Belgian Ambassador weaves stronger bonds between nations
A seasoned diplomat with a wealth of experience, Stefaan Thijs has served in roles across Europe and Africa over decades of public service. He was a diplomatic advisor in the staff of the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health and Social Affairs in Brussels, using his fluency in Dutch, English, French, Italian, and German to skillfully navigate complex matters.
Thijs was also the First Secretary at the Belgian Embassy in Moscow, experiencing high-level diplomacy in the Russian Federation. Back in Brussels, he served as First Secretary at Belgium’s Permanent Representation to the European Union, gaining insight into the inner workings of that prestigious body.
Now, the Thijs holds his most esteemed position yet as Belgian Ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti. He also represents Belgium as the permanent representative for the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
Sisay Sahlu of The Reporter caught up with Ambassador Thijs. They discussed Belgium’s century-old ties with the region, key bilateral issues, and the seasoned diplomat’s informed opinions on Ethiopia’s current Situation. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Throughout the extensive period of diplomatic relations between Belgium and Ethiopia since 1906, what notable actions or initiatives have been undertaken during the course of this extended period of friendship and cooperation?
Stefaan Thijs (Amb.): It is a longstanding relationship. Belgium has had diplomatic relations with Ethiopia since 1906, making it the fifth country to establish a mission there. The close ties between the Belgian Royal family and the Ethiopian Emperor’s family have played a significant role in strengthening this relationship. This connection has served as the foundation for the bond between our two countries. Interestingly, the Belgian military has contributed to training the famous Ethiopian imperial guards.
Belgium has also been actively involved in business ventures in Ethiopia. One notable example is the story of Maurice De Weerdt, a Belgian businessman who established the renowned BEES chain of shops in Addis Ababa. The older generation in Addis will surely remember this.
Presently, we witness a flourishing university cooperation between Belgium and Ethiopia. Many of the first-generation universities in Ethiopia have established strong collaborative projects with Belgian universities.
Each year, Ethiopian students travel to Belgium, and Belgian professors visit Ethiopia to teach and engage in knowledge exchange. This aspect is particularly intriguing, and at the Embassy, we are committed to promoting and expanding this cooperation.
By the way, Ethiopian students have earned an excellent reputation at Belgian universities for their discipline and note taking.
As one of the members of the European Union, how does Belgium’s position and standpoint align with regard to the political situations in Ethiopia, which often experience fluctuations and developments?
As part of the EU, Belgium and the other member states are working together to define policy lines towards Ethiopia, just as we do with the rest of the world. We strive to work as a united team in Europe. Of course, during the war in the northern part of Ethiopia, we faced challenging times and our relations with the government came under strain.
However, it is important to emphasize that the Union has never abandoned Ethiopia in terms of helping and supporting its people. We continued to provide significant cooperation and maintain our special trade regime during the war. This is the ultimate proof of the unique relationship between the EU and Ethiopia.
Furthermore, we always kept our university programs alive, even during those difficult times, because we wanted to be there for the people and support them as much as possible.
As a Union, we have established a policy where we urged the fighting parties to stop the war, ensure humanitarian access to reach those in need, and, last but not least, establish a transitional justice (TJ) and accountability system. These are crucial because they will help the society heal from the consequences of the terrible war.
The signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) almost a year ago brought us great hope and happiness, although we were aware that implementing it would be a significant challenge. However, the current violence in parts of the Amhara and Oromia regions saddens us once again, as there is a clear link with the implementation of CoHA.
I genuinely hope that dialogue will prevail because, ultimately, violence will never help resolve conflicts. Therefore, we urge everyone to engage in dialogue, negotiations, and organizing discussions among the people of all regions in the country. We fully understand that Ethiopia, with its 120 million inhabitants and more than 85 ethnic groups, is a very complex country to govern.
Personally, coming from a small but also quite complex country, I empathize with the complexity of Ethiopian society. I often draw comparisons between Ethiopia and Belgium. For instance, Brussels and Addis Ababa share clear similarities.
