Interview By Martin Healey

H.E. Dr Negeri Lencho, Minister of Communication Affairs of Ethiopia, speaks to Diplomatist Editor Martin Healey, and shares his thoughts on the relationship between the two countries. Excerpts...

Excellency, let us start with educational cooperation, a matter that is close to your heart, considering that you yourself have studied in India. How can it help strengthen the relationship between Ethiopia and India, and how did it already do so in the past?

The ties between the two countries are close and some say the relationship is over 2000 years old. Indian assistance to Ethiopia’s educational system goes back to the Imperial era when, during Haile Selassie’s regime [1930-74] and later during the Derg regime, Indian teachers were employed and even moved to rural areas in Ethiopia to teach in elementary schools and high schools.

In the 1990s, with a population of 60 million people, the biggest question of the new government was human capital. Ethiopia was in a civil war for 17 years during which the country could not give attention to education. When the new government took power, Ethiopia had only two universities, so they were looking for alternatives. The cooperation with India is founded on Ethiopia’s need to train its future generations, its future leaders, professors and university presidents.

Today, with an estimated population of 100 million, Ethiopia has more than 30 government universities and we are planning to build ten new universities every five years. In those universities, perhaps as many as half of the instructors are Indian-educated.

There are also many Indian professors working at Ethiopian universities today, but also on training programs and capacity building in general. Capacity building is the foundation for business, trade, and investment.

Talking about investment, what makes Ethiopia attractive to Indian companies?

Ethiopia attracts Indian investment and there are more than 500 Indian investors in Ethiopia today. Ethiopia has opened its doors to investment. It is further the fastest growing economy and the most stable country in the Horn of Africa. On top of that, more than half of Ethiopia’s population is quite young, which means that there is cheap labour. Peace, cheap labour, stability and welcoming policies, such as relief periods in which Indian companies do not pay taxes are some of the reasons why Indian companies invest in Ethiopia. India is one of the top three countries in terms of investment and trade with Ethiopia but still, the trade relationship is not balanced; it tilts towards India. We are importing materials from India for building railways and apartments, and while India also imports materials from Ethiopia, demand and supply have never met. The Ethiopian government has to work hard to satisfy the Indian market. India’s relationship with Ethiopia is always improving and now the economic cooperation is very good but unfortunately, compared to other countries like China, India is lagging behind in terms of investment and trade. As an Ethiopian man, graduated from India, I also feel like a diplomat for India and wish India would take the first seat. We have so much in common culturally and Indians even fought alongside Ethiopians in World War II to oust the Italians.

We wish to see more Indian investment because there is great potential. The economy is growing fast, Addis Ababa is developing very fast; a city where construction never stops is a meaningful sign! We also have mega projects, such as the biggest dam in Africa that we are currently building on the Nile River. These are the most important points when it comes to investment and trade.

You talked about the close cultural ties. What is the role of cultural diplomacy in Ethiopia’s foreign policy?

In the 21st century, there can be more successful investment and trade when citizens of one country have more information about another country; the state and the people. Public diplomacy is best practiced through mass media. That is why I am in India at the moment, to build a bridge between Indian media corporations and press institutes and Ethiopian counterparts. When members of the press come to Ethiopia, for example to report on mega projects, there is a possibility that this will result in more investment.

If we can provide more and more information, there will be more investment in different sectors in Ethiopia; so far I have not heard of any investor who has lost his business in Ethiopia; they make profits. We have to work on public diplomacy so that we get to know one another and get to know about opportunities. Tourism is one of these opportunities. Also, Ethiopia is a gateway to Africa. When journalists come to Addis Ababa [where the African Union headquarters are], they can also interact with and get information about other countries. Going to Ethiopia means accessing Africa as a whole.

“We cannot build democracy without vibrant media, without public participation, without tolerance and stability”. This quote is part of your commitment to a free press and a better media landscape in Ethiopia. What can you tell us about your first five months in office in regard to working towards achieving this?

You might have read in the recent report by Human Rights Watch and CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists] that Ethiopia represses freedom of expression. I would like to qualify that report. It is one-sided and doesn’t show the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. But that doesn’t mean that there is no problem in Ethiopia, there is a problem, but is has been exaggerated.

There is no strong media council in Ethiopia that could bridge the gap between government and practitioners, focusing on professionalism and ethics. For a long time, we also did not have schools for journalism. The first MA in Journalism and Communication was established in Ethiopia in 2004, the same year I got my MA from India and we have only just launched a PhD program.

So, we have limitations in professional journalism, and any political group, some of which are outside of Ethiopia, can easily manipulate journalists, mislead journalists and use journalists to spread propaganda and incite violence. When journalists deviate from responsible journalism and conspire with these groups, the government takes action. Although the government knows that these people are inciting violence, they are not killed but jailed. And they are not really journalists in the first place; they are politicians with other intentions, pretending to be journalists but writing to incite violence. This is something that the CPJ does not take into account.

So you are willing to work together with the CPJ to clear this up?

Yes. My assignment now is to help responsible journalists practice their profession and get legal protection whatever critical reports they write. That is why I am saying that without vibrant media we cannot imagine vibrant democracy, true democracy. That is my first priority. I have been teaching and promoting freedom of the press and now I have the power to help journalists practice that but they have to be free; they have to be responsible. Ethiopia is a diverse country and we don’t want one religious or ethnic group turned against another group. I don’t want any journalist to be jailed because they are reporting.

Thank you for your time, Excellency. One final question, you were educated in India. What did you like most about the country?

I liked the education there, especially the autonomy that Indian professors give you and the trust they have in you. This compelled me to work hard and produce good results. Because I respect my professor highly, I was trying to come up with a quality dissertation. The educational dimension is intense but more than that, the close, personal and friendly relationships make you feel that you are at home. I miss India and I am so happy that I have come. Thank you!

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