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Friday, July 31, 2015

US President Barack Obama made history this week by becoming the first sitting president to visit Ethiopia and to deliver a speech before the African Union.

Obama's plan to visit Ethiopia was rebuked by human right advocates who argued that it would award undue praise to the Ethiopian government, which has pursued a crackdown on local media workers resulting in dozens of detentions and multi-year prison sentences, including the jailing of six members of the Global Voices community. The ruling party also secured 100% of parliamentary seats in the May 2015 elections, leaving Ethiopians suspicious that authorities had interfered with electoral systems.

The tone of the disappointment and anger began to ease after the release of several bloggers and journalists prior to the arrival of President Obama.

President Barack Obama and Ethiopia Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn hold a press conference at the National Palace
Barack Obama and PM Hailemariam Desalegn hold a press conference at the National Palace. Public Domain photo by the White House.

During his visit, President Obama and PM Desalegn were joined for a state dinner by prominent Ethiopian figures including artists, sportsmen and politicians. However, the leader of the Ethiopian Blue Party Yilikal Getnet turned down an invitation to the dinner, saying “it would amount to taking part in a luxurious dinner while millions suffer in Ethiopia.”

Displeased with President Obama's support for the Ethiopian government, Jawar Mohammed, a prominent advocate in Ethiopia-Oromo affairs, wrote on Facebook:

The US is now firmly and officially endorsing authoritarianism in Ethiopia

When we look at the statements by US officials Donald Booth (former ambassador to Ethiopia who said the 2010 election was good enough), Wendy Sherman (Deputy Secretary of State), Susan Rice (national security adviser) and now president Obama who in his speech twice declared the regime is democratically elected, we reach a conclusion that the United States [has] decided to publicly align itself with the Ethiopian authoritarian regime, both in words and deeds. The US has always supported this regime practically through massive aid, however, even George Bush's administration maintained verbal criticism of the authoritarian nature of the regime. The US has now gone blunt as Obama's administration has officially and openly endorsed the ‘developmental dictatorship’ narrative. Why is that?

1) Somalia- after the attempt to replace Ethiopia by Kenya and Uganda as its own extended hand for messing with Somalia's internal affairs failed to produce result, America is now back to the old tactic of fully relying on Ethiopian army and intelligence.

2) China- While US remains increasingly dependent on Ethiopia for its security interest, China has developed unmatched influence in the economy. William Davison nicely summarized this reality in his latest report, writing ” When Barack Obama became the first sitting President of the United States to touch down in Ethiopia’s capital on Sunday evening, it was at an airport being upgraded using a $250-million Chinese loan. His convoy then zipped along a six-lane urban expressway, also funded by the Export-Import Bank of China, to Meskel Square, where the two lines of a new Chinese-built electric railway intersect. Towering over the capital’s southwest, he may have spotted the headquarters of the African Union, a $200 million giveaway from China’s leaders.”


US President Barack Obama's visit to Ethiopia, which saw him speak out against democratic restrictions, was positive but Washington must maintain pressure on the government, an Ethiopian opposition figure said Wednesday.

"I was not in favour of his coming, but (the visit) exposed Ethiopia and its government," said Merera Gudina, the vice-president of the opposition Medrek party, hailing the media and NGO interest generated by Obama's remarks.

"I think the cause of democracy benefited from this," Gudina said.

"But we have to wait for the follow-up. If the US really means business, they have a lot of leverage with the Ethiopian government. But the US needs Ethiopia on the war on terror. It's a major ally in the Horn of Africa," he said, adding that he feared Obama's comments were "only for public relations."

Obama was in Ethiopia on Monday and Tuesday, making the first-ever visit to the country by a US president.

On Tuesday he became the first US leader to address the Addis Ababa-headquartered African Union.

Obama delivered a blunt appraisal of Ethiopia's democracy deficit but said it would not scuttle the two countries' close security and political relationship.

"There is still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to admit there is still more to do," Obama said during a joint news conference on Monday with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party won 100 percent of seats in parliament two months ago.

Rights groups had warned that Obama's visit could add credibility to a government they accuse of suppressing democratic rights -- including the jailing of journalists and critics -- with anti-terrorism legislation said to be used to stifle peaceful dissent.

But Hailemariam pushed back against criticism his government has quashed opposition voices and suppressed press freedom.

"Our commitment to democracy is real and not skin deep," he said, adding that Ethiopia is a "fledgling democracy, we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices".