“Le Point” has obtained the (long) shopping list of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, sent to the Elysee: Rafales, helicopters and nuclear missiles. By Lavrilleux Ariane

Two months before being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Ethiopian Prime Minister sent a letter to “His Excellency” President Emmanuel Macron. On July 22, 2019, Abiy Ahmed asked France to help it “strengthen the Ethiopian air force” by providing it, on credit, with a detailed, three-page state-of-the-art arsenal. This list includes: 12 combat aircraft (including Rafale and Mirage 2000), 18 helicopters and 2 military transport aircraft manufactured by Airbus, 10 Dassault drones, electronic jamming systems and, even more surprisingly, some thirty M51 missiles with a range of more than 6,000 kilometers… and nuclear-headed! An extravagant (and illegal) request, to say the least, given that both France and Ethiopia have signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

For the rest, France certainly endorsed a new defense partnership in March 2019, but no one expected such a military appetite and formalized so quickly from one of the poorest countries on the planet. If we refer to the selling prices of previous similar contracts, the bill could exceed 4 billion euros.

Visiting Addis Ababa last spring, Emmanuel Macron’s goal was to expand China’s trade and develop naval forces (which disappeared after the split and independence of Eritrea), writes Point journalist Patrick Forestier. “This cooperation with France is not short-term, it is strategic, it is old and it can go far beyond the naval forces,” Abiy Ahmed said at the time. It’s all in the “beyond.” While the former military-turned-prime minister dreams of the same missiles as the French nuclear submarines, his country has not had access to the Red Sea since 1993. As his shopping list suggests, his first priority is to restore the image of his air force, breathless and “90 years old”.

Leader of East Africa…

Internationally, the leadership of “Abiy” impresses. One year after the peace agreement with the 60-year-old Eritrean enemy, the Prime Minister has established himself as a mediator in Sudan to facilitate the ongoing democratic transition. But not everyone in the region sees this geopolitical renaissance in a good light.

Egypt, in particular, is concerned about Ethiopia’s stubbornness in wanting to fill its future dam (“Renaissance”) as soon as possible, without worrying about the dramatic consequences on the flow of the Nile irrigating 90% of Egypt’s fields. In the midst of a diplomatic crisis, the Ethiopian Prime Minister said last October: “If we are to go to war, we can mobilize millions of people to defend the dam.” Since the intervention of a U.S. mediation in early November, tensions have gone down a notch, but the dispute is far from resolved.

Officially, France refuses to get involved in this thorny issue, especially since it has forged a strategic partnership with Al-Sissi’s Egypt, one of the main buyers of French armaments since 2014. But Rafale with the Ethiopian flag could snot this Franco-Egyptian relationship. “The Egyptians would take this badly, because we are more than competing with the Ethiopians, who have done everything to block the diplomatic route,” says Tewfik Aclimandos, a professor at Cairo University and a connoisseur of the Egyptian General Staff.

By modernizing its aviation, “Ethiopia wants to reaffirm its status as a regional power, vis-à-vis its slightly more skeptical neighbors, such as Kenya and Egypt, or Somalia,” says Sabine Planel of the Institute for Research on Development (IRD). According to the country’s expert, however, these military ambitions are not at odds with its image as a regional stabilizer, since, by “building a military arsenal, Ethiopia is strengthening its credibility in the region as a local peacekeeper and presents itself as a bulwark against the jihadist movements present in the Horn of Africa”.

… on the brink of internal implosion

Ethiopian soldiers are already participating in several peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. In areas where international organizations are increasingly delegating their interventions to local actors, Ethiopia intends to “adapt its army to future operations and a regional deterrent driving joint UN interventions,” says a defense analyst from the region who wishes to remain anonymous and assures that Ethiopia has also turned to the United States. Russia and Italy to strengthen its arsenal.

This role as a regional police contrasts with his inability to manage his own internal tensions. Last November, 86 people were killed in protests called by a political opponent. “Ethiopia is on the brink of internal implosion. A more comprehensive restructuring of the military sector (assuming that men follow up arms, and even if it would be financed from other budgets) would probably promote an authoritarian and violent resolution of the current crisis. Any strengthening of this sector in a crisis situation must be monitored very carefully” warns Sabine Planel.

In debt, can Ethiopia afford it?

Beyond political considerations, could Ethiopia repay the French state? In the letter sent to Emmanuel Macron, the Prime Minister himself acknowledges his “glaring lack of foreign currency” and asks for a loan “to be delivered in a short period of time”. The communication department of the Élysée assures le Point that “the agreement signed last March paves the way for sectoral cooperation in the field of the navy and the air force”, but that France “is not at this level of discussion”.

With a public debt of 61%, according to the World Bank, this country of 110 million people is already accumulating foreign borrowing. Between 2006 and 2015, China lent it $13 billion in exchange for licensing investment projects. In June 2018, Ethiopia’s central bank received $1 billion from the United Arab Emirates, which is believed to have played a role in the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where their backbone is located in their war in Yemen. Another two billion Emirati dollars will also finance investments in Ethiopia, seen by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Zayed as a linchpin of his policy of expansion and influence in Africa.