Ethiopia has been undergoing major changes since the arrival of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in April 2018, including the appointment of a raft of new ambassadors. Henok Teferra Shawl took his post as ambassador to France some three weeks ago. He told RFI about his objectives.
There have been many improvements in Ethiopia since Abiy’s election, including the release of all political prisoners, the lifting of the ban on political parties, a push for regional economic integration, and the renewal of relations with Eritrea after more than 25 years of strife.
And the naming of new international envoys signals the PM’s intention to improve relations on a much wider scale.
Henok Teferra’s appointment to Paris follows a visit by Abiy to France in October last year and, more recently, a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron to Ethiopia in March.
The new ambassador’s profile stands out in the often conventional world of diplomacy. Indeed, he combines a background in business with solid experience in the civil service, both involving serious responsibilities.
And there is an extra dimension – his long-established links with France.
He started his schooling at Lycée Guebre Mariam in Addis Ababa, the French international school (launched under the aegis of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was himself Francophone), at the age of four.
When his family moved to Germany, he went to the Französisches Gymnasium in Berlin, before going to the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis where he gained a Bachelor’s degree in Public and Private International Law.
This was followed by the University of Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris 1) where he completed a Master’s Degree in International Economic Law – that was in 1998.
His working experiences were in France – as a teacher in Créteil, and as a software developer in Levallois-Perret, both in the Paris region.
His appointment as ambassador to Paris comes in the wake of PM Abiy’s pledge last year that the ambassadorial posts would not be part of the old patronage system any longer.
Henok Teferra can put forward his experience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Addis Ababa, where amongst other tasks he served as adviser to Seyoum Mesfin, when the latter was foreign minister.
However, the world of corporate business claimed all his skills and efforts, starting with Ethiopian Airlines, which he joined as Director of Corporate Communications and International Affairs in 2010.
He worked in several executive management positions and in October 2017 became Vice-President of Strategic Planning and Alliances. In between, he was seconded in May 2015 as CEO to airline company ASKY, Ethiopian Airlines’ partner in West and Central Africa.
During president Macron’s visit to Ethiopia last month he and Abiy Ahmed signed agreements touching on military cooperation for the training of Ethiopia’s armed forces, but also focusing on the navy and air force president Abiy intends to re-launch or develop.
A number of French business executives accompanied president Macron – in that context, the appointment as ambassadors of high-ranking corporate executives such as Henok Teferra can be read as a sign that Ethiopia means business.
The move may even be linked to the change of tack that the Quai d’Orsay implemented some years ago when ambassadors were asked to be more business-minded. Henok Teferra does not disagree.
He has a clear idea of what he aims to achieve as ambassador to strengthen relations between Ethiopia and France.
In spite of the perestroika ushered in by Abiy when he came to power just over a year ago and the strong economic growth the country can boast, the political situation remains fragile, with the level of ethnic tensions high, bureaucracy remains heavy-handed and not particularly welcoming of foreign investments, the ease-of-doing business index is low, the level of the national debt is high and some 2-2.5 million young people enter the job market every year.
Henok Teferra is refreshingly open about the challenges his country faces, but he remains optimistic and is keen to point out one sign of progress: improved press freedom.
Let’s hope it’s a harbinger of more good news to come.