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On Ethiopia’s bid to join the BRICS

Ethiopias Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jingping during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People on 2 September 2018 in Beijing, China. Photo: IMAGO / VCG

More than 40 nations have expressed interest in joining the BRICS alliance of emerging economies formed by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Ethiopia, the second most populous country on the African continent, is one of them.

In recent years, Ethiopia has made headlines for all the wrong reasons: some 600,000 people have been killed, millions have been displaced, and a substantial number of human rights violations has been reported as a result of the war in Ethiopia’s northernmost region, Tigray. In addition, domestic conflicts between government forces and Oromo as well as Amhara militias have further destabilized what was once considered to be the anchor of the Horn of Africa. Years of drought, lack of grain supplies due the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, and misappropriation of food aid from the UN World Food Program have only exasperated the suffering. Moreover, the Tigray war has been an expensive endeavor and the inflation rate has hit 28.8%. Although Ethiopia has one of Africa’s largest and fastest-growing economies, its economic output currently ranks it only 61st in the world.

Jenny Ouédraogo is a Project Manager for the Horn of Africa and Cooperation with Afro-German and Black Community at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Against this backdrop, one might assume that joining the BRICS would be the last item on Ethiopia’s list of priorities. However, there are a number of potential benefits that could arise from the formation of the BRICSE.

A Bold Move for Economic Growth?

Africa’s two largest single trading partners, China and India, have already developed strong economic ties with Ethiopia over the past years. Yet, officially joining the alliance could give Ethiopia leverage by diversifying funding channels for future development financing: The Ethiopian government is currently negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over its request of at least USD 2 billion under a reform program. Ethiopia’s bid to join the BRICS could persuade the US and its allies, who largely fund and control the IMF, to act in favor of Ethiopian interests and refrain from further alienating its government.

Ethiopia would no longer be exclusively dependent on institutions such as the World Bank and IMF in times of economic difficulty.

On top of that, Ethiopia could benefit from the BRICS’ alternative structures to the dollar-backed Bretton Woods Institutions, such as the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA). These frameworks provide additional capital by offering financial support to the BRICS members, making them especially attractive to low and middle-income countries that have experienced the IMF’s structural adjustment and austerity programs. As a result, Ethiopia would no longer be exclusively dependent on institutions such as the World Bank and IMF in times of economic difficulty.

Strategic Partnerships to Strengthen Key Sectors

Joining the BRICS could enhance Ethiopia’s strategic partnerships and forge further collaborations with the BRICS member states in key sectors, such as agriculture, technology, energy and infrastructure. Over the past decade, China has fueled Africa’s “dam boom” by financing and constructing hydropower projects across the continent. As such, it has played a crucial role in the construction of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), set to become Africa's biggest power plant. The dam is expected to provide energy security throughout the country and the region, as it allows Ethiopia to control the Blue Nile’s water supply, having caused a long-standing feud with Egypt and Sudan.

Joining the BRICS could not only polish Ethiopia’s international standing and increase its government’s influence, but BRICS members could benefit by building relationships with African governments beyond Ethiopia, legitimizing their ambitions as major global players.

BRICS members, however, appear to be benefiting from the clash: External involvement in the GERD construction need not be reduced to its financial dimension as it is just as much a playground for China’s and Russia’s (and to some extent India’s) attempts at diplomacy, positioning themselves as mediators in the dispute — albeit unsuccessfully. Critical voices have already asserted that mega projects such as the GERD represent a broader trend: China and Russia taking on roles as global superpowers, fostering economic ties while simultaneously counterbalancing the global influence of the United States.

Geopolitical Tug of War

In line with this year’s motto of the 15th BRICS Summit in August, “BRICS and Africa: partnership for mutually accelerated growth, sustainable development and inclusive multilateralism”, forging alliances on the continent will be a priority. Subsequently, Ethiopia, the so-called diplomatic capital of Africa and host to the African Union as well as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, is the political entryway to the continent and a strategic asset if admitted as a BRICS member.

While it is unclear whether or not Ethiopia will eventually become a member, it is all the clearer that  overshadowed by a geopolitical circus  a BRICS membership will certainly not solve any of Ethiopia’s crucial problems.

Although the BRICS alliance strives for a multipolar international order, its identity is perceived to be an anti-Western one. During his three-day trip to Kenya and Ethiopia in May this year, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed the need for partnerships with so-called Global South nations as he discussed topics such as trade and cooperation agreements as well as debt reduction with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Kenyan President William Ruto. In line with his French and US American colleagues, President Emmanuel Macron and President Joe Biden, Scholz also advocated for a G20 seat for the African Union. With tensions rising over Ukraine and Taiwan, his prominent message to prepare for a multi-polar world can be seen as push back against the growing influence of BRICS member states Russia and China. Despite his efforts, however, Ethiopia’s relationships with Western powers have significantly deteriorated: After Ethiopia had received considerable support from the West in the past, human rights violations reported during the war in Tigray have led the Biden administration to sharply criticize Ahmed, a Nobel peace prize recipient.

This rift could be an opening to the BRICS nations, which, contrary to Biden’s human-rights-driven approach, insist on adhering to the principle of non-interference — much to the benefit of Ethiopia, where human rights are secondary. Joining the BRICS could not only polish Ethiopia’s international standing and increase its government’s influence, but BRICS members could benefit by building relationships with African governments beyond Ethiopia, legitimizing their ambitions as major global players.

BRICS Membership  The Solution to all Problems?

The expansion of the BRICS is likely to be a central topic of discussion at the upcoming summit. The current member states are torn, as they have neither come to an agreement on BRICS enlargement nor outlined membership criteria. While it is unclear whether or not Ethiopia will eventually become a member, it is all the clearer that — overshadowed by a geopolitical circus — a BRICS membership will certainly not solve any of Ethiopia’s crucial problems.