INTERVIEW: German ‘Strongly Encourages’ Abiy’s Reform in Ethiopia

“Times are already challenging…, so a constitutional crisis on top of it should be avoided,” says the outgoing German Ambassador

ADDIS ABABA – The outgoing ambassador of Germany to Ethiopia, Brita Wagener, has witnessed major changes in Ethiopia since her arrival over three years ago.

In her last interview as Germany’s top envoy in Addis Ababa, the ambassador tells The Daily Monitor’s Sisay Sahlu about her assessment regarding the ongoing reforms, the upcoming election, and the challenges and opportunities the ongoing change has brought to the country.


The Monitor: How do you see the current development path in Ethiopia, and can you suggest an experience that we should learn from Germany in this challenging time?

Ambassador Brita Wagener: Ethiopia has embarked on a path towards democracy and economic development that enjoys broad international support, including from Germany. The global COVID-19 pandemic presents a challenge to this endeavor. While each country has to decide on its own response in dealing with the virus and the impact it has on the economy and society, we can only overcome this challenge together as an international community.

Germany has over the past decades benefitted tremendously from its membership in the European Union and numerous multilateral institutions. This is also why Germany strongly supports international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the African Centre for Disease Control which are at the center of the global Covid-19 response mechanism.

Crisis situations can bring out the best and the worst in people. This is also true when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. On many fronts, the pandemic puts to a test the societal fabric of a country. I am confident that the Ethiopian people and the Ethiopian government will overcome this challenge by focusing on individual responsibility, by practicing solidarity and working towards the common good. I can assure you that Germany will continue to support Ethiopia at this critical junction.

The Monitor: Last year, Volkswagen agreed to expand its business in Ethiopia. How are the actual works on the ground progressing?

Ambassador Wagener: Volkswagen is keen to explore the possibilities of investment in Ethiopia. As far as I know, talks are still ongoing between the management of Volkswagen and the Ethiopian Investment Commission and other government officials. Volkswagen made clear, that a certain environment has to be created in order to attract an automotive industry to Ethiopia.

It is not only about Volkswagen as a single manufacturing company, it is about the prospect of having an automotive industry with a supply chain in Ethiopia. The need to establish a specific legal and business framework for this kind of industry in Ethiopia was highlighted to Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed. One must not forget that Ethiopia is in an African wide or even worldwide competition for investors like Volkswagen.

I cross my fingers that Volkswagen’s engagement in Ethiopia will materialize soon.

The Monitor: How about other German Companies? Are there interests expressed to invest here, it could be after the pandemic is over…

Ambassador Wagener: For German companies, Ethiopia is a very interesting investment destination with over 100 million people and a very ambitious political and economic reform agenda. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic will slow down the investment plans for some time since many German companies have been impacted by the pandemic and they have to adapt their business plans to this challenge, too.

But I am sure, that they will come up with new investment plans in the near future. I am happy to have witnessed during my 3 years tenure some office openings of German companies in Ethiopia like Siemens, Voith Hydro, Krones and BASF Vegetable Seeds.

I strongly encourage the Ethiopian government to continue the current reform agenda like the privatization of state-owned companies and monopolies despite the difficult circumstances with Covid-19 right now. This reform agenda will definitely lead to more investments from Germany!

The Monitor: What is your take on  Ethiopia’s delayed elections?  

Ambassador Wagener: Not only Ethiopia but also international observers like Germany are looking forward to the long-awaited elections since they represent a democratic milestone for this country. Even if the pandemic necessitated a postponement, we still hope that we will witness peaceful, free, and fair elections in the near future.

We are encouraging Ethiopia to continue the balanced course taken thus far. Times are already challenging enough with the Covid-19 crisis, so a constitutional crisis on top of it should be avoided. We will continue our support for a fair and free electoral process in Ethiopia and investigate where we can be of help with our own experience.

The Monitor: What is your and government of Germany’s stance on the politics of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Egyptian stand on Ethiopia’s government against using its resource utilization on the Nile River?

Ambassador Wagener: We are observing the developments regarding the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) very closely and realize the immense importance it has for all three countries concerned. We welcome Ethiopia’s willingness to continue negotiations with Egypt and Sudan. Reaching a compromise solution that everyone can live with is not easy, but essential to the stability of the region. Aggravating the situation would be in nobody’s interest.

Monitor: Germany has been very supportive of Ethiopia’s Technical and Vocational Education and Training or TVETs. Can you tell us about it and also give us your assessment of them so far?  

Ambassador Wagener: Our work in TVET is one of the cornerstones of our development cooperation – and in my opinion, this cooperation has been an absolute success story so far. Ten years ago Ethiopia had less than 500 TVET colleges throughout the country – now there are over 1400. 130,000 young people graduate each year from these colleges with a new skill set.

Germany has supported Ethiopia through supplying state-of-the-art training equipment, but also through technical expertise on developing occupational standards, and curricula for training students and teachers as well as establishing the institutional and legal framework, including encouraging the private sector to get increasingly involved.

Ethiopia is on a very good track towards reaching its goal of becoming a middle-income country in the near future and it has one very strong asset: its youth. However, to capitalize on this potential, investing in skills development is paramount. This does not necessarily mean university education – look at Germany: Germany’s economic success is based on its Mittelstand, its SMEs. For these firms to survive in a globalized world, they need well-skilled workers.

I think the TVET system in Ethiopia is in a very good position to deliver. We have – together with the government of Ethiopia – spent the last 20 years or so establishing a system that caters to the demands of the economy and the industry. Recently, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education has again proven its ownership by launching a flagship program: “ESHI – TVET for sustainable development”. We are supporting the rollout of this program through a basket fund. I think this shows very well the government of Ethiopia’s commitment to strengthening the TVET system in Ethiopia.

Finally, if I could have a wish for the TVET system in Ethiopia, I would wish for it to lose its stigma. TVET is still being seen as inferior to university education. I wish this were different and that more young people and especially girls would actively pursue a career through the TVET system: again, in Germany, skilled workers coming out of the TVET system are really the backbone of its economic success and often land in very well-paid jobs.

The Monitor: How do you see the role of Ethiopia in East Africa?

Ambassador Wagener: Ethiopia is not only the country with the largest population in East Africa but also has great strategic importance for the whole region. We appreciate that during its fundamental political and economic reform process Ethiopia continues to pursue its foreign policy of actively contributing to peace and stability in the neighboring countries. PM Dr. Abiy’s very successful initiatives to reestablish relationships with Eritrea and to enable peace in Sudan are unforgotten. He continues to reach out to Somalia which also needs Ethiopia’s support. And we welcome that Ethiopia remains very active in the multilateral field, especially in IGAD.

The Monitor: Since you are concluding your Ambassadorial term here, what are the best experiences that you could tell the rest of the world about Ethiopia?

Ambassador Wagener: I had the privilege to serve in Ethiopia during particularly exciting times. The changes the country and its people have embarked on are truly impressive. I will follow from afar how things will be unfolding and wish Ethiopia a lot of success and luck in these endeavors. May it lead to freedom and prosperity for all.

Image: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a conference in Berlin in 2018. (Photo File/AFP)