US President Barack Obama’s last trip to Africa before his term ends will take him to Kenya and Ethiopia, where he’ll be the first sitting US president to visit. Obama first toured Africa nearly two years ago, making stops in Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa.
Obama’s decision to stop in Ethiopia has surprised human rights activists and advocates for good governance both in Africa and elsewhere. Ethiopia is one of the worst human rights offenders in Sub-Saharan Africa. In its 2014 report, Human Rights Watch noted that Ethiopia increasingly restricts the freedoms of assembly and expression:
[…] the Ethiopian authorities continue to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, using repressive laws to constrain civil society and independent media, and target individuals with politically motivated prosecutions.
Muslim protests against perceived government interference in their religious affairs were met by security forces with arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings, and other mistreatment throughout the year. The trial of 29 protest leaders who were arrested in July 2012 has been closed to the public, media, and family members since January. Others convicted under the country’s deeply flawed antiterrorism law—including opposition leaders and four journalists—remain in prison.
Despite the troubling state of human rights in the country, Ethiopia remains a major recipient of foreign aid money and security support from the United States. A White House statement about the trip said that Obama will visit the country for bilateral meetings with the Ethiopian government as well as the leadership of the African Union as part of US efforts to “work with the countries and citizens of sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security.”
Last month, Ethiopians voted in parliamentary elections, where opposition parties said the voting was not free or fair. The African Union said the elections were peaceful, but fell short of using the words “free and fair.” While noting that the elections were peaceful, the US State Department expressed concern about restrictions on civil society, the news media, opposition parties, and independent voices and views.
Hannah McNeish, a freelance journalist East and Central Africa, juxtaposed last month’s suspicious elections results with the White House’s decision to honor Ethiopia with an official visit:
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its allieswon all parliamentary seats, including the only seat won by the opposition in the 2010 elections. The EPRDF has been in power since 1991.
Discussing Ethiopian elections, Freedom House observed that:
Ethiopia’s elections are just an exercise in controlled political participation.
The one potential dividend of these sham polls, however, is the international attention they will garner for the government’s growing political repression. The blatant disregard for internationally recognised standards for free and fair elections just might convince Ethiopia’s largest donors that it is time to rethink their relationship with an increasingly authoritarian government.
Ethiopian police, moreover, have routinely arrested and jailed bloggersand online journalists. Ethiopian blogger and GV author Endalk Chalasays the suppression of freedom of expression online is not a surprise. The second most populous nation in Africa has only one Internet service provider, which is owned by the government.
In April 2014, nine bloggers and journalists were arrested in Ethiopia. Several of these men and women had worked with Zone9, a collective blog that covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and promoted human rights and government accountability. In July, they were charged under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, a policy that was written with robust support from the United States government, as part of a broader effort to suppress organized crime in the Horn of Africa. The bloggers have been behind bars ever since, and their trial has only seen progress over the last few weeks, since the close of national elections.
The country’s troubles with bloggers aren’t new, either. On July 13, 2012, Ethiopia’s federal court sentenced a prominent Ethiopian blogger, Eskinder Nega, and 23 other opposition activists to 18 years in jail for allegedly participating in terrorist activities. Human rights and good governance activists and other Twitter users reacted with shock and dismay.
Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director for Human Rights Watch recently asked why Washington appears to be rewarding repression in Ethiopia with an official visit: