Thursday, February 22, 2024
Interview“The people are so resilient in this country. I’m impressed”

“The people are so resilient in this country. I’m impressed”

Ms. Ito Takako, Ambassador of Japan to Ethiopia

Her arrival in Ethiopia coincides with a brutal war in northern Ethiopia in November 2020. The day she presented her credential to the then State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Redwan Hussein (Ambassador), to commence her diplomatic duties in Ethiopia, was the day the war began, November 3, 2020. The coincidence was that exactly two years after the war, the then state minister appeared as the chief architect of a peace deal that put an end to the war.

This year’s November mark three years since the war drum, and a year since the peace deal. It also marks three years since Ms. Ito Takako, Ambassador of Japan to Ethiopia, began giving her diplomatic service in Africa’s second-most populous country. Her tenure as ambassador in Ethiopia is coming to an end. She is scheduled to leave her post as this November ends.

It was during a tough time that Ambassador Ito stayed in Ethiopia. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the ruthless northern Ethiopia war, international pressures to economic challenges, Ethiopia has gone through several hardships the recent history can remember.

The Reporter’s Samuel Bogale sat down with Ambassador Ito to hear about her honest observation of Ethiopia, and to cruise through her immense diplomatic experience and wisdom that she could share with Ethiopia.

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The last three years have been the most challenging period for Ethiopia. As an ambassador who served in the country during this tough time, what has been your keen observation? 

I would like to point out the resilience of the people of Ethiopia over the last three years. As you mentioned, it wasn’t an easy time. While COVID-19 was there, there were also the civil war, floods, droughts, huge inflation, and some border disputes with Sudan. There were so many difficulties and challenges for the people. If those things ever happened in some other countries, it is possible that you could have a revolutionary movement. But I think the people are so resilient in this country.

For the internal conflict, they eventually came to the Pretoria agreement for northern Ethiopia. I am also wishing that the situation in Oromia and Amhara will come to a peaceful settlement. I think this resilience is somehow something that I am really impressed with. Also, the people helping those less fortunate is something that has impressed me. 

You mentioned that other countries could see a revolutionary movement in times like this. What else could be the consequence for Ethiopia if the resilience you described wasn’t there? 

I am not a politician, historian, or academician. So I do not analyze what has already happened. There is no need to cry over spilled milk. But what we should look at is how the Ethiopians are coping with it and how we, the international community, including Japan, can cope with it for the better future of this country. 

Definitely, the concept of investment in people and the maintenance of peace are the things that we have been promoting. I think that Ethiopia in general is going in the right direction. Of course, the speed may not be as fast as it could be, and the international response could be faster. There are some frustrating situations for me as well. I think it is important to maintain and work towards peace and stability together. 

Which of the incidents you have seen should have never happened, that we made a mistake by allowing it to occur? 

Anyone can make mistakes, and I don’t want to point out anyone. There are also some things that we cannot avoid, for example, the impact of climate change in the Somali region. I went to see some areas in the Somali region, such as Gode and Melkadida. It was really so sad. You see those carcasses of cows right outside of the IDP camps. How could you stop it? The cow was eating the dead cow. It wasn’t someone else’s problem, but how we could cope with it. 

What is more important for us is how we could help those people who are now in the IDP camps. So, we are trying to increase humanitarian assistance for those people who are suffering more from the drought situation. Actually, the scene at the IDP camp is one of the most shocking experiences for me in this country for the last three years. I think we should not talk about what went wrong but what we can do. Maybe we can find the solution in that discussion. 

How do you evaluate the implementation of the Pretoria agreement settled between the federal government and the TPLF?

It is good that the gun has been silenced and there is no active war going on, but yet there are still a lot of needs, like the provision of social services to the people, or the Disarmament Demobilization and Re-integration (DDR), and the return of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs). Those are still pending issues. We think we have to give much speed to provide peace dividends to the people in the northern Ethiopia.

Japan has already provided some money through UNICEF—about one billion Japanese yen—for the rebuilding of some schools. In addition to that, I also went to see some shelters for the women, the victims of gender-based violence. We are now also considering helping the shelter. There are many other ideas that we have been consulting on with Tokyo. Of course, supporting the DDR is one of the issues that we have been discussing with the headquarters in consultation with the UNDP and also the National Rehabilitation Commission.

Japan and Ethiopia have similar population size. They are also similar in terms of having ancient civilization and conservative cultures. However, they are now completely two different countries with regards to influence in the world economy and politics. What do you think is the reason for Ethiopia to stay far behind Japan?

