French President Emmanuel Macron is increasingly concerned about China, and to a lesser extent Russia’s, growing role in Africa since the turn of the millennium and is taking French foreign policy in Africa in new directions as witnessed by his recent trip to Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.
For decades French foreign policy focused on the Francophone countries of Africa such that the term “Françafrique”, once used as a term of praise, became synonymous with neo-colonialism.
Macron outreach to Anglophone Africa has not always gone smoothly. In a press-conference in Ghana in 2017 Macron responded to a question about foreign aid to Ghana with a fairly standard diplomatic answer. However, when it was his turn to speak Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo lashed out at the whole idea of development aid.
“We can no longer continue to make policy for ourselves, in our country, in our region, in our continent by whatever support that the western world, or France, or the European Union can give us. It will not work. It has not worked, and it will not work,” in remarks that quickly went viral across West Africa.
Macron’s recently completed four day trip to the Horn of Africa went far more smoothly and suggested that Macron will stay committed to his new outreach policy regardless of setbacks. Djibouti was the only Francophone country visited during the trip and holds the dubious distinction of being the last French colony in Africa to gain its independence — in 1978.
Macron became the first French president to ever visit Kenya. In Ethiopia, he signed a historic defense agreement and visited the Chinese-built headquarters of the African Union.
Building on an earlier visit of a French archaeological team, Macron promised to help Ethiopia preserve some of its historic rock churches. Eleven medieval monolithic cave churches are situated in a mountainous Amhara Region of Ethiopia, and many have shown signs of damage in recent years. The French president also promised more traditional aid to Kenya and Ethiopia where his visited generated favorable media coverage in France.
“This unprecedented defense cooperation agreement provides a framework… and notably opens the way for France to assist in establishing an Ethiopian naval component,” said Macron according to Reuters.
At the age of 41 Macron is used to being the youngest world leader on the stage during such press conferences, but Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is not much older at 42.
The young reformer was appointed Prime Minister only last year and remains very popular. A recent trip by the author to Addis Ababa found the country filled with a new sense of optimism over Abiy Ahmed and his image plastered on the side of mini-buses and t-shirts.
Abiy Ahmed is an ethnic Oromo. His mother is a Muslim but, he is a Pentecostal Christian. In many ways this embodies a nation that is nearly evenly split between Sunni Islam and Christianity. Not surprisingly Ahmed has managed to pull support from across Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups. Yet, his rise has attracted little attenion in the West. If the young Ethiopian leader has received any positive attention so far, it is for signing a peace agreement with Eritrea. Since the 1970s no region of the world has seen more interstate conflicts than the Horn of Africa as well as numerous insurgencies. However, the macro-stability of the region has increased with the signing of a peace agreement last year officially ending Ethiopia’s rivalry with Eritrea.
An Ethiopian Navy Again?
Counter-intuitively the peace agreement may pave the way for the re-establishment of the Ethiopian Navy which is what Macron was referring to when he described ‘defense cooperation’. Some ten Ethiopian Navy vessels survived the Eritrean War of Independence and sailed for Yemen in 1991.
The largest among them was the Ethiopia — a former U.S. Navy warship and World War II veteran. Despite being the last seaplane tender afloat anywhere in the world, it was scrapped in Yemen in 1993, when the other seaworthy vessels in the fleet made for Djibouti. Djibouti grew tired of hosting the vessels, and the last of the Ethiopian Navy was scrapped in 1996. Today the only remnant is the patrol boat Gb-21 which operates on Lake Tana and operated by the Ethiopian Army.
Where the new Ethiopian Navy will be based is an open question; however, Djibouti is a likely contender. Something that President Macron surely discussed during his trip there.
French arms in use by Ethiopian forces however, won’t be anything new. Though French-Ethiopian relations began in 1907, modern French arms used by Ethiopian forces helped the Ethiopians defeat Italy at Battle of Adowa in 1895 a battle that bought Ethiopian independence until the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936). Even in this latter conflict, French arms were not absent – notably, the Ethiopian Imperial Guard deployed six French-designed Brandt Mle 27/31 medium mortars. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The Horn of Africa occupies a strategic corner of the Indian Ocean, a waterway whose geopolitics the French government is increasingly focused on. Last year French President Emmanuel Macron called for a “France, India and Australia” axis in the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s activities in the region. Whether France hopes to include the Ethiopian navy in its strategic calculations, or not, is unclear, but Macron’s focus on the Indian Ocean (Where France still has overseas territories) does suggest the high priority the French President puts on Africa.
There are economic reasons as well for the new policy. Abiy Ahmed is keen to open the country to foreign investment, and the country is already Africa’s fastest economy. Infrastructure and telecommunications offer promising opportunities. It is a country of 100 million people with only one provider Ethio-Telecom. Ghana, which is a third the size of Ethiopia has six telecommunications providers. No wonder the CEO of French telecommunications giant Orange (which has 256 million customers) found the time to join the trip as did numerous other French businessmen.