APPG Visit to Djibouti and Ethiopia

Members of the APPG for Ethiopia and Djibouti visited both countries in late November 2013. The Group consisted of Laurence Robertson MP, Stephen Hepburn MP and Baroness Hooper, accompanied by Ms Anne Marie Adams. We were grateful to the British Ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti, H.E. Greg Dorey, and his staff, who were very helpful in setting up the visit and the appointments. The UK Honorary Consul also hosted a reception to foster exchanges with Djiboutian Parliamentarians on democratic development and relations between both countries. UK staff on the ground were obviously doing a great job in the region.

One of the main points which came out of the visit is how determined the Djibouti government is to expand the use of the English language in the country. Mainly French speaking, they recognise that they are in a region where English is widely spoken and, as they are looking to engage more internationally, particularly in terms of business activity, that they need to be able to speak English as well.

A number of the Ministers we saw made the point about the importance of learning English. They would like to engage with the UK in this respect, by sending groups for study visits and also by pairing with English schools. Our Ambassador made the point that the British Council can also help in this respect.

The other main point to come out of the visit was that an enormous amount of investment is being made in Djibouti, mainly on infrastructure projects. It is difficult to total quantify, but the investments will run to billions of US Dollars, which, for a country with a population of less than a million people, is significant. Much of this money is being provided by China, but is also coming from Russia, Turkey and Iran. These countries are investing money, but not necessarily expecting immediate returns. It could be that these investments will be turned into loans, which may present an issue when be required to pay it back, but it appears that, if this is the case, they will be seen as soft loans.

This investment, along with their desire to use English, is part of their determined effort to build an international business and transport hub in Djibouti. Expansion of the port (which serves a number of countries in the region), the airport and the rail network are ambitious plans and will have a profound effect on the country and the wider area. A number of contractors and companies have been identified for some of the work which will need carrying out, but there are still major opportunities for other companies to tender for, and obtain, contracts. These projects will provide significant business opportunities for companies and, given the desire of their government to engage with the UK, British companies would seem to be in pole position with regard to bidding for this business.

Politically, much was made of the fact that the opposition parties do not take their seats in the Assembly. We discussed this with Ministers, but also with representatives of the parties themselves. The opposition members claim that they won the elections outright, but that the detailed results were not announced and the government only allowed them to “win” ten seats. They are refusing to take these seats because they feel that to do so would be to endorse the elections results which the government say occurred. The issue and the claims are being investigated by the African Union. The APPG members suggested to them that it would be better if they did take their seats. We felt that they would at least have a platform from which to put forward their ideas and policies, because, if the AU didn’t find in their favour, they would have no such means of getting their message across. However, they said they prefer to wait for the outcome of the investigations.

The Ministers we met were professional and generally impressive. They all spoke with enthusiasm about their projects and ambitions and seemed to be filled with energy and displayed determination. There is obviously a lot going on in the country!

Overall, it was a very useful visit. There is obviously a determination in Djibouti to reach out to the wider world and to engage with the UK. The use of the English language is one of the main motivating factors for this engagement, but there are other reasons for it as well. The Group certainly sees the benefit of continuing to engage with Djibouti, partly to encourage cooperation and foster good relations between Djibouti and its neighbours (especially Ethiopia), and also to provide British companies with possible markets and business opportunities.

As well as visiting Djibouti, some members of the delegation were also able to visit Ethiopia briefly. While there, they visited Pickards in Addis Ababa, which manufactures leather goods such as coats and gloves. A British company, they also have a tannery outside Addis. They currently employ about 1500 people in total, but have plans to employ 5,000 over the next few years. And while in Addis, Stephen, Laurence and Annie took part in the Great Ethiopian Run, along with 40,000 other people, although for the Group it amounted to the Great Ethiopian Walk!

Laurence Robertson MP