Brussels is an entity, an island within the Flemish region, similar to Addis Ababa being an island in the Oromia region. This situation necessitates a specific legal status for these two capitals.
Throughout Belgian history, we have worked hard to settle internal conflicts and grievances, though not always successfully. Nevertheless, we now have a Belgian Constitution that guarantees the rights of minorities and their representation in all our public bodies at both the federal and regional levels. Today, Belgium has a sophisticated system embedded in our Constitution. Through constant negotiations, we have managed to avoid armed conflicts between our communities, which I believe is crucial.
When I engage with the people of the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission (ENDC), I share the story of Belgium. I genuinely hope that this Commission will be successful because I believe Ethiopia needs conversations among its people. During my first year in Ethiopia, I discovered that much of the past remains unresolved, and I am convinced that only through dialogue can common understanding emerge, leading to the resolution of problems.
If Ethiopia were to request it, I am confident that Belgium, with its considerable experience in constitutional matters, could contribute to Ethiopia’s future by sharing its expertise.
Another topic worth discussing is the idea of the social contract. One of my initial meetings at my Residence was with the Ethiopian Social Partners, representatives of the workers and employers of this country, along with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Office in Ethiopia. Social partners play a crucial role in my country, as well as in Belgian society.
During our discussions, we spoke about the current problems and conflicts in Ethiopia, which are mainly based on ethnicity. Such conflicts tend to divide societies, pitting one group against another.
However, there are other “conflicts,” such as social conflicts, which can be addressed through social dialogue. Engaging in such dialogue can unite society, bring people together, and promote the welfare of the community. This is also part of Belgium’s history, the story of the social contract between the people and the elite.
Perhaps this story could serve as a source of inspiration for Ethiopia as well.
Has Belgium provided any specific support to Ethiopia with regards to the establishment of the National Dialogue Commission, the formation of the Rehabilitation Commission, and the development of transitional policies?
As team Europe, we provide financial support to the ENDC. However, we are also willing to assist the ENDC conceptually if they express a clear interest and request for such assistance.
I had a conversation with your Ministry of Social Affairs, specifically discussing the social contract. Since she holds the position of Minister of Social Affairs, she is one of the key individuals responsible for this topic. She expressed great interest in receiving and organizing a seminar with Belgian experts to explore potential collaboration.
Therefore, we have to think how to enhance our collaboration, not only in terms of aid but also in exchanging expertise, as this has a lasting impact on people’s minds. It is crucial to establish a regular, structured political dialogue on various topics with your government. We have already reached out to your government, and we can see a clear interest from their side. I eagerly look forward to engaging in this strong dialogue because the EU and Ethiopia are strong partners.
How does the presence of Belgium’s aid agency, ENABEL, compare to the significant presence of other major international aid and development agencies like USAID, UKAID, and the Japanese in Ethiopia?
Our cooperation agency, ENABEL, is currently not present in Ethiopia, but there are plans to establish its presence. In February of last year, the African Union and EU summit took place in Brussels, where the global gateway-approach project, a new cooperation tool of the European Union, was presented.
Belgium plays a significant role in the health sector as part of team Europe’s approach. We have a close working relationship with the African Union Center for Disease Control and Prevention (African Union CDC) and the AU Health and Social Affairs Commissioner. During Belgium’s presidency of the EU, starting from January 1stnext year, the African Health Agenda will be given high priority, and ENABEL will have a major role to play within that framework.
We have tried to take valuable lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic period. One of the major challenges identified is the lack of manufacturing capacity for medicines and vaccines in Africa. That’s why the EU and the AU are committed to working closely together to enhance Africa’s autonomy in manufacturing medicines. This is crucial in order to be better prepared for future pandemics.
Could there potentially be a strategy by the Belgian government to bring ENABEL to Ethiopia?
