Renewing an old partnership
Ambassador Torbjorn Pettersson, the Swedish ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union, has been a representative of an important partner to Ethiopia. He is also no stranger to the continent, having spent some time in South Africa at the end of the apartheid era and in Tanzania. Here he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on his long association to Africa, on human rights, feminism, development and how he envisions the role of his nation within Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Speaking of women’s day, I can’t help but ask you about Anna Lindh, the former Swedish Foreign Minister, who was murdered for her perspective on important public issues. I have to ask you, is politics a dangerous profession for a women to get in to, even for a Swedish woman?
Ambassador Torbjorn Pettersson: I wouldn’t say it’s a dangerous profession. It’s true; there are threats associated to being a politician in Sweden, but I wouldn’t compare it to the situations in many parts of the world. I think the murder of Anna was done by a mentally troubled person. It was an incident that was very unfortunate. I knew Anna as she was the head of the Young Social Democrats. I was the head of the Young Liberals around the same time. We had lots of political debates. When you have that many debates, you become friends. Her death was extremely sad. However, I wouldn’t see her incident as one that is a security issue but an isolated incident.
What has been your impression of Ethiopia so far?
Well, I am very impressed by the many features of Ethiopia and that was the main reason I really wanted to come here. It was an opportunity and I wanted to take it. I was very happy to get the chance to come here.
To start with, I am a development economist and I must say it is impressive to see the transition and the change of Ethiopia from the 1980s to now. The growth and the poverty reduction are very impressive to see.
Ethiopia’s economy continues to show resilience in the last two years. I think there are still enormous challenges in the economic downturn in the next few years, but I have seen what I thought I would see: a very strong performance economically given where the country comes from, with poverty reduction even though we have an agriculture dependent economy in one of the worst droughts in many decades.
I have also been impressed with Ethiopia’s commitment to climate change. We try to work closely with the Government of Ethiopia on that, not least on the international arena such as on the Paris agenda. I have of course followed the political situation of the country, which I have to say have been contradictory. I came two or three weeks after the former state-of-emergency was lifted. Protests in the country at the time were starting to grow. At the same time, I think, from the perspective of the last 10 to 15 years, the reaction was positive, with political reforms and release of prisoners.
On the other hand, the new state of emergency was introduced, which makes us concerned. So it’s a bit contradictory to see and I think it’s a bit difficult for us diplomats to follow as it is not completely transparent and with difficulties to travel the country for various reasons. So it has been an extremely interesting six months for me from all kinds of perspectives.
You spent your early career in South Africa and you are now in Ethiopia. You have observed the continent from near and far and you have seen what works and does not work. What do you think is working well within the country?
The growth of Ethiopia is impressive. The strategic thinking, starting from extremely difficult circumstances for a very poor nation with huge challenges with population growth, I think one must be impressed by the economic strategy, the focus and poverty reduction. Enormous challenges still remain in Ethiopia, especially on the economy. The assertiveness of the government is challenged when it comes to the liberalization of the financial market and telecommunications sector. It seems Ethiopia is now at the stage where you need to question some of the fundamentals of the strategy.
You recently had an audience with a political figure (Merera Gudina (PhD)) from the opposition side. What were some of the focus of the conversation?
I try to meet everyone. I work with the (Ethiopian) government and I represent my own government to support Ethiopia. So, therefore, it’s important for me to understand the sides of the opposition forces – be it politicians, civil society or media. It’s my task to understand all aspects of the Ethiopian society. I do not have one specific view on different parties. I think what I heard from the opposition is that, they welcome some of the reform of the government on the political reform but they want more.
On one hand, it’s easy to understand the side of the opposition. Having worked, not just within Africa but Pakistan and Afghanistan, the democratization process, which Ethiopia is going through, is not a tea party. It goes back and forth. It’s a real struggle. I learned Ethiopian politicians, be it from the government or opposition, are very constitutional. They are much about procedure not only power.
It seems the opposition thinks these reforms are too little and the government wants patience. Actually, Ethiopia’s political process, for someone who was in politics previously, is not unusual. The challenge is how far you can go and how to balance between societies. You have the issues, about money and power, the constitution order and how to solve issues peacefully. As an ambassador, I want to see the opportunities, not just the shortcomings within Ethiopia.
Let’s talk about the changing landscape of your nation. Is it true Sweden is lowering its commitments to immigrants and migrants or is that just a myth?
First of all, my own country, and as far as I know, all the Scandinavian nations have not changed on the fundamental view. They are still a protector of the right to seek asylum. I think the challenge we face is one of quantity and time. For instance, in 2014 – 15, Sweden received a huge amount of asylum seekers, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. There was a lack of balance within the European Union which became troublesome for some nations, mostly for Germany and Sweden because we took disproportional quantity of asylum seekers and that meant much pressure on us.
We are a rich, fortunate country and that allows us to be generous, but the numbers made it very costly for us. Then, we got a reaction from our people. They compared these costs to their own welfare and started a debate making way to political parties that have always linked immigration to the negative challenges of the nation. And they got a reaction putting pressure on the political system.
The second reason is that, we have a welfare system which we are proud of. We pay high taxes that provide our citizens free health care, education and responsible government. But all of a sudden, municipalities were forced to put up housing for many newcomers in 2014 – 15, and that was a real challenge.
How do you define the Swedish feminism brand?
Sweden has always been on the forefront on equality and human rights. I would say, by using the “F” word, which is feminism, we started looking at the structure of subordination of women. In a sense, it’s a more structural view. That is why it penetrates all areas of our politics; in our finance department, spending budgets and others. When we look at societies at large, we focus much on the women perspectives. Look at our policies on security. It is very gender focused. Who suffers mostly from wars? It is always women.
Earlier this week, at the embassy unveiled a new advisory committee – the Gender Network. Tell me about that?
One purpose is to have them help us implement some of our missions. We are humble and understand that we do not entirely understand Ethiopia. The hope is that they will be able to help us. The other objective is to get energy to the debate and assist Ethiopia advance its gender advocacy.
When Ethiopians look at the flag of your nation, how do you want them to imagine it as?
I want them to reflect on our history. We are true friends. We have been here for a long time. We have our ups and downs in our relationship, but I want them to be aware of the strong relationship. We have to be seen as honest brokers with no hidden agenda. We come with value based politics, strengthening universal values. Our feminism politics is a key brand of Sweden and the many opportunities that Sweden offers. We are highly advanced technologically, not least in infrastructure and telecom sectors.
Take H & M for instance. It’s a company with a much known focus on sustainability and an environmental commitment and when it comes to workers rights. I want all these to be part of the Sweden brand. Climate issues and social dialogue are important values to Sweden and Swedish companies.
Let us talk about the big four Scandinavian nations within Ethiopia – Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland and what are some of the work you are collaboration on within Ethiopia?
First of all, if you take the issues of the climate as an example, Norway has a huge climate commitment and so does Sweden. We kind of choose the same area, so that we can have a profound impact. There is also much collaboration, on human rights and governance support. One area that is extremely important to us four is the issue of human rights. The challenges of refugees, and I do not mean the few refugees to Europe, but within Ethiopia, is a mutual concern. We all try to find solutions by working together.