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In support of the reform program

In support of the reform program

The US Embassy in Addis Ababa and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) in collaboration with the Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN) last week organized a one week training for local media professionals on newsroom management and on how to effectively manage newsrooms in conflict and post-conflict environments at the headquarters of OBN in Adama town. At the end of the training US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Michael Raynor, traveled to Adama to hand out certificates to the trainees and delivered a speech about the critical role the media plays in an emerging democracy. The trainees seized the opportunity to ask Ambassador Raynor about the role of the US in the ongoing political and economic reform led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). Kaleyesus Bekele of The Reporter, who took part in the training, compiled the questions and answers. Excerpts:

Question: Some politicians say that the US is behind the current political reform in Ethiopia.  A senior official of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) claims that the US handpicked Prime Minister Abiy. Is that true?

Ambassador Michael Raynor: The short answer is no; that is not true. What the US has done – as it has always done – is providing support so that Ethiopia can achieve democracy, economic freedom and prosperity. When Prime Minister Hailemaraim Dessalegn resigned and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was deciding whether to recommit to the old ways of governance or to open up itself; in the new reform way of governance, I fully concede, that we were quite visible. We hoped the Ethiopian people and government would chose reform. They had chosen reform. I would tell you that Prime Minister Abiy’s agenda is something the US feels very supportive of and very invested in. Did we choose Prime Minister Abiy, no.

Sometimes I am flattered by some people’s understanding of the power the US has. But I can tell you that Prime Minister Abiy was chosen by the ruling coalition based on an enormous support from the Ethiopian people and he is on his own now. What he is doing is something the US is very supportive of. His policy is aligned with what the US hopes to see in Ethiopia – a prosperous politically inclusive, democratic and stable; organically stable not imposed. Because the people believe in the vision and in their government. That is what we want for Ethiopia. We want that for Ethiopians. Ethiopia is one of the most important partners of the US in Africa and the world. We want our partners to be strong.  How is Ethiopia going to be strong? By being democratic, by being prosperous, and by being stable. That is the vision Prime Minister Abiy has. That is the vision that we are supporting as fully as we can. But that is his vision. His leadership is taking this country forward.

Ethiopia is going to have national elections in a year and a half. What kind of assistance would your government provide?

We are looking at a number of ways to do that. We are actually still putting together our resources in our programs. We are looking at significant investment of US government resources many millions of dollars specifically to support the government’s stated requirements and priorities to organize the best possible election. Freest, fairest and best organized election that reflects the will of the people. We are taking our cue from the Government of Ethiopia. We hope that our help will be helpful. We are looking at the range of things. The challenge is Ethiopia has not really administered truly free and fair elections if I may be blunt. So everything needs to be considered – the laws, the institutions the processes and the reality on the ground. When I grew up, my country has had participatory democracy for over 240 years. When I grew up, my parents sat down at the dining table talking about politics, elections and who they were going to vote for. They say critical things they do not like about the president. They say nice things. They did that without looking at their shoulders. I grew up privileged to understand what is like to participate in a participatory democracy. A lot of Ethiopians have not had that privilege. A lot of Ethiopians grew up in a place and time where the opportunity to fully participate in the political life was narrow. So I think we owe the Ethiopian people to help them to have the tools and media plays an indispensable role in that regard. So they can own their own democracy and they can be in charge of their political engagement and we are looking at everything from the institutions and the structures to the reality on the ground so people understand how to participate constructively in their political space. We are doing everything we can so that these elections are what everyone wants them to be.

Ethiopian Airlines has been a very good customer of American companies including Boeing, General Electric (GE) and Honeywell. The airline used to get loan guarantees from the US EXIM Bank but unfortunately the bank almost ceased operation. This may compel Ethiopian Airlines to turn its face to European companies like Airbus. What can you do to lobby to extend the mandate of US EXIM Bank? What is your comment on that?

I can’t speak for Ethiopian Airlines. But first let me say that the history of the United States and Ethiopian Airlines goes back to the founding of Ethiopian Airlines. A US airline company called TWA actually partnered with Ethiopians to help them create the airline. The very first airplanes the airline operated were US airplanes. We have been enormously proud of this partnership. TWA is out of business while Ethiopian Airlines is one of the world’s most prosperous, successful and best managed airline. So it is a partnership that we value. The fact that Ethiopian Airlines has made Boeing and others like Honeywell, GE, Sabre and other US companies a focal point of their strategic planning in procurement is something that we value enormously. We will support in every way we can.

You are right there has been ebbing and flowing in US government financing some procurements. We are very proud that even under those circumstances Boeing and other US companies are making a strong business case and still they are able to maintain very vibrant commercial relationships with Ethiopia. You are absolutely right; the better we can do in that regard the more compelling the case we can make. But I think US businesses have very strong selling points in any case under their own merits. Again we are so proud to have this partnership with such an amazing aspect of Ethiopian life.

