Politics

Ethiopia Wants to Join the BRICS Group of Nations – an Expert Unpacks the 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 global commodity price bust of 2014.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now given BRICS a new geopolitical salience as the members and their respective allies respond to events.

Read more: South Africa’s role as host of the BRICS summit is fraught with dangers. A guide to who is in the group, and why it exists

In the emerging world order there is also now increased demand to join BRICS, in part as a countervailing power to “the west”. Argentina, saudi arabia and late, Ethiopiahave expressed strong interest in becoming members.

I have researched the political economy of globalization in Africa over the last 30 years. I have specifically examined the scramble for Africa by the US and China, South Africa’s involvement in BRICSthe nature of BRICS engagement with Africa and market and resource access 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.

Opportunities

Ethiopia has cited its 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 through helps and security cooperation. But its relations with the west have soured as a result of the civil warin which it human rights violations were reported. Joining BRICS would make the country more geostrategically important, perhaps encouraging western powers to downplay human rights concerns, as they have in the past in the interests of “realpolitik”.

Alternative growth frontier: Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, at over 5% a year. It has developed strong economic ties with China in recent decades. Similarly, Indian companies have been acquiring land in Ethiopia. China and India are now Africa’s two largest single 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 is negotiating a financial package with the International Monetary Fund. Joining BRICS might give it greater leverage. Western powers, which largely control the IMF, might be more wary 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 to non interference in the sovereign affairs of other states, with the qualification that President Lula de Silva of Brazil talking 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 heavily criticalized as a war-monger during the civil war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Joining the BRICS club would show that his government is still politically acceptable to some major world powers.

The risks

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.