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Addis Ababa’s elite woke up early Wednesday morning to the news that Barack Hussein Obama was reelected President of the United States of America for a second four-year term.
By 8 a.m., the atrium of the US embassy in Addis Ababa was packed.
With Obama already declared the winner of the presidential race a few hours earlier, the crowd was not in any rush to watch American broadcasters on screens placed in the hall, though his acceptance speech was being eagerly anticipated.

With the presence of politicians, civil society leaders, media, scholars and even students who simulated US presidential debates at Addis Ababa University, the event had attracted a broad range of guests. Like in every other American embassy across the world, here too the event was intended to serve as ‘a celebration of a culture of peaceful and democratic power transfer’.
As attendants watched pundits explain how Obama defeated his Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the crucial battleground states, unimpressed among them seemed Merara Gudina, an opposition politician and MP until the ruling party leadership ousted him in 2010, when they took 545 of the 547 seats in the federal parliament.
‘What do you think Obama’s reelection means to Ethiopia?’ was a question I posed to Dr Merara who is also a political scientist by profession.
“Very little,” Merara replied quickly. “In his last term he [Obama] did not do much, this time around I don’t think he will do much either.”
Dreams from 2008: A story of dashed hopes and miscalculations
Merara was more enthusiastic and his tone different back in 2008 when the then Senator Obama first won the race to the White House.
As Birtukan Midekssa put it in 2008, promoting rights was put on the backburner during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Birtukan, Merara, Bulcha Demeksa, and many other opposition figures of the time were quite optimistic that Obama’s administration would press the Ethiopian government to be more tolerant of dissidents and open up political spots for the crushed opposition.
Talking about some the measures he would like to see the Obama administration take to improve good governance in Ethiopia, back then Merara had talked of hopes that president wouldn’t appoint “those [US] officials who value their friendships [more] than promoting the common ideals and interests of Ethiopians and Americans.”
Merara was to be disappointed.
As the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once described them to parliament, “old friends” filled key posts in the Obama administration.
Appointed by Obama in 2009, Vicki Huddleston, became the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa in the US Department of Defense.
Ambassador Huddleston had served as Acting American Ambassador to Ethiopia during the troubled Ethiopian 2005 election period. She infamously convinced Washington to keep assisting Meles’ government, and weakened European efforts to pressure Meles not to jail opposition leaders and journalists.
Susan Rice, appointed as US Ambassador to the United Nations, too, knew Meles well since her days as the top US diplomat in Africa during the Clinton administration. The two, as both said on many occasions, remained close over the years.
Her post, which came with a seat in the US cabinet, unlike her predecessor, created an overall favorable environment for Meles, analysts say.
Based on Obama’s address to the whole of Africa, delivered in Ghana, vowing his administration would prioritize human rights, there was a lot of optimism that Washington would shift gears under Obama.
While Birtukan ended up in prison even before Obama took office, the opposition had to face the reality that after making their own assessment of US relations to Meles’ government, they came to the conclusion that US policies would remain consistent and unchanged, which was vindicated.
As Birtukan “vegetated in prison”, the State Department’s annual human rights reports, without offering any remedy, continued to write about “widespread and systematic human rights violation and abuses.”
US diplomats were barred from observing Ethiopia’s 2010 elections.
As 99.6 percent of seats in parliament went to the ruling party after the 2010 election, Addis Ababa and Washington at first appeared to be going through  a ‘rough patch”’ but they soon made up and business,  since then, has continued as usual.
Other than the favorable report cards that the Meles government might have received from “old friends,” political analysts say the Obama administration’s decision to forgo US ideals in dealing with Ethiopia has more to do with an overall change in policy priorities.
“The growing relationship between China and Ethiopia and the influx of capital from Beijing meant that the West was no longer the sole source of foreign support. This reduced America’s leverage against the regime,” says Ethiopian political analyst Jawar Mohammed, who is currently a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City.
“Basically, because of vital US interests in the region and Ethiopia’s growing influence, there was an understanding, on both sides, that the US needed Ethiopia almost more than Ethiopia needed the US. Therefore, under Obama the US phased out its previous rhetoric of calling out for democratization and human rights, replacing it by putting  emphasis on development–a tactical shift meant to match the Chinese influence,” explains Jawar.
Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Foreign Policy
Under Obama, the US remained close with Ethiopia. 
Ethiopia kept its borders and airspace wide open to American drones which monitor the region. Addis Ababa also sent troops to battle al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia.
As Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said in an interview with Capital,  back in September 2011, “there is no hesitation,” from Ethiopia when it comes to “cooperating to fight terrorists in the region.”
Considering America’s decisive vote on the boards of international institutes of finance such as the IMF and the World Bank, coupled with its continued $1 billion annual aid, the US too, remained an invaluable partner.