I don’t rule out any possibilities for the future. The decision will be a political decision made by my government. Belgium has a strict policy of concentrating its development aid on a limited number of countries to ensure maximum impact. Currently, there are 14 partner countries of Belgium. Perhaps one day Ethiopia will be among them.
What lessons could Ethiopia or Addis Ababa, as the capital of Africa with the African Union headquarters, learn from Brussels, which is widely recognized as the de facto capital of the European Union?
That is a very interesting issue. Whenever I go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and talk with the Director-General of Europe, I always propose organizing more cooperation between Brussels and Addis Ababa because these two cities are crucial diplomatic capitals in the world. Both of them host extensive diplomatic communities, which presents opportunities but also entails obligations.
Addis Ababa is a global hub due to Ethiopia’s significance as the largest and strategically important country in East Africa. Moreover, it serves as the headquarters of the African Union. A similar situation exists in Brussels, with the presence of NATO and the EU headquarters.
As a diplomat, I believe we should make greater efforts to take advantage of our presence in these important diplomatic capitals, especially during this period of geopolitical turmoil. It is evident that the world is currently facing numerous challenges. I am convinced that, as diplomats, we should do more to stimulate discussions and enhance the common understanding of geopolitics. To me, both Addis Ababa and Brussels are ideal locations for such diplomatic conversations.
With this in mind, a few months ago, I took the initiative to invite colleagues representing important countries like Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, India, and Saudi Arabia. I proposed the idea of organizing “geopolitical conversations” together in Addis Ababa. I also discussed this idea with MoFA and spoke with Ambassador Eshete, Chief Cabinet of Foreign Affairs Minister Demeke Mekonen.
The idea behind this initiative is that each month, one of the colleagues will invite a national top geopolitical expert from their respective countries to deliver a lecture in Addis Ababa, followed by a discussion with the attendees. Eventually, all these contributions will be compiled into a publication titled “Geopolitical Conversations in Addis.”
Ambassador Eshete responded with great enthusiasm, and I hope we can commence this endeavor in January 2024. Such an initiative will contribute to closer ties and enhancing our common understanding, which is urgently needed in today’s world.
Now, let me elaborate on the obligations of diplomatic host capitals, drawing from my experiences in Brussels:
Hosting numerous embassies and diplomatic missions on one’s soil can pose significant challenges for the host authorities. Fortunately, we have the international rulebook, the Vienna Convention, which guides us in dealing with these challenges. The Vienna Convention governs the relations between host countries and the diplomatic missions present within their territories.
Once again, I see a clear opportunity for cooperation between MoFA and the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We could organize seminars to discuss and exchange mutual experiences, as well as define common approaches and interpretations. I plan to discuss this matter soon with my esteemed Ethiopian colleague in Brussels, Ambassador Hirute Gebreselassie.
What is the nature of public-to-public engagement between the two countries?
Indeed, the cultural exchange between Belgium and Ethiopia is vibrant, especially in the realm of jazz music. We have witnessed a rich exchange of talent among jazz musicians. Additionally, there are exceptional Ethiopian artists and painters, such as Tewodros Hagos and Mulugeta Tafesse, who reside in Belgium.
Currently, I am working on connecting Anna Getaneh, your world-renowned fashion model and designer, with Belgian fashion designers to foster mutual inspiration and establish collaborations. Promoting these kinds of person-to-person connections holds great significance to me.
In line with our focus on university cooperation, we will revitalize our Alumni network by the end of this year. We will extend invitations to all Ethiopians who have studied in Belgium, not only to enjoy a pleasant gathering but also to explore opportunities for better future collaboration and exchanges. These heartfelt connections, let me refer to them as “heart-to-heart” contacts, endure over time and are deserving of our utmost care and attention.
To what extent do you believe the people of Belgium are familiar with Ethiopia?
Yes, indeed, but unfortunately, not enough Belgians are aware of the beauty of Ethiopia.
