Is Obama's trip to Ethiopia validation of corrupt regime?

Human rights advocates say President Obama's visit, the first by a sitting US commander-in-chief, lends an air of legitimacy to a corrupt government.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama (l.) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn hold a news conference after their meeting at the National Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Monday. Obama met the Ethiopian prime minister on Monday on the first visit by a serving US president to a nation with one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa but which has often been criticized for its rights record.

President Barack Obama spent Monday huddled with Ethiopia’s leaders, discussing counterterrorism, human rights, and regional security.

The visit marks the first by a sitting US president to the East African nation, and follows a much-anticipated trip to Kenya, his late father’s homeland. The visit to Ethiopia, however, has drawn criticism from human rights advocates who say Mr. Obama’s presence there gives validation to a government that is using national security concerns as an excuse to suppress opposition and curb basic freedoms.

“It undermines a lot of the presidential goals about good governance on the continent," Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press. “In many ways, I guess it’s a reward. Ethiopia at this time doesn’t deserve that.”

Ahead of the president’s arrival, the Ethiopian government released several journalists and bloggers it had been holding since April 2014 on charges of incitement and terrorism. But many others remain in detention, and the country remains the fourth-worst jailer of journalists in the world, behind China, Iran, and Eritrea, according to 2014 data from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, defended Obama’s visit, saying the stop is not a seal of approval but a recognition that the two governments share a broad set of interests. Indeed, the United States has a strong defense partnership with Ethiopia in the fight against terrorism, particularly against the Al Shabab group in neighboring Somalia: Ethiopia shares intelligence with American officials and sends troops into Somalia to address instability there.

On Monday, Obama said he discussed steps to promote human rights and democracy in the country, adding that he “was frank in his discussions with Ethiopian leaders about the need to allow political opponents to operate freely,” according to the Associated Press.

“When all voices are being heard, when people know they are being included in the political process, that makes a country more successful,” Obama said at a joint news conference in Addis Ababa Monday night with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

He added: “My message to the people of Ethiopia is: as you take steps moving your country forward the United States will be standing by you the entire way.”

Obama’s statement mirrors that which he had for Kenya, which is also bogged down by corruption – and where Obama has also faced criticism for what some see as his hands-off approach to the country’s governance issues because of a security partnership, The Christian Science Monitor’s Ariel Zirulnick reported.

In both countries, the president pushed a policy of “helping Africans help themselves,” a concept that experts have said would be a major theme of Obama’s trip.

Still, “the administration’s goal is to build African capacities and support them rather than try to introduce new programs from the outside,” Joseph Siegle, director of research at the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told the Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi.

The idea, Dr. Siegle said, is “helping Africans help themselves,” whether the discussion is about encouraging African entrepreneurship with American seed money, addressing Africa’s electricity deficit through Obama’s Power Africa initiative, or US support for the African Union’s peacekeeping forces, Mr. LaFranchi wrote.

While Obama’s approach has disappointed some human rights advocates, others have taken a more pragmatic view.

Woretaw Wassie, head of finance for Ethiopian Semayawi opposition party, told the New York Times that they do not expect Obama’s visit to result in any major political change.  

“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.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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