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Ethiopia wants to join the BRICS group of nations: an expert unpacks the pros and cons

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) with China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2018. Andy Wong / AFP via Getty Images

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 lately, Ethiopia, have expressed strong interest in becoming members.

I have researched the political economy of globalisation 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 BRICS, the 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 aid and security cooperation. But its relations with the west have soured as a result of the civil war, in which 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 talked 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 criticised 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.

Photo of Russian president Vladimir Putin with Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed on the sidelines of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on 23 October 2019
Abiy Ahmed with Vladimir Putin. Sergei Chirikov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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.

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 a BRICS-plus format 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, estimated at around US$126.78 billion in 2022, is less than half the size of South Africa’s US$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.

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