Maybe I would say that you never had a complete defeat as a country, which we experienced in 1945. We lost the war. We lost more than three million people during the war. We suffered so much. We surrendered to the USA, UK, and China. At that time, perhaps Japan was even poorer than Ethiopia. There were so many people dying on the streets because of hunger. There were several people who lost their land because there were a lot of bombings in Japan, not just the two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama were all air raided, and many people died. Almost 2.8 million people died in just one year. Our infrastructure was completely destroyed. If you see some of the photos from 1945, you will see dead bodies everywhere and people starving. We even did not have a functional supply system for food at the time.

So, we lost completely, and people suffered so much. But at the same time, they knew something went wrong to suffer so much. What went wrong? We were engaging in war. We didn’t even have real democracy. We didn’t have a distribution system of wealth. We didn’t have a good supply of labor based on education. So, we started to have a complete reform of the economic and social systems. We then have equal access to education for boys and girls, as well as land reform. There were a handful of landowners and a lot of peasants.

Since it is all destroyed, it is easy to build a new one by adopting new technologies, new factories, and new systems. We were also able to receive a lot of foreign assistance, particularly from the United States. They provided a lot of food to the children for school feeding or food assistance. We also started to have a lot of financial assistance from the World Bank, which was established after the war.

After losing everything, we wanted to rebuild. And unfortunately, not like Ethiopia, we didn’t have a lot of resources. You have very fertile land, a lot of minerals, and water for the generation of electricity. We didn’t have those. We have to import everything, except maybe rice. We had to invest in people and give education to the children so that they could be good workers. We could then provide the labor force for the newly established factories or service sectors. That is the thing we had to go through.

So Ethiopia didn’t suffer enough to bring about those changes?

I meant that it is much better if you don’t suffer and move on. Most other developed countries, like the United States and Canada, didn’t have that kind of incident. You should also be open to new ideas, changes, and the latest technologies and accept the challenges of learning something new. Sometimes it may crush your traditional ideas, of course. Japan previously had a family system where family was more important than individuals, but that kind of value was exposed to challenges.

How is Japan in terms of ethnic and religious diversification?

Ethnically, we are not as diverse as Ethiopia. You have more than 80 different ethnic groups. We basically have assimilated different ethnic groups for a long period of time. But now we are accepting a lot of people from all over the world because we have a declining population.

One of the policies to cope with is to have foreign labor in Japan. We are opening the labor market for those people who come through arrangements among the governments to provide for the various parts of our industries.

Is it a new policy being implemented?

Yes, we already started with the Asian countries and also some Latin American countries. For the Asian countries, we have a bilateral agreement so that we can have more people come to Japan, especially nurses and caregivers. Compared to some decades ago, we never had non-Japanese people serving as the cashier or hotel bellboys. Now we have many people who aren’t Japanese but are working in those places. Apparently, we have a lot of foreigners coming to Japan.

Japan is less involved in Ethiopia’s politics. Yet you are supporting efforts such as the national dialogue. What is your take regarding the way forward for Ethiopia in terms of political solutions?

It seems that Japan isn’t saying much, which is not quite true. We do have concerns, but we don’t talk about them in the media. It is more important to deliver the message to the policymakers of this country, not necessarily to the media. Japan is a member of the G7, and as a G7, we have several occasions to meet foreign ministers or people in government to deliver to the government our concerns and messages. It is to express our opinions regarding how we would like to see Ethiopia go in terms of humanitarian access or peaceful settlement.

For the northern part, you have reached an agreement. When they needed a national dialogue, Japan was the first country to disburse the three million USD to the UNDP’s fund. I think it is important for the Ethiopian people to have dialogue, to have a peaceful settlement, and to understand each other.

How do you evaluate the presence of Japanese investments in Ethiopia? Is Ethiopia really an appealing place for Japanese firms to consider investing?

It is undeniable that Ethiopia has a large potential, a large population, and a large market, and you have room to grow with potential for investors to come and provide good services. At the same time, investors also have to make money, and in order to do that, they need a proper environment.

I think Ethiopia can improve the environment for investment much better. For instance, the freedom of repatriating the benefits they make from here is not easy because of the lack of foreign currency. They have to keep investing in this country. And also, it is important that the taxation policies or the customs duty policies are transparent and implemented as they are written.

Predictable conditions for the business are very important. Also, addressing the security concerns of the country is important. The guerrilla groups came and attacked some of the factories, or people were kidnapped and murdered. Those are not good situations for pursuing business. So people are concerned about the general security situation at the investment destination. I think there are a lot of ways that Ethiopia can improve.

