opinionBy Daniel Brehane
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's visit to France last week came as a surprise. One would assume that his first bilateral visit outside of Africa would take him to London, given the parade of British officials who visited Addis Abeba in recent months - at least, one senior official a month, on average, since last January.
No other country sent as many delegates as the Brits did in all the eight months of Hailemariam's premiership.
British officials have sufficient reasons to come in row. Their trade and investment dealings grew at a high rate over a few years.
Britain is the second biggest provider of bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA). It also remains a crucial partner with Ethiopiaas it aimed at enhancing the capacity of public service provision and governance institutions.
No less important is its role in defending Ethiopia's performance in the Western donors circle. The claim by Human Rights Watch, in 2010, that the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) lobbies on behalf of Ethiopia and undermines collective action by donors may be exaggerated. But the sheer growth of British assistance - both in quantity and quality - certainly influenced other Europeans, who might have thought otherwise. That made the Brits targets to rights groups' accusation that they were an: "accomplice of human rights abuses".
Lately, however, the Brits have become increasingly critical of Ethiopia's domestic politics and policies. Though it is not clear to which domestic or regional change it should be attributed, it appears that the Brits are testing the waters to expand the reach of their influence which has so far been very much limited to cooperation on regional and security affairs. After all, human rights are a standard Western policy instrument to grade the balance of relation in their favour, in countries ranging from China to Venezuela.
The peak of this emerging approach was seen last February, when the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told journalists, in Addis, that his meeting with the Ethiopian Prime Minister mostly focused on issues raised by Western rights groups.
Some British columnists downplayed Clegg's statement to the media as 'too soft' and not indicative of serious pressure, rather intended to placate criticisms. But, it seems, equally likely that he indeed pushed the Ethiopian Prime Minister. At least, if Fortune's account is accurate, Clegg repeated some issues to a point that Hailemariam had to say "don't try to squeeze our hands".
Whichever the case, it undermines Hailemariam's stature, who can not afford to be seen as weak among colleagues who are in no mood to make major changes. It also sets a 'bad precedent' for future visiting dignitaries. The trend, in the past couple of years, among visiting officials, was to raise their concerns only once and receive long lectures in response, which they barely mentioned in public.
That seems to be why Hailemariam took a page from his predecessor's playbook, which says; diversify friends so as none of them can be too bold.
I am referring to is his decision to honour France with his first bilateral state visit outside the neighbourhood. Of course, he went to Doha and New York earlier, but those visits were in multilateral context, as French papers underlined to their readers.
Indeed, Hailemariam's travel was not a spontaneous one. Both Addis Abeba and Paris have several issues to talk at the level of heads of governments.
France wishes to get a piece of the action in Ethiopia's multibillion dollar projects of energy and infrastructure. The trade relation between the two nations had quadrupled in less than a decade, though it started from low base. The French are also labouring to recover their influence in Africa- from investment to military adventures - which they need to legitimatise and cement by making public appearances with every coming African Union (AU) chairman.
Indeed, a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of a key regional player like Ethiopia must be ideal for President Francois Hollande, who is expected to request a more international mandate for his unilateral intervention in Maliat the conference in Brussels,Belgium, next month. Hailemariam's visit is also the fruit of years of effort by a former French ambassador and head of the African desk at the French foreign ministry, who is seen as pro-Ethiopia and lobbied Elysee Palace to recognise the strategic importance of Ethiopia.
Hailemariam certainly wishes more French investments and strengthened bond with the country that calls the shots inDjibouti. He must have enjoyed the joint press briefing at Elysee Palace where Hollande barely mentioned human rights issues. Of course, Hailemariam needs to carry out his duties as chairman of the African Union, though many believe that the main reason he grabbed this post is to start his tenure as Prime Minister with a stronger international stature.
All these are, however, doubtful to be his primary reasons for honouring Paris with his first bilateral visit. The fact that there was no ground-breaking deal at the end of the visit negates the speculation by some that, unlike London or Beijing, Hailemariam's presence was meant to ink high profile agreements. If there was an eye-catching development, it was Hailemariam's remark at the joint briefing that "Ethiopia is quite determined to work closely withFrance, especially to find, once again, a win-win solution for the use of the Nile waters." This entails an invitation that Hollande would love hear to get a foothold in an issue that entirely belonged to the Anglo-Saxons for a century.
Of course, the Brits are not going anywhere, nor should they. All Hailemariam did is to show he can befriend someone who got as much, if not better, say as the Brits at the European Union and the World Bank tables, from where half of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Ethiopia comes.
The Brits are too smart to miss the signal. They may not displease Hailemariam, when he arrives in London, next month.
Daniel Brehane He Can Be Reached At Danielberhane.firstname.lastname@example.org