Ethiopia: difficult terrain for Obama

Deutsche Welle
5 Min Read

Barack Obama has become the first sitting US president to visit Kenya. His next stop, Ethiopia, has a poor human rights record, but is strategically important for the US. This may temper Obama’s criticism.
In Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian prime minister will welcome a US president to his country for the first time in its history. Some Ethiopians view this as an emotional occasion. Barack Obama, one resident of Addis Ababa told DW, “should be proud to come to Ethiopia – the most ancient country in the world, the origin of Lucy, of Homo erectus, ancestor of mankind.”

Many Ethiopians hope that Obama’s visit will lead to an improvement in bilateral relations with the US. “The narrative of an emerging economic power” is the main reason why Ethiopia is on the US president’s itinerary, according to Ethiopian analyst Hallelujah Lulie. Top priority at Obama’s talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Monday will be given to security policy and the fight against terrorism on the Horn of Africa.

Fighting terror together

Ethiopia was always a key player in security policy in the region and on the continent at large, Lulie said. Ethiopia – like Kenya, the first stop on Obama’s tour – contributes troops to AMISOM, the African Union’s military mission in Somalia. Ethiopia also plays a major role in efforts to secure a peace deal in South Sudan. It also has growing significance as the host nation of the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa and as an active partner in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – the eight-nation regional trading bloc.

Counter-terrorism is an important plank in US foreign policy. In 2014 the US opened a drone base in Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia from where it has already launched unmanned air strikes on the militant Somali al-Shabab militia. For Washington, there appears to be no alternative to forging a partnership with Ethiopia. The sum of $490 million (447 million euros) was transferred from Washington to Addis Ababa in 2014. Observers expect the two countries to strengthen their ties further.

Democrat meets authoritarian ruler

But Ethiopia has a bleak side. “I hope that President Obama is well aware of the human rights conditions in our country and will raise this question in discussion with Ethiopian government politicians,” one Ethiopian told DW on the streets of Addis Ababa. Human rights campaigners both inside and outside Ethiopia have criticized the timing of Obama’s visit to the country.”The United States is a strong advocate of democratic, free and fair elections,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy director for Africa at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “But Ethiopia has just been through an election in which the ruling party apparently won 100 percent of the vote.” This raises questions about the circumstances surrounding the elections in May and, in a broader context, about the human rights situation in the country.

Numerous journalists and bloggers have been incarcerated in Ethiopia since the government introduced a new anti-terror bill in 2009, HRW accuses the government of misusing the legislation to silence its opponents.

Before he left for Africa, Obama said that the economic growth that the continent desired was dependent on good governance, strong democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society. He saw this trip as an opportunity to discuss these points – publicly and privately – in talks with political leaders.

Lefkow is hoping for a stronger commitment to human rights from Washington than in the past, when there was emphasis on security and development and the hope that “quiet diplomacy” would deliver on other issues. But the situation in the country has worsened in the last decade, Lefkow said. The anti-terror law has not brought more security. “The Ethiopian government cannot curb the right to freedom of expression and assembly, as it is doing at the moment, and believe that it is the best recipe for a peaceful, stable Ethiopia. That’s too short-sighted,” Lefkow said.

Observers are putting their hopes on a planned meeting between Obama and civil society groups. Which ones they will be is uncertain. Much of the Ethiopian opposition is abroad, seeking to promote change from the outside.

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