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Obama's visit to Ethiopia must extend relationship beyond security and business: activists

US President Obama and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailermariam Desalegn during meeting in New York, 25 September 2014
US President Obama and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailermariam Desalegn during meeting in New York, 25 September 2014 White House

Rights activists and press freedom advocates are pushing US President Barack Obama to raise concerns over political space, press freedom and human rights in Ethiopia, ahead of his trip to Addis Ababa this weekend. Obama is expected to arrive on Sunday in his first visit to Ethiopia, which the White House says will help “accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions and improve security”.


“The president should insist and give a talk about the press freedom situation in the country,” Endalk Chala, a co-founder of the Zone 9 group of Ethiopian bloggers, told RFI. His group has been critical of Ethiopia’s human rights records and governance.

“There are a lot of journalists in prison now,” says Chala, who explains that two Zone 9 bloggers have been recently released from jail. Although he believes their release is perhaps a goodwill gesture ahead of Obama’s visit, four of the group’s members remain behind bars on terrorism charges.

Ethiopia is the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In its 2015 report, press freedom group Freedom House ranked Ethiopia’s press status as “not free”, giving it 83 out of 100, with 100 representing the worst.

Besides non-existent press freedom, Ethiopia’s political space remains limited. In May’s parliamentary election the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took 100 per cent of the seats.

There are also crackdowns on political protests. Ethiopian security forces reportedly used live ammunition earlier this year at a student demonstration against extending the boundaries of the capital Addis Ababa.

“I think that the concerns about human rights in Ethiopia and the deteriorating human rights situation that we and others have mapped over the last decade has received short shrift,” Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told RFI.

Lefkow says the US government cites a fine “balancing act amongst many different priorities” with both current and previous administrations saying that they are “ardently pressing human rights concerns behind closed doors”. However, issues brought up by the US government always results in “very little to show”.

Ethiopia’s contribution to regional security is one of the US government’s top priorities in bilateral ties, including Ethiopia’s role in the fight against the hardline Islamist al-Shebab group in Somalia.

Ethiopia is also the third-largest contributor to worldwide peacekeeping operations with more than 8,000 soldiers, military experts and police seconded to work with the United Nations.

“This is also another reason why a number of key partners tread cautiously around Ethiopia,” says HRW’s Lefkow. It means that abuses including “war crimes and possible crimes against humanity” committed by Ethiopia’s security forces are being “tremendously overlooked”.

Economic ties between the US and Ethiopia are strong with US exports to Ethiopia more than doubling between 2013 and 2014. This year US exports have already reached 729 million dollars in the first five months, higher than the same period in 2014.

In addition, Ethiopia is set to attract record a record 1.5 billion dollars of foreign direct investment this year. US private equity groups KKR and Blackstone have both recently inked deals linked to flower farming and infrastructure.

However, the importance of economic and security ties between the two countries should not mean that democratic values are overlooked, according to Ethiopian blogger Endalk.

US-Ethiopia relations should be based on “values the US government claims they have”, he says. “I understand there is a concern on the side of the US government that they need to do business with this kind of government, but you need to be as transparent as possible in our relationship,” he adds.

Follow Daniel Finnan on Twitter @Daniel_Finnan

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