Obama’s ‘Democratic’ Ethiopia Comment Slammed

News Politics
Obama's Ethiopia visit lends legitimacy to an oppressive government
Humanitarian groups and opposition lawmakers say Obama’s Ethiopia visit lends an air of legitimacy to an oppressive regime that has no legitimacy of the Ethiopian people. (Photo by: Evan Vucci)

By Al Jazeera,

African activists on Tuesday dismissed President Barack Obama’s remarks that Ethiopia has a democratically elected government as an “out of touch” public relations exercise.

Obama made the comment on Monday during a news conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose ruling party won every seat in parliament in May elections.

It was followed a day later by the U.S. president delivering a speech from the headquarters of the African Union in which he urged African leaders to uphold democratic rights.

The seemingly conflicting remarks made before Obama ended a two-nation African trip that included a stop in Kenya were questioned by rights activists Tuesday.

“Yesterday he was a tricky and mischievous politician,” Yonathan Tesfaye, a spokesman for Ethiopia’s opposition Blue Party, said in a reference to Obama’s comment that Ethiopia’s government was democratically elected.

“And today he has become a passionate inspirational human rights activist,” Tesfaye added. “Which one should we believe? Which one should we go with?”

Merara Gudina, a leading opposition figure in Ethiopia, said he was doubtful that the United States would push hard for democratic change in his country. He worries that Obama’s visit will end up being “another public relations exercise.”

Human rights groups have criticized Obama for visiting Ethiopia, saying his trip lends legitimacy to an oppressive government.

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Last month, a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) placed Ethiopia at the top of countries from where journalists were forced to flee. Since May 2014, Addis Ababa had forced 34 journalists into exile, more than twice as many as in Syria, which came in at second place, according to CPJ data.

The report said the expulsion of Ethiopian journalists spiked in the run-up to Ethiopia’s widely criticized election in May, which left the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in power, where it has been for a quarter of a century.

Ethiopia is also Africa’s second-biggest jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea, according to CPJ.

At the news conference Monday, Obama said: “Our policy is that we oppose terrorism wherever it may occur. And we are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia, that has been democratically elected.”

He was responding to a question on how the U.S. government could assist Ethiopia combat alleged threats from outlawed Ethiopian opposition groups, including those based in the United States.

But Obama’s remarks regarding terrorism illustrate how the U.S. is becoming “out of touch with African realities,” such as the repeated electoral victories of ruling parties, said Angelo Izama, a Ugandan analyst who heads Fanaka Kwawote, a security research center.

“It was kind of ironic that Obama was singing the praises of democracy in Ethiopia while ignoring its flaws there,” Izama said.

During his visit, Obama urged Ethiopia to widen freedom of expression and other democratic rights. But he was cautious to appear too hard on a country the U.S. sees as a bulwark against armed fighters in the Horn of Africa.

The most recent U.S. State Department assessment of Ethiopia’s human rights records paints the country in starker terms.

“The most significant human rights problems included restrictions on freedom of expression, including continued restrictions on print media and on the Internet, and restrictions on freedom of association, including through arrests; politically motivated trials; and harassment and intimidation of opposition members and journalists,” read the department’s annual report.