We will do our very best whether governmentally or through our vibrant private sector to keep those partnerships going.

How do you support Ethiopian institutions? How do you support the fight against corruption?

We are very much in contact with Ethiopian authorities. We are absolutely committed in supporting Ethiopia’s effort in this regard. We are having discussions with the Office of the Attorney General.

One of the areas that we can support is building institutions for democracy and good governance. You need strong institutions. To put it candidly, Ethiopian institutions a year ago were designed to administer a different kind of government and had different priorities. So it is a huge challenge. It is a huge reset. Part of the huge reset this country is doing is restructuring its institutions their function, structure and focus. They need the expertise and resources to meet the reform agenda. So that is a key aspect that we are looking at. We are looking at it all across the board in terms of democracy and governance. We have on going partnership with the Office of the Attorney General; we have on going partnership with the Ministry of Peace. We are looking at it in terms of helping Ethiopia resetting its economic priorities so they are supportive of private sector investment.

I firmly believe that for Ethiopia to grow, it needs to meet the requirements of young Ethiopians; the state cannot make that happen. No state can make that happen. You need quality private sector investment. By quality I mean private sector investment that creates real jobs, that can bring about economic vibrancy, that respects the environment, that respects labor standards, that respects technology transfer. The US private sector is good at that. These are some of the areas that we are looking at.

We are also involved in the security side. We have very good partnership with Ethiopian security. We are very impressed by the extent to which Ethiopia’s security came to us and said we would like to become depoliticised. They said to us we want to improve our professionalism. We want to prove that we are on the side of our people. That is inspiring to us. That gives us opportunities to provide training and capacity building. We can help them to bring about the Ethiopia they want to see.

US foreign policy has changed in the past few years. Former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has been to Ethiopia. Speaking at the African Union, he said that Chinese influence in Africa is not a good thing while standing in the headquarters of the AU which was built by the Chinese. For many people what matters most is the economy. Is America looking into other ways of helping countries through supporting reforms?

The US invests in people. The US invests in the welfare of people, in capacity of people to build their country and take responsibility and increase self-reliance. When we engage with countries we offer what we offer. And we are proud of what we offer. I think you were alluding to what Secretary Tillerson said. We simply encourage everyone to be clear and transparent in what they are doing. If there is a relationship that creates sense of dependency or sense of leverage, may be that does not benefit both parties equally. In the case of the US we spend a billion dollars in a year in Ethiopia on average. You know how much debt Ethiopia incurs for that one billion dollars? Not a penny.  You know how much leverage we gain from that? Not a lot. We are investing in Ethiopia. We have a lot in common. We have shared priorities. To achieve those priorities both of us need to be strong. That is all we care about.

We have elections coming up in 2020. We are looking into how social media can be used in a good way during the elections. How far is the US willing to support Ethiopia regulate social media platforms?

With regards to social media, it is a challenging issue. We saw it before Prime Minister Abiy came to office and we see it now. We have vibrant social media platform in the US. When you ultimately see the US Constitution, look at US values, we are willing to pay any price to preserve freedom of expression. That price may include tolerating hate speech, tolerating destructive speech, tolerating destabilizing speech because we are that invested in freedom. Some say we have the luxury; some say when you are democratic for 240 years you have certain resilience that lets you tolerate that level of destructive speech. An emerging democracy –a country that is reinventing itself as a vibrant democracy – is more vulnerable and more fragile to that kind of destructive speech. I understand that but if you are looking to the US to regulate speech you are looking at the wrong place because we always emphasize freedom of speech, and freedom of expression.

There was a rumor that claimed that your embassy was involved in some kind of negotiation with the old guards somewhere in Ethiopia. Have you been engaged in some kind of negotiation with old guards of the TPLF in Mekelle?

Please understand that my job is to talk to very one. Certainly, I was talking to the parties of the ruling coalition. I was absolutely talking to the TPLF. I did visit Mekelle a few months ago and I had very interesting conversation while I was there. I do not divulge any conversation. But I can tell you my message is consistent where ever I go. Where ever I go my message is that we are inspired by the new platform of Ethiopia – the reform agenda. We hope that Ethiopians will coalesce around that agenda and do everything they can to support it because we think that it promises the best outcome for the Ethiopian people in terms of democratic participation, economic opportunity and organic long-term stability. That is the message I give to everyone.

As part of the ongoing political and economic reform program the Ethiopian government has decided to privatize major public enterprises such as Ethio Telecom. Are American companies interested in the privatization process?

We are following the privatization process with great interest. We are very hopeful that the US private sector can play a key role for the reasons I said earlier. We believe that the nature, character and corporate social responsibility of the US private sector is a model. It will be mutually beneficial. It is not just extractive. It is here to contribute to be part of the overall growth that benefits everyone. I met one of the directors of one organization due to be privatized. We stay in regular touch. We follow with very close interest. We are extremely tuned to the possibility that US companies can compete for a role in the privatization process.