U.S. President Barack Obama and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn
U.S. President Barack Obama and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn

President Barack Obama’s five-day trip to Africa concluded last week with a strong speech given at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. He delivered a tough message to African leaders on democracy and leadership, drawing applause and cheers from the audience in the AU’s Nelson Mandela Hall.

“Democracy is not just formal elections. When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society, then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance,” the president said.


This speech, however, came a day after the president’s joint press conference with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn at the National Palace, where Obama referred to Ethiopia’s government—which recently won 100% of parliament seats—as “democratically elected.”


These statements represent two different dispositions the president displayed during his two-day visit to Ethiopia. The first day saw a president who softly addressed the Ethiopian government with carefully selected words, struggling to strike the fine balance between praising and criticizing the Ethiopian government. The second day at the African Union, he was a brave, passionate, and inspirational leader who spoke the truth.


If the president believes that just holding formal elections does not constitute democracy, then why would he refer to an election that used dictatorial tactics as democratic? The Ethiopian government imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists, activists, opposition leaders and didn’t allow any international observers other than the African Union. Why wouldn’t he then publicly tell the ruling regime that such actions make it authoritarian, not democratic?

For young, democracy-oriented Ethiopians like Yohanan Assefa, a program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, President Obama’s calling the Ethiopian government “democratically elected” was a shock.

Assefa listened to the president’s statement in the palace with great disappointment. It was a setback for her and many others who have been expecting the president to push for democratic change in Ethiopia.


“For me, Obama’s speech is reflective of the political environment in Ethiopia,” Assefa said. “The Obama that spoke in the palace in Addis resembles the countless Ethiopians, especially Ethiopian journalists and activists, who have to censor their words and bite their tongue when talking about democracy and human rights–related issues.”


Obama’s statement during the press conference was very strong in praise of the Ethiopian’s government’s achievements and very weak regarding human rights and democracy concerns. He didn’t tackle the difficult issues of democracy and human rights in a manner that conveys how significantly these issues matter to the United States.


On the other hand, prior to his Ethiopia visit, President Obama was praised for his strong statement in Kenya criticizing the restriction of civil liberties and women’s rights issues. He was able to strike the fine balance between praising Kenya’s development and pointing out its weaknesses. But when dealing with Ethiopia he choose to be diplomatic and soft and did not even address issues of civil society and rule of law.


For Assefa, this is indicative of the Ethiopian government’s sensitivity to real criticism and that even “the leader of the most powerful nation on earth”, as PM Hailemariam put it, restrains his powerful words when publically engaging with the Ethiopian government. The Obama in Addis is a reflection of Ethiopians at large.


Reports show that Ethiopia is the second-worst jailer of journalists on the continent. According to a March 2015 report by Human Rights Watch, at least 22 journalists, bloggers, and publishers have been charged and at least six publications have closed in Ethiopia amidst a 2014 campaign of harassment.  Five journalists were released two weeks prior to the president’s visit, but at least 11 still remain in jail.


Continued restrictions on human rights monitoring, civil society activity and independent media repress local voices in Ethiopia. The government has also refused to amend the civil society law and the anti-terrorism law, which are its main tools for cracking down on any dissent—and about which President Obama was silent.


The president said, however, that he discussed with the prime minister steps Ethiopia can take to show progress in promoting good governance and protecting human rights and freedom. Closed sessions are probably the only time the president was able to boldly criticize the Ethiopian government. We wouldn’t know. But we know that another closed session he had with selected civil society representatives was not disclosed to the public as it might expose the individuals to harassment.


This all shows that there is a clear policy dilemma for the United States on how to deal with a government such as Ethiopia’s, which is both authoritarian and a keen ally in fighting global terrorism. The United States’ sole focus is on the security cooperation it has with Ethiopia and not on the poor human right records it maintains.


Obama’s government is too careful not to upset the Ethiopian regime because it provides a military that Obama praised as the “the most effective military in the continent,” citing the al-Shabaab fight in Somalia as an example.


“We don’t need to send our Marines to do the fighting. Ethiopians are top fighters,” the president said, emphasizing the two major al-Shabaab strongholds retaken by Ethiopian troops the previous week.


Ethiopia, the second most populous nation in Africa, remains a strategic partner of the United States in the global war on terrorism. The Transitional Federal Government of Somalia remains weak as al-Shabaab aims to overthrow the government and replace it with its own extremist leadership. But the president gave Ethiopia the credit for the retreat of al-Shabaab in the sub-Saharan region.


The United States has repeatedly expressed “concerns” over Ethiopia’s democracy record. The State Department issues reports every year portraying how Ethiopia restricts journalists and opposition groups. But it still remains a delicate matter for the most powerful leader in the world to prioritize democracy and human rights without jeopardizing the priority on security cooperation.