As an ambassador of Japan to Ethiopia, I would like to appeal that there are a lot of potentials here. But I can’t force them to come here. They also calculate where they can make the most money. Ethiopia has lots of rivals on this continent and in the neighborhood. If they can have a few transfers of money and if they can have transparent tax policies and incentives for the investment with a more secured living environment, they will choose, and I can’t force them to stop and come here.

At the same time, we see companies like Safaricom Ethiopia, which is 27 percent owned by a Japanese firm, Sumitomo Corporation. The company has come here and is making huge investments. Japan Tobacco has basically got over 70 percent of the National Tobacco Enterprise.

Japan Tobacco International (JTI) has several concerns regarding several issues, including illegal markets and land issues. Have you been dealing with many of these complaints when Japanese investors face problems?

Well, when the Japanese investors have a problem, they also share some information with us. I am not in a position to disclose what kind of problems JTI or other factories have. But, in many cases, non-transparent administration or confiscations are not useful for the investors of foreign countries to continue their investment or invite other investors to come.

For example, Sumitomo’s work with Safaricom here is very important to attract future investors from Japan. Because there is a lot of money invested, a lot of Japanese companies are watching how Sumitomo is being treated in this country. Are they given the fair treatment that was promised to them? If they can’t receive what they have expected, that shows something. If they are given what they expected, they may discover that Ethiopia is the country to invest in by looking at Sumitomo.

How many Japanese companies are there in Ethiopia, and what is the total value of their investment?

There are only a dozen Japanese companies operating in Ethiopia, fluctuating between 12 and 14. Some of the companies won’t disclose the amount they invested, so I don’t want to say that. Sumitomo’s investment, together with the mobile money platform M-Pesa, is huge. JTI has about USD one billion in investments, as it is already known. Recently, we have the new investment between Japan’s printing company Toppan and Ethiopian Investment Holdings (EIH). They will establish a factory for security printing, such as passports. At the same time, we also have small and Ethiopian-based companies.

Ethiopia receives several supports from Japan in various sectors. Would you give us more details on which sectors are the major intervention areas for Japan?

Ethiopia’s debt sustainability assessment has become high-risk, so the developed countries couldn’t provide the loans. Nevertheless, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to Japan in 2019 for the TICAD Conference, we provided a special concessional loan to develop the Jimma-Chida road, which was about 9.6 billion Japanese-Yen.

Up to this year, there is certain country plan. We would like to help with the investment in people, as well as the investment in infrastructure and basic social services. Those are important areas. We do want each individual to have dignity and a capacity for development. So we continue to provide assistance for health, education, water facilities, and so forth.

During the war, we did have a lot of humanitarian assistance as well as grassroots assistance for the schools. Some schools had more than 100 students in one class. They wanted to have additional classrooms, which we provided. We also continued to provide assistance through the UN agencies. Last year, we provided over USD30 million for humanitarian assistance. Recently, we completed the TICAD human resource development center for business and industry to promote Kaizen ideas.

What is the status of the USD30 billion investment aid that the Japanese government promised last year for Africa under the TICAD? What has been invested in Ethiopia using this pledge so far?

It is for an investment, both from the public sector and the private sector. For Ethiopia, the printing factory project by Toppan and EIH, as well as Sumitomo’s stake in the M-Pesa mobile money, is part of this big investment. We also have a project in Oromia for the water supply, which was signed this year. We also have a few more companies that are planning to come here and invest in hydro energy.

A few years ago, there was a discussion about setting up a Japanese industrial park in Ethiopia. What happened to this idea now?

There was a discussion, yes, but after this discussion, the policy has been changed to assist the Industrial Parks Development Corporation (IPDC) through the JICA’s involvement. We have helped the people at the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC) go to Myanmar and Cambodia to learn about their experiences. We have helped Myanmar and Cambodia develop industrial parks so that they could learn from them. This cooperation ended just last year. Instead of having a Japanese industrial park, we are more looking into cooperation with the IPDC and EIC.

Do you have any last words?

In terms of the business environment, I think there is no denial that Ethiopia has such huge potential, and we would like to help to have this potential realized. It takes two to tango. We do want the Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian business people to help Japan come here by improving the investment environment. The value of peace is so important. Japan was able to succeed because we didn’t have any external or internal wars after 1945, so we could continue to have economic production while also providing services.

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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.

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