The upcoming official visit by United States President Barack Obama has sparked fierce debate between thrilled diplomats and concerned activists in the US.
Former diplomats say that Obama’s visit, a first for a sitting American president, is welcome news that recognizes the two countries’ ever-increasing ties. Meanwhile, human rights activists say the visit could be seen as an endorsement of the Ethiopian government’s alleged restriction of press and political freedoms.
The US State Department, in its annual Human Rights Report issued on June 25, grouped Ethiopia together with a small list of countries including China and Eritrea, accused of contravening human rights. Rights groups say that despite such reports, the US priorities its security cooperation with Ethiopia while turning a blind eye to rights abuse.
A historic visit
Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George Bush have all visited Ethiopia, but only after leaving office. The 44th US President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia back in 2006, as senator of Illinois.
“This will be the first visit of a sitting U.S. President to Ethiopia and to the African Union headquarters, underscoring our efforts to work with the countries and citizens of sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security, “ the White House announced in a statement.
Back in March, the White House had announced that the president would attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya. President Obama’s stop in Ethiopia, disclosed last week, will reportedly follow his stay in Kenya.
Former diplomats, who served as US ambassadors to Ethiopia, have welcomed the news saying it recognizes the two countries long and important relationship.
“In spite of the long relationship the United States has had with Ethiopia, dating back to Emperor Menelik, a sitting American president has never visited the country. I believe the White House decided it was time to rectify this situation,” says David Shinn who served as American top diplomat in Ethiopia in mid 1990s.
Shinn, now a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told Capital that there has been “close collaboration” between the two countries in various areas including counter terrorism operations for at least 20 years.
Vicki Huddleston, who also served as American Ambassador to Ethiopia, said she was pleased to hear about the visit.
Huddleston served as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim during the post-2005 election period, which saw violence that claimed hundreds of lives. Ethiopia has continued to receive US aid amounting to billions of dollars annually.
The former diplomat said Obama’s visit comes because Ethiopia “is a leader in the continent and “a good friend” of the US.
Appointed by Obama in 2009, Huddleston served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense until her retirement in January 2012. During this period, Ethiopia agreed to house a US military facility in Arba Minch, which includes a US Air Force airfield for drone operations.
Ethiopian and American forces enjoy close cooperation and have launched multiple strikes against fighters of the Somalia-based al-Shabaab. The terrorist group, despite losing its stronghold in Somalia, is managing to stage deadly attacks throughout the region.
“I know that the U.S. government appreciates Ethiopia’s strong stand against extremism,” said Huddleston. She did not comment on the significance of the Arba Minch base for US counter-terrorism operations in Eastern Africa.
However, Huddleston described the facility as “small” and “an example of productive cooperation between” the two governments.
Last month senior Ethiopian officials including Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa and Chief of Staff Samora Yenus went to Washington “to review U.S. security cooperation in Ethiopia”.
Wrong message on democracy
The news of Obama’s upcoming visit has been met with criticism among rights groups and prominent media outlets. Many are using social media to call for campaigns and demonstrations to protest the visit.
Officials at the Human Right Watch equated the visit with a gift made to an oppressive government. The Washington Post said that despite its growing economy, Ethiopia is standing out in Africa for “increasingly harsh repression and its escalating chokehold on independent media and political dissent.”
By choosing Ethiopia, “Mr. Obama is sending a message to Africa that democracy isn’t all that important after all,” said the Post in its editorial.
Amidst the criticisms, officials at the White House reportedly said that Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa “is more about America’s relationship with sub-Saharan Africa than a single nation”.
But former State Department senior official Vicki Huddleston said Obama’s visit to Ethiopia is being unfairly targeted.
“The President visits all types of government around the world – some of whom we agree with, some of whom we do not. I do not think it is correct to treat Africa differently. The President should visit Ethiopia and all other African countries where he can promote U.S. interests in democracy, stability, and economic growth,” Huddleston said.