Later this month, President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, and a nation viewed by many as a bastion of stability in a region otherwise beset with civil strife. The trip — which will also include a stopover in Kenya — is being billed as part of the Obama administration’s regional efforts “to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security.”
These are indeed laudable goals and should be actively pursued by the U.S. government. But the timing and tenor of the visit to Addis Ababa sends a worrying signal that Washington’s priorities — not only in Ethiopia, but on the entire continent — are actually at odds with the president’s oft-repeated rhetoric about advancing human rights and strengthening African democracy and institutions.
Let’s be clear: Ethiopia is not a model of democracy that should be rewarded with a presidential visit. The long-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, now in power for 25 years, claimed a landslide victory in legislative polls held in May, winning all 547 parliamentary seats, which places it among the ranks of North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq in terms of the sheer efficiency of its electoral sweep. The results should not have come as a surprise: The ruling party swept the last four elections, including in 2010, in which it took a whopping 99.6 percent of the vote. This time around, Washington and the European Union did not even bother sending election observers, knowing full well that an EPRDF victory was a foregone conclusion.
The lead up to the May 24 vote saw a widespread crackdown on journalists, human rights activists, and opposition supporters. What’s worse, Obama’s trip was announced on June 19, the same week it was revealed that three opposition party members were murdered in the country, all under highly suspicious circumstances.
So why is President Obama visiting a country where democracy is in such a sorry state and where human rights violations remain systemic and widespread? Because, despite the obvious lack of political rights and civil liberties in Ethiopia, and its status as one of the top jailers of journalists in the world, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is palatable to Washington and other Western donors precisely because of who he is not: a retrograde dictator in the mold of his regional counterparts, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea or Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The brutal and often heavy-handed oppression exhibited by the latter two regimes is brazen, whereas Desalegn and the ruling party work within the (regime-controlled) judicial system, giving their repression a veneer of legality.
A former academic, Desalegn’s elevation to the highest office in Ethiopia came courtesy of the sudden death in 2012 of Ethiopia’s strongman, Meles Zenawi, who had ruled the country for two decades. Zenawi was a favorite in Washington: Though he brutally crushed political opponents and implemented a series of draconian laws meant to muzzle the press and stifle dissent, he also managed to establish an image of Ethiopia as a stable and growing economy in the troubled Horn of Africa. Zenawi’s Western allies, particularly the United States, applauded the country’s modest economic growth and the regime’s willingness to endorse the so-called “War on Terror.” As a result, leaders in Washington routinely turned a blind eye to the EPRDF’s rampant human rights abuses and its ongoing suppression of civil society, the media, and political opposition.
Several key Obama advisors were close associates and personal friends of the late prime minister. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor and former top diplomat at the United Nations, for instance, made no secret of her esteem for and friendship with Zenawi, whom she eulogized as “a servant leader.” Another top Obama aide, Gayle Smith — the current nominee to lead the United States Agency for International Development, which provided Ethiopia nearly $500 million in 2013 — was also never shy about her admiration for Zenawi.
Desalegn, largely seen as a compromise candidate for the shaky, ethnicity-based EPRDF coalition, has continued to rule in the same mode — and Washington’s perverse need to embrace a dictator in technocrat’s clothing has continued. In April, one month before Ethiopia’s sham elections, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman publicly praised Ethiopia’s “democracy” during a visit to the country, which State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf further bolstered by saying “her statements fully reflect the U.S. government’s positions.” Even a cursory glance at Ethiopia’s abysmal human rights record would turn this bogus claim on its head.
On June 25, the State Department released its annual human rights report on Ethiopia, citing widespread “restrictions on freedom of expression,” “politically motivated trials,” “harassment and intimidation of opposition members and journalists,” “alleged arbitrary killings … torture,” “limits on citizens’ ability to change their government,” and restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and movement. Yet Ethiopia’s donors, including the United States, which provides nearly half of Ethiopia’s national budget, have continued to ignore these signs of trouble. The facade of economic growth and the West’s eagerness for a “development success story” to tout on the international stage has seemingly precluded genuine diplomatic pressure to reform.
