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“Ethiopia can be one of the key entry points for Canada to build a new Africa relations”

“Ethiopia can be one of the key entry points for Canada to build a new Africa relations”

Mark Warner

Mark Warner is a Toronto-based Canadian and American trade lawyer. He has had a long association within the continent, including providing technical assistance and legislative drafting advice to the governments of Ethiopia, South Africa and COMESA.  In addition, he has taught trade law at various universities around the world, including at Addis Ababa University Faculty of Business and Economics. Here, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on the historic visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Ethiopia, on its relationship with the nation, on trade and the role he sees Canada - which has a large Ethiopian diaspora population - playing in Ethiopia moving forward. Excerpts:


The Reporter: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is visiting Ethiopia – the second sitting Canadian Prime Minister to do so after one-time Prime Minister Jean Chretien who visited the nation at the last year of his premiership. What do you think the visit of this particular visit signifies?

Mark Warner: First, I think this visit represents a bit of a second-term course correction for the Trudeau government. His first term was overtaken by the election of US President Donald Trump and the need to secure the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and then by more complicated relations with China so Africa was put on the backburner. Second, traveling to Ethiopia in conjunction with the 33rd African Union Summit is recognition of the tremendous strides made by both in recent years, marked notably in 2019 by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, the election of President Sahle-Work Zewdie and the ambitious launch of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Canada has had a long history and association with Ethiopia. Brian Mulroney championed the causes of famine victims in the 1980s, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin advocated debt forgiveness, while Stephen Harper talked much about trade, not aid with Africa. What has been the relationship like under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?

Africa has not had a central place in the foreign policy of the Trudeau government so far as I explained. In 2017, the government announced that 50 percent of Canada’s overseas development assistance would go to sub-Saharan Africa by 2022 and 95 percent would be devoted to programs that target gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. When the Trudeau government came to power in 2015, it maintained the previous Harper government decision to fold the former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the newly re-named Global Affairs Ministry.

The goal was to assure coherence between government development assistance and wider foreign policy priorities, including commercial policy. It remains to be seen how this will all work in practice and whether this represents a real pivot to Africa or whether this is part of Canada’s campaign for African votes in June for a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The African continent, Ethiopia in particular is finally embracing as well as advocating trade as a way to lift itself from its old narrative of extreme poverty.  What is your perspective on the Canada-Africa Trade that the visit intends to highlight?

There may well be opportunities for Canada to try to expand its trade in more “green tech” and “high tech” areas and in financial services. On the other hand, more work needs to be done on the Canadian front to ensure that regulatory barriers to importing agricultural goods from Africa are not subject to unnecessary, discriminatory and disproportionate regulatory barriers. Fostering further trade with Africa will also require more work in facilitating and processing travel and business visas for students, academics and business people from Africa which, if anything, have tightened in recent years.

In his second term, Prime Minister Trudeau seems more focused on implementing Canada’s existing trade agreements, the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Indeed, there is no reference to Africa, the AfCFTA or a trade agreement with any African country in the mandate letter of the newly appointed Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade. In fact, the trade file appears to be divided between three separate Cabinet Ministers and it remains to be seen how effectively that will work in practice.

Canada’s trade and investment relationship with Africa has tended to emphasize the extractive sector because of Canada’s strength in mining. In that regard, it is worth noting that in recent years, Canada has been taking some steps to address some concerns with the behavior of some Canadian companies abroad. For instance, in 2019 the government appointed Canada’s first Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, although the scope of her authority remains a work in progress. It is also noteworthy that the Canadian Supreme Court is expected to decide this year whether non-Canadian plaintiffs can sue a Canadian company in Canada accused of using forced labor and committing human rights abuses at a mine in Eritrea.

This trend is also reflected in the criminal guilty plea and agreement to pay a USD 280 million fine by a leading Canadian engineering company for fraud committed in Libya. Although, this conviction did not involve the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act or debarment of the company from government contracting, it is indicative to emerging Canadian concerns with corporate social responsibility.

How about on development assistance?

Canada continues to be far below the OECD target of 0.7 percent of the GDP for development assistance. It is around 0.28 percent now which represents a slight decline from when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister. This may, in part, be a function of the realignment of assistance to more emphasize Canadian commercial interests and to filter the aid through a “gender equality” lens.

It is no secret Canada is now eyeing a seat for itself as a temporary Security Council membership. How realistic is its chance and what roles can it highlight as a member?

I tend to think it’s like any other game of “musical chairs”. If you wait too long to get a seat before the music stops, you will be left standing. I think Canada turned back to Africa too late in the process and its low and declining level of development assistance, modest peace-keeping initiatives and current Middle East policy will make it challenging for Canada to be successful this time and it won’t get any easier next time in my view without a more sustained effort.

The last time Canada was a contender was in 2015 during the era of Stephen Harper. Why do you think it failed and why is it important to be a member from the perspective of Canada?

I think it’s a combination of several factors. I think Canada turned inwards in the 1990s as it was faced with challenging economic and constitutional circumstances. Since then, Canada has had a difficult time finding its voice in the shifting international diplomatic environment of an ascendant China and a retrenching America. In some respects, having a seat on the Security Council might actually prove to be more of a poisoned chalice if the country finds itself wedged between an intensifying  new great power rivalry. On the other hand, a seat on the Security Council might help Canada refocus a national discussion of how Canada fits into this new emerging world order. I tend to think that the government needs to articulate a clear vision of how it would use its vote beyond platitudes or it might risk being caught flat-footed on the off chance it succeeds.

What roles do you see Canada playing in Ethiopia moving forward?

There is a large Ethiopian diaspora in Canada that is contributing greatly to the country. I think Canada needs to find a way to build on that to reinforce the positive democratic evolution of Ethiopia and to foster mutually-beneficial commercial opportunities for both countries. Ethiopia can be one of the key entry points for Canada to build a new Africa relations taking advantage of the wider African diaspora and African-descendant diaspora that exists within Canada.