BY LAVRILLEUX ARIANE | LE POINT INTERNATIONAL *
Two months before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize , the Prime Minister of Ethiopia sent a letter to “His Excellency” President Emmanuel Macron . On July 22, 2019, Abiy Ahmed asked France to help “strengthen the Ethiopian Air Force” by providing, on credit, a sophisticated arsenal detailed on three pages.
This list includes: 12 fighter jets (including Rafale and Mirage 2000), 18 helicopters and 2 military transport aircraft manufactured by Airbus, 10 Dassault drones, electronic jamming systems and, even more surprisingly, thirty M51 missiles with a range of more than 6,000 kilometres … and nuclear warheads! An extravagant (and illegal) request knowing that both France and Ethiopia have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For the rest, France has, of course, endorsed a new defence partnership in March 2019, but no one expected such a military appetite and formalised so quickly from one of the poorest countries on the planet. If we refer to the selling prices of previous similar contracts, the bill could exceed 4 billion euros**.
Visiting Addis Ababa last spring, Emmanuel Macron’s objective was to develop the trade, currently dominated by China, and to develop naval forces (which disappeared after Eritrea became independent), writes Le Point journalist Patrick Forestier.
“This cooperation with France is not short-term, it is strategic, it is old and it can go far beyond the naval forces,” Abiy Ahmed said at the time. It’s all “beyond” that.
If the former soldier-turned-prime minister dreams of the same missiles as those of The French nuclear submarines, his country has not had access to the Red Sea since 1993. As his shopping list suggests, his first priority is to restore the coat of arms of his air force, out of breath and “90 years old”.
East Africa leader…
Internationally, Abiy’s leadership impresses. One year after the peace agreement with the 60-year-old Eritrean foe, the Prime Minister has established himself as a mediator in Sudan to facilitate the ongoing democratic transition. But not everyone in the region is happy with this geopolitical renaissance.
Egypt, in particular, is concerned about Ethiopia’s stubbornness to fill its future dam (“Renaissance”) as soon as possible, regardless of the dramatic consequences on the flow of the Nile irrigating 90% of the Egyptian fields.
In the midst of a diplomatic crisis, the Ethiopian Prime Minister said last October: “If we are to go to war, we can mobilise millions of people to defend the dam.”
Since the intervention of a U.S. mediation in early November, tensions have dropped back to a notch, but the dispute is far from resolved.
Officially, France refuses to get involved in this thorny issue, especially as it has forged a strategic partnership with Egypt Al-Sisi, a major buyer of French arms since 2014. But Rafale with the Ethiopian flag could sift through this Franco-Egyptian relationship.
“The Egyptians would take it badly, because we are more than in competition with the Ethiopians, who have done everything to block the diplomatic route,” said Tewfik Aclimandos, a professor at Cairo University and a keen expert on the Egyptian General Staff.
In modernising its aviation, “Ethiopia wants to reaffirm its status as a regional power, vis-à-vis its more sceptical neighbours, such as Kenya and Egypt, or Somalia,” says Sabine Planel Research Institute for Development (IRD).
According to this expert, however, these military ambitions are not contradictory to its image as a regional stabiliser, since, “by equipping itself with a military arsenal, Ethiopia is strengthening its credibility in the region as a local guardian of peace and presents itself as a bulwark against the jihadist movements present in the Horn of Africa”.
On the brink of internal implosion …
Ethiopian soldiers are already participating in several peacekeeping missions; in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. In areas where international organisations increasingly tend to delegate their interventions to local actors, Ethiopia intends to “adapt its army to future operations and to a regional deterrent force driving joint interventions under the United Nations,” says a defense analyst from the region who wishes to remain anonymous and assures that Ethiopia has also turned to the United States, Russia and Italy to strengthen its arsenal.
This role of regional gendarme contrasts with his inability to manage his own internal tensions. Last November, 86 people were killed in demonstrations at the call of a political opponent.
“Ethiopia is on the brink of internal implosion. A more comprehensive restructuring of the military sector (assuming that men would follow arms, and even that would be financed from other budgets) would no doubt favor an authoritarian and violent resolution of the current crisis. Any strengthening of this sector in a crisis situation must be watched with great attention,” warns Sabine Planel.
In debt, does Ethiopia afford it?
Beyond political considerations, could Ethiopia repay the French State? In the letter sent to Emmanuel Macron, the Prime Minister himself recognizes his “glaring lack of foreign currency” and seeks a loan to “be delivered in a short period of time.”
The Elysée Palace communication department assured Le Point that “the agreement signed last March paves the way for sectoral cooperation in the field of the navy and the air force”, but that France “is not at this level of discussion”.
With a public debt of 61%, according to the World Bank, this country of 110 million people is already accumulating foreign loans. Between 2006 and 2015, China lent it $13 billion in exchange for licensing investment projects .
In June 2018, the Ethiopian central bank received $1 billion from the United Arab Emirates, which is said to have allegedly played a role in the rapprochement with Eritrea, where their naval base is located.
Another $2 billion Emirati dollars will also finance investments in Ethiopia, seen by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed Ben Zayed, as a pivot of his policy of expansion and influence in Africa.