As part of his recent five-day trip to Africa, President Obama made a stop in Ethiopia, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country.
Obama’s visit was big news for Ethiopians, many of whom saw it as affirmation of their country’s place on the global stage. But Obama drew harsh criticism with comments he made during a news conference in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on Monday.
Standing at a podium alongside Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Obama referred to the Ethiopian government as “democratically elected” not once but twice during his remarks.
While Ethiopia certainly sells itself as a democracy, most people familiar with the country’s political climate will tell you that it is anything but democratic. In the country’s most recent elections, for example, the ruling party claimed 100% of Ethiopia’s 547 parliamentary seats.
When asked about the elections, Obama basically gave Ethiopia a pass, saying,
“We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history and the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recently in which the constitution that was formed and the elections put forward a democratically elected government. And as I indicated when I was in Kenya, there’s still more work to do, and I think the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that there’s more work to do.”
In other words, ‘Don’t be so hard on Ethiopia, they’re a young nation that’s still working out the kinks.’ But that assessment of Ethiopia’s democratic progress is pretty misleading, according to NPR’s East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner:
“I think the young democracy point is well taken, except in Ethiopia, actually, it’s not a progress of each year things are getting a little bit better — it’s actually a sharp U-turn, things have gotten a lot worse,”
Warner explained on a recent episode of the radio show On Point with Tom Ashbrook. He continued,
“Ten years ago there was a lot more freedom of the press, a lot more debate, a lot more opposition parties, and now there’s a stifling environment.”
His sentiments are shared by many human rights groups around the world. A recent report from Human Rights Watch explains how Ethiopia’s ruling party stifled all dissent in the weeks leading up to May’s parliamentary elections, using, “…arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions to silence journalists, bloggers, protesters, and perceived supporters of opposition political parties.”
Ironically, Obama turned around and condemned these very same repressive tactics while addressing the African Union on Tuesday:
“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.”
His remarks make it even harder to understand why he chose to endorse Ethiopia’s government as “democratically elected” just a day earlier.
During his On Point appearance, Gregory Warner described how the people of Ethiopia reacted to the President’s controversial remarks:
“Ethiopians who were watching this were extremely disappointed. They felt that it was fine that Obama was there and making trade deals and talking about terrorism, but he didn’t need to affirm, to legitimate, the Ethiopian government as he did.”