Ethiopia: Letter to President Obama
By Al Mariam
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
Greetings! Mr. President.
I was ecstatic when I heard you will be travelling to Ethiopia in late July “for bilateral meetings with both the country’s government and the leadership of the African Union.” Such a meeting is long overdue.
I have no doubts the people of Ethiopia will welcome you with open arms and affectionate hearts. I may be biased but I believe Ethiopians are the most hospitable people in the world.
The last time I was just as ecstatic was exactly 6 years ago in July 2009 when you spoke in Accra to members of Ghana’s Parliament.
Your words in Accra were stirring and uplifting not only to me but also to tens of millions of Africans yearning to breathe free on the continent.
You told it like it is and should be:
Make no mistake: History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.
Development depends on good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.
Now, time and again, Ghanaians have chosen constitutional rule over autocracy, and shown a democratic spirit that allows the energy of your people to break through. We see that in leaders who accept defeat graciously.
No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end.
The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it’s no longer needed.
I have directed my administration to give greater attention to corruption in our human rights reports.
I am aware that in the past couple of weeks numerous highly respected human rights and media organizations have expressed vigorous opposition to your Ethiopia visit.
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights expressed deep concerns. “The decision by President Obama to travel to Ethiopia, which has seen three opposition party members murdered this week alone, is very troubling.”
The Washington Post was mystified by your trip and proposed an alternate venue arguing that Ethiopia “stands out in Africa for its increasingly harsh repression and its escalating chokehold on independent media and political dissent. It’s almost unfathomable that he would make time for an entrenched human rights abuser such as Ethiopia while cold-shouldering the nation that just witnessed a historic, peaceful, democratic change of power: Nigeria.”
Foreign Policy Magazine was openly critical of your visit. “Washington wants a stable partner in the Horn of Africa. But cozying up to the repressive regime in Addis Ababa isn’t the way to go about finding one.”
Commenting on the May 24 election in Ethiopia, Foreign Policy observed that by “winning all 547 parliamentary seats, [the ruling regime in Ethiopia] places it[self] among the ranks of North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq in terms of the sheer efficiency of its electoral sweep.”
The Guardian, in its summary of diverse reactions to your trip, observed, “Barack Obama’s decision to visit Ethiopia has shocked human rights activists, who say the visit sends the wrong message to a repressive government widely accused of clamping down on dissent.”
Many Ethiopian civil society groups, organizations and community leaders have openly and vigorously disapproved your visit.
On July 3, a large group of Ethiopian and Ethio-American protesters stood outside of the White House to register their disapproval of your trip.
I share in the reservations expressed by the diverse human rights and civil society groups, media organizations and policy analysts regarding your trip to Ethiopia. I trust you will give due consideration to their concerns and deliberate the issues they raised.
Arguably, as the foremost Ethiopian Diaspora advocate of human rights in Ethiopia, with a record of uninterrupted weekly commentaries and vigorous advocacy in the cause of human rights in Ethiopia and Africa for the past nine years, I believe your trip to Ethiopia, on balance, is likely to produce favorable and positive outcomes.
I should like to believe we are already witnessing a glimmer of that positive impact just days before your arrival in Ethiopia.
On July 8, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported the regime in Ethiopia released “two bloggers affiliated with the independent Ethiopian collective Zone 9 and three other journalists. All charges have been dropped against them. ”
These young bloggers and journalists have been under illegal detention since April 2014.
There are numerous other journalists and bloggers like them who eagerly await your arrival so they too may also be free.
On July 9, the Committee to Protect Journalists jubilantly reported, “We are elated that Reeyot Alemu has been released, but she should never have been jailed in the first place. She served more than four years while in poor health and under often restrictive conditions.”
Reeyot did not have to serve a single day in prison. She was told the key to the prison gate is in her hand. All she has to do is sign a request for pardon admitting guilt and walk right out.
But Reeyot chose to stay in prison for 4 years and 17 days because she valued the truth more than her personal freedom.
Just before her captors let her go, Reeyot warned them: “If you are letting me go to bring me back when I tell the public that I was released without asking for a pardon, I would rather stay. If you lie about my release, I will tell the truth.”
That is why they call Reeyot Alemu “Ethiopia’s Truth-Teller.”
I know Reeyot. She is a she-ro for millions of Ethiopians.
Reeyot is Ethiopia’s Rosa Parks.
I ask you to meet with her in private for no reason other than for you to see the face of grace under fire in flesh and blood.
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