Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Ethiopia on Sunday during the second half of a five-day trip to East Africa that also saw him visit Kenya, his father's homeland. Both countries are key American allies on the continent due to the corridor they form around Somalia — the epicenter of the radical Islamist group and al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab — and their short reach from Yemen and other Gulf countries in the spotlight of US foreign policy.
Obama enjoys high approval ratings in Africa, but the relationship between the 44th US president and the continent's leaders hasn't always been warm. The United States often restricts financial support to African countries on the basis of human rights or corruption issues.
Ethiopia is one African country that has maintained Washington funding despite reports by the US State Department that paint the country as one of the worst culprits of human rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa. Security forces are often accused of brutalizing ethnic Somali citizens in the country's Ogaden region, which lies between the capital Addis Ababa and the Somali border and is the theater of an ongoing conflict between the Ethiopian government and the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front.
Journalists and periodicals that criticize the heavy-handedness of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition that won complete control of parliament during this year's May elections, report that they face intimidation, jail time, and torture.
"Authorities use arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions to silence journalists, bloggers, protesters, and perceived supporters of opposition political parties," reports Human Rights Watch. "Security forces respond to peaceful protests with excessive force, and detainees routinely allege torture and ill-treatment. Repressive legislation restricting nongovernmental activity in violation of international standards remains in place."
Despite these problems, which the US has acknowledged, it sent more than $667 million in development assistance to Ethiopia in 2014.
The EPRDF refutes criticism by pointing to long-term democratic prospects, arguing that it was simply not possible for the country to have emerged in the 1990s after decades of dictatorship and centuries of imperial rule with democratic institutions intact.
"That takes generations to come," Ethiopian government spokesperson Redwan Hussein told VICE News. "But it has to do with the culture more than the intention or the lack of institutions. It has to do with the whole attitude of society, and it will take a number of decades."
During a press conference at the presidential palace in Addis Ababa on Monday, Obama revealed that the US will work closely with Ethiopia to help shorten that timeline. After calling for more American investment in Ethiopia, he plainly noted that Ethiopia's suffocation of civil rights is undermining its otherwise robust economy.
"Everything I've mentioned — sustained and inclusive growth, development, security gains — also depends on good governance," said Obama, addressing a room packed with journalists and Ethiopian officials. "I believe that when all voices are being heard, when people know that they are included in the political process, that makes a country stronger and more successful and more innovative."
"This is an area where we intend to deepen our conversations and consultation," he added.
But political observers in the region are skeptical that an American presidential visit will encourage the relaxation of civil restrictions within the country anytime soon.
"The major objective of the trip is about consulting the security partnership Ethiopia has with the US, and also laying the foundation for enhanced economic cooperation," Hallelujah Lulie, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, told VICE News. "I don't think criticisms will bring any major change" in human rights.
Hassan Shire, founder of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, explained that Ethiopia's peers in sub-Saharan Africa are heavily influenced by its position as the seat of the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
"One has to be optimistic that things will improve," he told VICE News. "Ethiopia bases its state building on saying that civic and political rights need to be suspended, and only then can they promote growth and economic and social rights, fight poverty, build dams and build infrastructure. But that is not the way, and it has never been proven that that way can be sustainable."
Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan have lately moved to strengthen restrictive laws that limit the spread and influence of foreign non-governmental organizations, he added. Ethiopia set this precedent with its 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, which bars aid groups that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources from advocating human rights.
Ethiopia and Kenya receive the most US financial aid in sub-Saharan Africa. The two nations participate along with four other sub-Saharan states in the peacekeeping African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), which is largely underwritten by American military aid.
Obama hailed Kenya and Ethiopia for helping AMISOM combat al Shabaab, just after the extremist group carried out critical attacks in the Somali capital Mogadishu over the weekend. On Saturday a Somali member of parliament was assassinated in a drive-by shooting, while on Sunday an al Shabaab car bomb killed at least 15 people in an attack on the Jazeera hotel, which has long been regarded as one of the most secure facilities in the country.
"This is really scary — destroying the Jazeera hotel like this means no blast walls can make anyone safe," a bystander remarked to Al Jazeera.
In contrast to the exultant reception that greeted Obama in Kenya, Ethiopians were much more subdued ahead of his visit. Though an increase in security was palpable, with military helicopters patrolling the skies and American security personnel in evidence, the day-to-day remained largely unchanged.
When asked if he thought Obama would bring any change, a 26-year old who asked to be identified only as Gebre shook his head dismissively before replying, "He's just another person."
"All these people come here," he said, referring to the stream of diplomats that pour into Addis Ababa for African Union or United Nations events, stay a few nights in swanky hotels, and then fly back to their countries on private jets. "All they do is make more traffic."
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