All too often, their knowledge of Ethiopia is limited to periods of drought, the suffering and death caused by famine, and, of course, the ongoing conflicts. This is quite frustrating for me because I also want to showcase to Belgians the splendor of Ethiopia, its remarkable people, and its rich cultural heritage.
Once lasting peace prevails throughout Ethiopia, mark my words, your country will become a top tourist destination. I eagerly anticipate the day when we can jointly launch a major campaign in Brussels, the heart of Europe, in collaboration with Ethiopian Airlines, to present Ethiopia as a captivating tourist hotspot.
Regarding economic relations between Belgium and Ethiopia, it’s regrettable that we do not have a substantial presence of Belgian companies here. A country with such a vast market holds immense potential.
We fully support the government’s economic reform agenda and are willing to assist in any way we can. However, it must be acknowledged that our current companies operating here face numerous challenges, including security issues in Amhara and Oromia, as well as bureaucratic and legal obstacles such as lease problems.
This situation and these problems must be addressed. The federal, regional, and local authorities must work together to enhance the business environment in Ethiopia. Once this is achieved, you will witness investments flowing automatically.
Which companies from Belgium have shown interest in investing in Ethiopia?
Certainly, pharmaceutical companies. Ethiopia possesses a wealth of talented individuals with strong capabilities. From conducting clinical trials to manufacturing medicines, there is ample opportunity to establish pharmaceutical companies here. I am confident that we can persuade our pharmaceutical companies to invest and operate in Ethiopia.
Moreover, Ethiopia boasts significant sugar factories that are seeking private investors. In Belgium, we possess top-tier sugar factories with extensive experience, knowledge, and advanced technologies. When the government recently announced its plans to privatize the sugar factories in Ethiopia, I reached out to companies in Belgium. However, they expressed their current lack of interest due to the conflicts, volatile situation, and the absence of a favorable and transparent business environment in Ethiopia.
Therefore, it is imperative that we collaborate: the government, authorities at all levels, and the international community. Together, we must strive to transform Ethiopia into a nation where businesses can thrive, for the benefit of Ethiopia and its people.
What is your perspective on the recent conflict in the Amhara region?
When engaging with representatives from different regions, you’ll find that each region and its representatives have their own reasons for conflict with one another. As mentioned earlier, Ethiopia carries a significant burden from its troubled past. My sincere hope is that the national dialogue commission, through facilitating a national conversation, can finally address and resolve this past, and on that foundation, identify the necessary components to construct a promising future for Ethiopia.
I would urge everyone to refrain from dwelling excessively on the past. Old grievances should not fuel warfare, as war only brings misery, casualties, and death. Instead, let us engage in open dialogue and constructive conversations, put in a new constitution or a social contract. Based on this, you can collectively build a brighter future.
Let us not forget that the EU, as you are aware, emerged as a peace project following the most devastating wars in our history. I am always eager to share and recount this story, as it can serve as a source of inspiration.
What is your perspective on the ongoing coup d’état incidents in certain countries in Western and Central Africa? How does the situation in Belgium and its former colonies compare?
It is not uncommon to hear coup leaders attributing all the problems in their countries to the lingering effects of the colonial period.
In my opinion, as European countries, we need to actively seek a renewed dialogue with many African nations, one that is founded on equal footing. We have to invest more in fostering people-to-people connections and promoting cultural cooperation. The African and European continents share more similarities than we often realize.
Let us try to discover innovative ways of collaborating based on our common values. This is precisely why the AU and EU have forged a robust alliance. Both organizations advocate for multilateralism as the path forward in the global arena. The EU wholeheartedly supports the AU in its efforts to promote peace and stability on the continent, endorsing the African approach of seeking African solutions to African problems.
As an ambassador, do you have any plans for the future in Ethiopia?
My sole plan is to contribute to a brighter future for Ethiopia and its people, while strengthening our relations and fostering friendship between our nations. This is my sole purpose for being here. The people hold utmost importance, and it is crucial for us to always prioritize their interests and keep them at the center of our attention.