UK’s ambassador to Ethiopia on Africa’s new emerging market


January 9, 2015 3:40 pm

James Jeffrey

 Greg Dorey at his home in the British embassy compound in Addis Ababa

Greg Dorey at his home in the British embassy compound in Addis Ababa


o enter the ambassador’s residence in the British embassy compound in Addis Ababa is to immerse oneself in the history of UK involvement in Ethiopia. Inside the hallway stand several columns of roughly-hewn grey stone on which are etched the names of Britain’s former diplomatic representatives.

There is Walter Plowden, appointed in 1848, who was a friend of the enigmatic Ethiopian emperor Tewodros; Duncan Cameron appointed in 1861 and whose imprisonment by the same Tewodros led to one of the most bizarre and costly British military expeditions of the imperial age; and Wilfred Thesiger, appointed in 1909, father of the famous explorer of the same name who was born in the compound in 1910.

The next addition to that roster will be Greg Dorey, the current British ambassador and representative of UK interests in Ethiopia, a rapidly changing country, which for the past decade has achieved average annual GDP growth of about 7 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The hallway in the British embassy compound in Addis Ababa©Petterik Wiggers/Panos PicturesHallway

“We will be increasingly changing programmes from providing food security and basic services to those focused on economic development,” says Dorey. “Ethiopia’s aspiration to become a middle-income country with zero net carbon growth by 2025 is achievable.”

His ambassadorial role also includes working with the Ethiopian government to improve regional security on issues such as tackling climate change, and encouraging UK trade and investment.

“Ethiopia is a market that any globally minded company must take seriously,” says Dorey, while acknowledging that “you need patience”. It is a virtue he displays plenty of, particularly when engaging the Ethiopian government on contentious issues related to human rights and opening up political space for opposition parties. And again when it comes to the frequent visa-related phone inquiries he receives.

As Dorey breaks from his busy schedule, bright autumn sunlight floods the window of the six-bedroom residence. In addition to his ambassadorial role, which began in 2011, Dorey is also the non-resident ambassador for Djibouti, one of Ethiopia’s neighbours, and the UK’s permanent representative to the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa based in the Ethiopian capital. One result of wearing four job hats is that for him there is never “an average day”.

A stone column bearing the names of past diplomatic representatives in the British embassy compound in Addis Ababa©Petterik Wiggers/Panos PicturesA stone column bearing the names of past diplomatic representatives

Dorey grew up in the Cotswolds, England, before achieving first-class honours in modern history at Oxford university in 1977. He was considering a career in journalism when he noticed friends taking exams for the civil service. “The rector at my college often pushed people in that direction — admittedly he didn’t with me,” says Dorey. “To my amazement I got through the three-stage selection process for the civil service. None of my friends had.”

Initially, he joined the British ministry of defence, as he had “no idea” which department would suit him best. After a secondment to the foreign and commonwealth office, serving as part of the UK delegation to Nato in Brussels, he decided his FCO peers were having a more interesting time and transferred permanently in 1986. “An education in history is a good preparation,” says Dorey. “It corresponds well with many aspects of diplomatic life: processing information; making judgments based on partial information, sometimes with none at all; seeing an event from different points of view and analysing why it came to that result.”

Favourite things

Dorey opts for a porcelain cockerel and pheasant. “When we were in Hungary people used to buy these as gifts for when they went to dinner parties,” he says. “Now they’re much too expensive for that. We found these two at the Ecseri flea market in Budapest . . . I am very fond of Hungary and was there at a really transitional time — these are evocative of that period.”

A posting to Hungary as first secretary between 1989 and 1992, during “one of the most interesting periods of modern Hungarian history” just as the cold war ended, left a lasting impression on Dorey. He returned to Budapest in 2007 as British ambassador. In between, he served in Islamabad from 1996, during a period of political tumult in Pakistan, and moved to Hong Kong in 2000, where he experienced the aftermath of the 1997 handover to China, as well as “a stupendous view out over the South China Sea” from the family home.

Dorey says he hopes that living overseas has given him a greater understanding and tolerance of others. “If you’re not interested in meeting people then you shouldn’t be in the FCO. You can never get to the same level as locals but sometimes you can detect things locals miss because as an outsider you’re more motivated to get dug in.”

Built in 1910 in the style of an elegant colonial bungalow, the residence in Addis Ababa is surrounded by eucalyptus trees and lush gardens that play host to all manner of wildlife, including a large lumbering tortoise. Although it “can feel a bit like a hotel” due to constant functions and visitors, Dorey says it remains home for him and his wife, Alison, as well as for their three children — all in their twenties — when they visit.

The rooms are decorated with a variety of artefacts and paintings — some owned by the British government and others by Dorey and his wife. Many reflect the family’s travels: a small replica of Hong Kong’s Star Ferry; a Chinese wedding basket; charcoal sketches of camels and water buffalo in Pakistan. On the wall opposite, a large, brightly coloured Ethiopian painting depicts, in comic strip-like panels, Elizabeth II’s state visit to the country in 1965.

The main sitting room in the British embassy compound in Addis Ababa©Petterik Wiggers/Panos PicturesMain sitting room

The corridors are filled with historical references. An old black-and-white photographic print on a wall shows a bearded man in native dress, namely Captain Charles Tristram Sawyer Speedy, who was an adviser during the 1868 expedition to release Duncan Cameron. Sitting on his lap is Prince Alemayehu, the young son of Tewodros, who Speedy and his wife looked after following the emperor’s death at the end of the campaign.

Apart from that expedition and the period of Ethiopia’s communist Derg regime between 1974 and 1991, the “association between the UK and Ethiopia has been rather positive,” says Dorey. He points out that the UK was one of the first foreign countries to cement international relations with Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century, hence the present-day compound bequeathed by Emperor Menelik II in 1896. British forces played a dominant role during the liberation of Ethiopia from fascist Italian occupation during the second world war, adds Dorey, and the British Council has been active in the country for more than 70 years now. Ethiopia also remains the biggest recipient of British overseas aid, amounting to about £1.3bn over four years.

Library in the British embassy compound in Addis Ababa©Petterik Wiggers/Panos PicturesLibrary

To the sceptics who wonder why so much British money is being spent — the UK has pledged 0.7 per cent of its GDP to international aid — in distant places like Ethiopia, Dorey has some rejoinders. “If you are complaining about immigration, by giving people more chance of a life at home you will stem that immigration.” Most of Africa’s problems are rooted in poverty, he adds, and have the potential to impact the UK. “There’s a golden thread theory of how everything is interrelated: lack of education and jobs can eventually lead to terrorism — and we all pay.”

He acknowledges that successes are not easily achieved in Ethiopia, which remains hampered by many problems and bureaucratic hurdles. “But when you get a success it’s very rewarding.”

By now, the brilliant afternoon sunlight has faded. Outside the residence a Toyota land cruiser with a small Union Jack is waiting to take the ambassador to an evening function at the New Zealand embassy. “There’s enough going on to attend three events a night,” says Dorey. “Tonight I’m hoping to buttonhole an Ethiopian minister on an issue.”

An Ethiopian security guard wearing a blue beret lowers a Union Jack down a flagpole, folds it up and carefully carries it up the steps into the residence. “Trying to retain your personality in a space owned by the British government can be tricky,” says Dorey, who will leave Ethiopia at the end of 2015. “It’s important to have things that anchor you to home.”

Photographs: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures

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