Under Obama, however, America’s proclaimed foreign policy goals in Africa, particularly in areas such as protection of democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech, have not been keenly pursued, activists say.
Africa, in general, was snubbed by Obama; other than the stops he made in Accra and Egypt to outline polices in the Arab world, he kept his distance, even when the continent, for the first time, hosted a World Cup.
During the presidential race too, though foreign policy was a major talking point, Africa could not find a place, giving very little indication about Obama’s second term.
A second term for Obama may refocus on Africa, says former US Ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn.
“I believe President Obama will pay more attention to Africa once the White House and Congress resolve the fiscal crisis facing the United States. This probably will include a major trip to Africa by President Obama. Countries on the itinerary will be those that are making good progress on implementing democratic principles and successful economic development,” said Shinn, currently a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
Hailemariam Desalegn, a soft-spoken, humble academic turned-politician, is unlikely to resist calls for reform to open up the political arena.
Also, unlike Meles, Hailemariam and his aides may not have as much leverage to snub Washington.
“They [US] have slowly been shifting its focus towards Kenya as a regional proxy to deal with Somalia. This makes the US less dependent on Ethiopia, which in turn frees them up to exert more pressure on the regime to open up the political system,” says Jawar Mohammed.
American drones too are not that much of a bargaining chip.
“I don’t know of any facility that we have in Africa, talking hypothetically and from looking back on our relationships, which is so important to us that if we felt we had to remove that facility we would not do it. There are other places in Africa where we could have the same kind of facility,” said Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Huddleston in an interview with Capital, in December, when she retired from the post.
With apparent progress in Somalia and a growing terrorist threat in the Sahel region of Africa, Obama is likely to step up efforts to encourage the pace of democratization in Ethiopia.
“Counterterrorism, political stability in the Horn and Ethiopia’s cooperation in forwarding these goals, will continue to be important. The focus on counterterrorism, however, is shifting away from the Horn and to the Sahel.  Ethiopia does not have a direct role in this region. I think the new Obama foreign policy team will make the assumption that the new leadership in Addis Ababa is willing to continue its cooperation on counterterrorism and support for political stability in neighboring countries while remaining open to improving its approach towards political opponents and even giving more room to the opposition press,” says David Shinn.
With the expected retirement of Hillary Clinton as America’s top diplomat, changes in the Obama foreign policy team will be anxiously followed by the elite of Arat Kilo.
“There will be important changes in the State Department. This will have some impact on policy towards Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular. Secretary of State Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, have both said they will step down after four years. It is not clear who will replace them,” added Shinn.
Washington pundits expect Susan Rice to rise in the ranks at the State Department, but Rice has not always done right by Africa.
“If we use the word “genocide” and are seen as doing nothing, what will the effect be on the November congressional election?” Rice is infamously quoted as saying during her service under President Bill Clinton when the US chose to do nothing to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Rice has later been described as a “bystander to genocide.” Even her recent successful drive to unite the divided United Nations Security Council to depose Libya’s late leader did not help erase that.
Susan Rice’s moving eulogy to Meles at his funeral service did not help improve her record in the eyes of Ethiopian activists.
“Many Ethiopians thought she was referring to imprisoned journalists when she [Rice] said in her speech that the Prime Minister had had “little patience for fools,” wrote Girma Fantaye, former Addis Neger newspaper editor and a 2011 Knight fellow at Stanford, in an Op-Ed published by the New York Times.
In her defense, Rice took time to call on Ethiopia’s new leaders to work on improving protection of rights. “As always, we will encourage peaceful political dialogue, civil society development, and protection of human rights, including freedom of the press,” Rice said.
For Rice, or any other person that becomes Obama’s top diplomat, there are other factors that might influence their judgment of the two countries’ engagement.
A continued strengthening of Sino-Ethiopian ties is one such factor.
Even The Diplomat, a hit movie, presents China as Ethiopia’s dependable partner that comes in to save it from a nuclear bomb American spies have planted. This growing sentiment, that the state is moving closer to adopting China as a model, could soften Washington’s tone.
With the discovery of the first al-Qaida cell in the country and some religion related clashes, religious extremism is entering into talking points between Ethiopian-American diplomats. Senior American diplomats were in attendance Monday when a federal court postponed a verdict on the five alleged al-Qaida members. The Foreign Affairs Ministry said that when Ambassador Berhane Gebre-Christos and US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman met earlier this week, “the two sides …exchanged views on various political matters including religious extremism.”
With the US still wary of Ethiopia’s stability in the post Meles era, quickly shifting policy priorities might not come to mind; but many agree that Obama’s second term is better suited to do just about that.
Kirubel Tadesse is a correspondent for the Associated Press and a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.