Obama’s Ethiopia visit promises little for democracy
Human rights activists and opposition parties don’t expect much to change in the African country, which has strong defence partnership with US but faces criticism for its democratic record
US president Barack Obama shakes hands with Ethiopia’s president Mulatu Teshome at the National Palace in Addis Ababa on Monday. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
When a young Ethiopian journalist, Simegnish Mengesha, got the chance to meet US president Barack Obama in May, a comment from a high-ranking US official was on her mind.
On a visit to Ethiopia two weeks earlier, Wendy R Sherman, the under-secretary of state for political affairs, had said she expected the country’s May 24th national election to be “free, fair, credible and open and inclusive”.
Critics of the Ethiopian government scoffed at the notion, saying there was no space for open political discourse in the country. And the words rang hollow to Ms Mengesha (30) because nine of her colleagues – bloggers and professional journalists – were arrested in a roundup in April 2014 and accused of supporting terrorism.
So when Ms Mengesha was invited to the White House to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, then found herself sitting with Mr Obama and two other journalists in the Roosevelt Room, she asked how Sherman could have made such a statement.
“President Obama said that although it was appropriate for the State Department and the United States government to encourage – as an aspiration – that elections will be free and fair, he recognised my legitimate concern,” she said.
Complex relationshipAmnesty International
The US state department later expressed concern about the results of the May election, in which the ruling coalition and allied parties won every seat in parliament. A statement from the department mentioned “continued restrictions on civil society, media, opposition parties, and independent voices and views”.
News media freedom and other human rights issues were on the agenda for Mr Obama’s visit, but the Ethiopian government spokesman said “subjects of mutual interest”, such as investment, trade and terrorism, would take precedence when the president met prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday.
And opposition parties do not expect Mr Obama’s visit to result in political change in Ethiopia, said Woretaw Wassie, head of finance for the Semayawi Party.
“Our supporters are not seeing this visit as such a big deal,” he said. “It is the duty of the Americans to do business with their allies, whether they are dictators or democrats.”
Ethiopians were looking to the visit, the first by a sitting American president, with mixed feelings, as residents in the capital, Addis Ababa, prepared for tight security and blocked roads.
While journalists such as Ms Simegnish and human rights activists would like to see greater pressure from the US, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Ethiopia, many Ethiopians bristle at the notion of interference in the affairs of their country.
Mahari Yohans, a political science lecturer at Mekelle University in the northern region of Tigray, said he did not think that Mr Obama could or should effect fundamental policy changes in a country that has fiercely defended its state-driven development model for 24 years.
“Organisations like Human Rights Watch will attempt to put pressure on Obama to put certain issues on the agenda,” he said, “but in Ethiopia nobody will accept that.”
With US economic assistance, which exceeded €616 million ($677 million) in 2014, Ethiopia has made great strides in reducing poverty and HIV, and improving access to health care and primary education.
Despite its proximity to Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, countries torn apart by violence and civil war, Ethiopia is comparatively stable and has become a major contributor to peacekeeping efforts across the continent. US assistance to the country included more than $1 million for security last year.
The White House has previously confirmed the presence of an American surveillance drone base in the country, but it is unclear what operations are under way now.
Although the US lags far behind countries such as China, Turkey and India in direct investment in Ethiopia, Obama’s two-year-old Power Africa initiative aims to increase energy investments on the continent. In Ethiopia, it has already brought US technical expertise to a geothermal power project led by Reykjavik Geothermal, an Icelandic company.
Despite muted hopes for this visit to stimulate political change in Ethiopia, advocates for the news media were encouraged by the recent release of some of the bloggers and journalists arrested last year. This month, after spending more than a year on trial, five of the nine were unexpectedly set free.
Ethiopian officials say their release had nothing to do with the president’s visit, but Ms Mengesha and many of her peers suspect otherwise.
While she hopes that Mr Obama will find a way to bring human rights issues to the fore, Ms Mengesha knows that defence and aid partnerships might be higher priorities.
“How and where Obama will find this balance and make his point, I really don’t know,” she said. “But I hope he does.”
– (Copyright New York Times 2015)