President Obama is poised to become the first sitting president to visit Ethiopia when he travels to Africa later this week, but the milestone is not a source of pride for Aklog Birara.
Like many Ethiopian-Americans, the economist and former adviser to the World Bank is expressing very mixed emotions about the trip and the symbolism it will have for Ethiopia’s authoritarian government. Mr. Birara fled his native country amid increased repression and is now an American citizen.
“Under normal circumstances I would not only admire but support a visit from a U.S. sitting president to Africa,” Mr. Birara said, but he added that the Ethiopian government is “one of the two worst jailers of journalists in Africa,” and the justice system is “practically nonexistent.”
His misgivings are shared by Lemlem Tsegaw, an Ethiopian-American poet and human rights activist.
“The government will twist the visit to serve their own purposes,” she claimed, fearing that the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will attempt to use Mr. Obama’s visit as a tacit endorsement of the regime. Long criticized for human rights abuses and attacks on press freedom, Mr. Desalegn and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition has been in power for more than two decades and captured every seat in May’s parliamentary elections.
The Washington area is home to perhaps the largest community of Ethiopian-Americans in the country, and the visit has become a focal point for protests. On July 3 a large group of Ethiopian-Americans gathered outside of the White House to vehemently protest the upcoming visit.
Waving both American and Ethiopian flags, the protesters also carried signs that read, “President Obama don’t bankroll dictatorship and injustice” and “No to wining and dining with a tyrant.”
Mr. Obama is expected to meet with Ethiopian leaders on his stop there, and will also address the African Union at its Addis Ababa headquarters.
Terence Lyons, associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University, said Mr. Obama faces a tricky balancing act in both Ethiopia and his other stop on the trip, Kenya, where his father was born.
“That will be President Obama’s challenge, to say simultaneously we’re very happy with some of the development advances but we have deep, deep concerns about the almost complete elimination of political space — the arrests of journalists, the harassment of opposition parties and the restrictions on civil society,” he said.
But Witney Schneidman, a nonresident fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative, said Mr. Obama was to be commended for breaking a pattern where U.S. presidents would only visit a handful of “safe” African countries and allies on their trips to the continent.
“In short, there are definitely going to be critics who will criticize his visit to these two countries, but I think it’s frankly way overdue and a sign of a new opening of sorts to the continent,” he said.
Mr. Birara confessed to having mixed feelings himself about President Obama’s visit, admitting there were some positive aspects to the trip.
While some have praised Ethiopia for the role it has played in helping combat Islamist terrorism in the region, both Mr. Birara and Ms. Tsegaw said the regime had much to answer for. Mr. Birara claimed that stringent antiterrorism laws are being abused to jail opponents of the government, and Ms. Tsegaw questioned how the Ethiopian government could be combating terrorism when it is “a terrorist to its own people.”
There are also growing fears that Mr. Obama will largely sidestep any talk of human rights and democratic reforms during his visit, a silence that activists fear will be taken as a sign of support for the current government.
Ms. Tsegaw acknowledged that there are both “positive and negative aspects” to the visit, but asserted that the trip would be a waste if President Obama does not “seriously address the human rights violations” in her native country.
Added Mr. Birara, “My plea to the president is to take time from his hectic schedule and really address human rights issues and talk to opposition members who are silenced by the government.”
In a letter to the president, the Ethiopian American Council also appealed to Mr. Obama to make a political statement during his visit. The organization requested that the president stop at the Kalite Prison, where, it said, over 1,000 political prisoners are being kept in “abhorrent conditions.”
“Make your visit truly historical by using the venue at Kalite to call upon the regime in Ethiopia to make real political reforms,” the Council urged.
The Bilal Ethiopian Muslim Community added their voice to the growing chorus of groups demanding Mr. Obama address these issues.
Identifying themselves as “proud Americans with Ethiopian heritage,” the group issued a list of human rights violations Muslims in Ethiopia have suffered under the current regime. The letter also included a plea for “America to pressure the government of Ethiopia to exercise their rule of law as they have written in their constitution.”
Some prominent human rights groups say the Addis Ababa visit could prove fruitful, but only if Mr. Obama makes a concerted effort to address issues with the Ethiopian government.
Over 50 human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center, issued an open letter calling on the president to meet with democracy activists in Kenya and Ethiopia during his visits.
“We believe it imperative that you take the opportunity of your visits to meet publicly with pro-democracy and human rights activists,” reads the letter, “thereby sending a strong message that your administration remains committed to integrating human rights and good governance concerns into its official bilateral relations with all nations.”