Ethiopia wants to join Brics: Expert unpacks pros and cons
A few years ago, the Brics grouping – Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa – had lost salience because three of its members were in severe economic difficulty. Brazil, Russia and South Africa are primarily natural resource exporters and were badly affected by the globalcommodity price bustof 2014.
Russia’sinvasionof Ukraine has now given Brics a new geopolitical salience as the members and their respective allies respond to events.
In the emerging world order, there is also nowincreased demandto join Brics, in part as a countervailing power to “the west”.
Argentina,Saudi Arabiaand lately,Ethiopia, have expressed strong interest in becoming members.
Read:Ethiopia applies to join BRICS bloc
I have researched the political economy ofglobalisation in Africaover the last 30 years. I have specifically examined the scramble for Africa bythe US and China,South Africa’s involvement in Brics, the nature ofBrics engagement with Africaandmarket and resourceaccess by Brics in Southern Africa.
It would be a major coup for Ethiopia if it were able to join the grouping as it would raise its global profile, allow it to interact and coordinate more closely with some of the major world powers and move the discourse beyond the recent civil war there, potentially enabling it to attract more investment.
Ethiopia hascitedits key role in founding the African Union and other institutions, along with its national interest as grounds for seeking Brics membership. In my opinion, there are five key reasons why Ethiopia would want to join the grouping.
Deteriorating relations with western powers: Ethiopia has historically depended on substantial western support throughaidandsecuritycooperation. But its relations with the westhave souredas a result of thecivil war, in which human rights violations werereported. Joining Brics would make the country more geostrategically important, perhaps encouraging western powers to downplay human rights concerns,as they have in the pastin the interests of “realpolitik”.
Alternative growth frontier: Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, atover 5 percent a year. It has developed strongeconomic tieswith China in recent decades. Similarly,Indian companieshave beenacquiring landin Ethiopia. China and India are now Africa’stwo largestsingle trading partners (not counting the European Union as a single entity. Joining Brics would signal openness and lead to greater cooperation through platforms like the business council and forum. It could also add impetus to the “resurgent Ethiopia” narrative, an image the authorities are keen to promote to attract investments.
Negotiations over finance: The Ethiopian government isnegotiatinga financial package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF.
Read:Ethiopia seeks to borrow $2bn from IMF
Joining Brics might give it greater leverage. Western powers, which largely control the IMF, might be warier of alienating Ethiopia in Brics and driving it further “into the arms” of China. The creation of a new Brics currency, to challenge US dollar hegemony, is on the agenda and its existing Contingency Reserve Arrangement already partly competes with the IMF.
Non-interference policy: Brics powers rhetorically largely subscribe tonon-interferencein the sovereign affairs of other states, with the qualification that President Lula de Silva of Braziltalked about“non-indifference” to human rights when he was previously in power and Russia has violated the principle through invasions and election interference, amongst others. Ethiopia may be interested in the political cover that joining Brics would provide. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has received political cover from China, and some would argue from South Africa. The Ethiopian government may be keen to avoid human rights governance conditions attached to new loans, aid or debt relief from the west.
A prime minister seeking new friends:Brics membership would help restore the tarnished image of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is a Nobel peace prize recipient. Ahmed was heavilycriticisedas a warmonger during the civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Read:Looting, rape stalk Ethiopia’s Tigray
Joining the Brics club would show that his government is still politically acceptable to some major world powers.
There would of course be risks in Ethiopia joining the Brics. Western powers might perceive it as drifting into the alternative geopolitical bloc or alignment, which could reduce aid and investment from them. But this could also have advantages for Ethiopia’s relations with the west by making the country more geo-strategically important.
Based on past experience, Ethiopia would be an unlikely addition to the grouping. The last and only country to be admitted after the group’s founding was South Africa in 2010. Other countries have applied and have not been admitted. Brics now operates in what is sometimes described as aBrics-plusformat with countries such as Egypt already members of its development bank and all African leaders invited to the up-coming Brics’ summit in South Africa.
Ethiopia’s economy,estimatedat around $126.78 billion in 2022, is less than half the size ofSouth Africa’s $405.87 billion. South Africa is by far the smallest economy in the Brics. But in some ways Ethiopia might be seen as a more representative African country in Brics than South Africa. Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Its capital, Addis Ababa, is sometimes described as the continent’s diplomatic capital. The outcome of Ethiopia’s application will likely be known after the next summit in August.
ByPadraig Carmody- Professor in Geography, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.