few families that insist on paying in birr are Ethiopian-born but hold foreign citizenship.
We just look at the passport. If you are Swiss, German, or from any other foreign country, you have to pay in euros. If you hold an Ethiopian passport, you benefit from the rule and pay in birr. But those families who are insisting on paying in birr and accusing the school are Ethiopian-born but holding German passports. Though they are Ethiopian-born, they are German citizens, so they have to pay in euros, just like any other foreign national. This is the school policy, and we cannot change it for them.
We spoke about Brexit. It is like a club. If you want to be part of the club, you have to play by the rules. If you do not play by the rules, you go out of the club. There was enough time for these parents to decide.
If we continue to accept in birr from foreign countries, the school will close down soon. This means the school will go back to being an “expat-only” school. This means a lot of Ethiopian students, who are currently paying in birr, will be out of the German school system. That will pose a bigger challenge. But these parents, who are Ethiopian-born but hold foreign nationalities, can pay in euros.
They are foreigners of Ethiopian origin. They have German passports. I do not say they are Ethiopians; rather, they are Germans. And Germans are paying in euros to send their children to the school.
Though the war in north Ethiopia stopped, there is conflict in western and southern Ethiopia. Do you think it is still a significant risk for FDI?
Yes. It is my big concern. We are concerned about the stability of the country due to the conflict in Oromia currently, just as we were about the conflict in Tigray. There are many investors in Oromia, and there are reports of attacks on investors, which is very bad.
Is there any recommendation to resolve the conflict?
I think it is up to Ethiopians and concerned parties to solve it, under the national dialogue or another modality. The government’s peace talks with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are an excellent model. This model can work for other regions. We encourage Ethiopia to continue down this path.