Q & A with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn

Mr. Prime Minister, I’d like to ask you about perception. For all the incredible things that are happening here in Ethiopia – a strengthening economy, great investment right now in renewable energy infrastructure – there is still a perception that human rights abuses are tolerated here, and that could really be affecting international investment in your economy. Are you concerned about that? If so, what might you be doing to change that perception?

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn: We fully understand that the perception and the reality do not, in many cases, match as far as Ethiopia is concerned. Therefore, we want to work on this issue; it’s our concern. But something that has to be understood is that this is a fledgling democracy, and we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices and culture in this country. And it’s not easy within a few decades – in our case, only two decades of democratization – that we can get rid of all this attitudinal problems, and some challenges we face. But we feel that we are on the right track, and there is a constitutional democracy which we all are obliged to observe for the sake of our own people and prosperity.

So I think this is one thing that we have to work on. That’s why I said in my speech that we have to learn from the best practices of the United States and age-old democracies, because this is a process of learning and doing, and I think we fully understand that. And, of course, we also know our limitations and we have to work on our limitations for the betterment of our own people. So I think that is a concern that we have to work on.

What do you expect from the United States and the rest of the international community in terms of supporting the peace and security efforts in the Horn of Africa, as well as how successful was your bilateral discussion with President Obama, specifically in regards to economic ties?

As far as the economic cooperation is concerned, I mentioned that Ethiopia is one of the vibrant economies, which is rising. And we need – you know, we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. We need a comprehensive quality investment from every corner of the globe. And specifically, at this time, we agreed that the President is going to support us, his government is going to support us in bringing quality investment to Ethiopia.

We have longstanding relations, diplomatic relations, but the investment flow doesn’t match that long history of cooperation between Ethiopia and the United States. So I think there is room. Recently, we have a number of renowned companies from the United States showing up to invest in my country. But we also understand that we have to improve our investment climate and environment where there are stifling issues here and there, bureaucratic bottlenecks that has to be addressed. And we are on top of them and we can address them. I think by doing so, we can attract more foreign direct investment from the United States.

As far as the security cooperation in concerned, we as Africans believe that Africans should take our own responsibility by our own hand. We need support from the United States, but it doesn’t mean that the United States is going to replace us in picking our own agenda in Africa.

That’s why Ethiopia is contributing peacekeeping force – a number which the President has mentioned. And we’re also working on increasing the capability of our troops in peacekeeping. But the most important thing is we have to engage the people of Africa and their respective countries to make peace and the governance system that helps the people to engage.

So I think we are on the right track. And we can make changes in Somalia and, I am hopeful, also in South Sudan. And I think in many cases, this shouldn’t mar the picture of Africa where, in large, Africa is now rising, and Africa is showing – becoming the next growing tide for economic development and cooperation. So I think we are on the right track in this cooperation.

Would you also add your thoughts on the situation in South Sudan and how to bring peace over there?

As regards to South Sudan, I cannot agree more with the President. But we should also recognize that this process has taken a long, long negotiation period. And, on the other hand, people are suffering on the ground, and we cannot let this go unchecked. And I think the meeting which we are making this afternoon has a strong signal and message that has to be passed to the parties in South Sudan. So I think this is very much essential. And I fully recognize what the President has said, and we'll see how it happens.

The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks your country as the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa. Just before President Obama arrived here, some journalists were released. Many more are still being detained. Would you explain what issues or objections you have to a free press?

As far as Ethiopia is concerned, we need journalists. We need more of them and quality of them, because we have not only bad stories to be told, but we have many success stories that have to be told. And so we need you. This is very important. But we need ethical journalism to function in this country.

And there is limitation capacity in all aspects of our works, there is also capacity limitations in journalism in that way. Maybe those of you who are in developed nations, you can help our journalists – domestic journalists – to increase their capacity to work on ethical manner. But the only thing as a leader of this nation we do not want to see is journalism has to be respected when it doesn’t pass the line; that working with violent terrorist groups is not allowed – even in the United States. And we need civilized journalism as a culture and as a profession. So I think my government is committed to this issue that we need many young journalists to come up and help this country to understand what’s going on. And for us, it's very important to be criticized because we also get feedback to correct our mistakes and limitations. So we need journalists. And I think this is our view. And rest assured that we’ll continue to do so, because the media is one of the institutions that have to be nurtured for democratic discourse. And so that's why we agree that institutional capacity-building in all aspects of democracy in this country is essential.