To be sure, deeply afflicted countries surround Ethiopia. Despite recent progress, Somalia faces credible and ongoing threats from the al Qaeda affiliated militant group, al-Shabab. South Sudan has devolved into an intractable civil war with no end in sight. Kenya has yet to fully overcome the ramifications of post-election violence in 2007–2008, not to mention its inability to ward off al-Shabab’s cross border attacks. Eritrea, dubbed by some as the North Korea of Africa, remains a highly repressive police state from which hundreds of thousands continue to flee. Further afield, Yemen is in a state of bloody lawlessness. By contrast, Ethiopia has remained largely stable.
Despite this outward veneer of stability and progress, Ethiopia’s current system is unsustainable. A onetime vocal opposition has been systematically weakened. Ethnic discontent is rife. Religious revival has been met with brutal state repression. Economic prosperity is not widely shared and inequality continues to rise. Nepotism and corruption plague an already bloated bureaucracy. Youth unemployment is a persistent and serious challenge. Independent media, the human rights community, and civil society writ large have been decimated. And countless citizens are being displaced from their ancestral lands under the guise of development. These factors, taken together, may ultimately sow the seeds of a tangled conflict that could reverberate across an already troubled and tense region.
In this context, Obama’s upcoming visit to Ethiopia sends the wrong message on Washington’s stated commitment to strengthening democratic institutions — not strongmen — in Africa. What is more, turning a blind eye to widespread human rights abuses for the sake of counterterrorism cooperation and so-called “regional stability” may prove to be a self-defeating strategy that is bad in the long term for the United States, as well as for citizens throughout the Horn of Africa.
If the United States wanted to help strengthen democratic institutions and stand in solidarity with Africans, who are now more than ever demanding democracy, then Nigeria would have been a much better alternative model. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and its largest economy, held landmark elections this March, in which an opposition candidate ousted an incumbent who then graciously accepted defeat. In Ethiopia, this scenario remains a pipe dream for its 96 million citizens. The ruling party is now set to lord over the country at least until 2020, allowing it to further entrench its repressive machinery and to extend its dominance long beyond its current mandate.
It is unlikely that Obama and his handlers will change the itinerary of his upcoming trip. However, it is not too late for the president, and for the United States government, to speak honestly to the people of Ethiopia, making it clear that the historic visit is not intended to validate or otherwise endorse the EPRDF’s autocratic dominance. Rather, Obama should be clear with EPRDF leadership, both in private and most importantly, in public that the United States appreciates the complex challenges facing the country and that repression is not an acceptable means of addressing them.
Obama and his staff should also meet openly with Ethiopia’s political opposition and civic leaders, including those based in the country and abroad in Kenya, where many have been forced to relocate due to increasing oppression at home. Obama should additionally raise the issue of the recently murdered opposition members, as well as the many cases of journalists, activists, and political prisoners who have been wrongly jailed and arbitrarily detained under a raft of draconian laws that have criminalized dissent.
In the long term, the U.S. government should redouble its commitment to Ethiopia’s beleaguered civil society. Obama’s 2016 budget request includes more than $400 million in assistance to the country, of which less than 1 percent is allocated for democracy and human rights programming — an actual improvement from last year, when zero was devoted to this vital sector, much of the spending going towards health and humanitarian aid. A robust, reenergized, and empowered Ethiopian civil society, in which human rights groups are free to operate, is central to deepening democratic principles, not only in Ethiopia but also throughout the East and Horn of Africa.
Overall, Obama must firmly reiterate that stability and security, and respect for basic human rights, and the legitimacy of civil society are not mutually exclusive objectives in Ethiopia or elsewhere. Rather, he should be unequivocal — in both rhetoric and in practice — that, together, these issues help form an unshakable and long-term pillar for U.S. engagement on the African continent.
Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, July 8, 2015: Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, praised Ethiopian democracy on April 16 of this year during a visit to the country. A previous version of this article stated that the visit occurred in March.
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