Obama prods Ethiopia toward democratic reform

Obama prods Ethiopia toward democratic reform
© Getty Images

President Obama on Monday prodded Ethiopia’s government to address concerns over its poor human-rights record as he kicked off a historic two-day visit to the country. 

Obama said he had “a frank discussion” about promoting free speech and political dissent with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and other officials.  

ADVERTISEMENT

“I believe that when all voices are being heard, when people know that they’re included in the political process, that makes a country stronger and more successful and more innovative,” he said during a press conference in the capital city of Addis Ababa. 

Obama is the first sitting president to visit Ethiopia, and his trip is designed to promote trade and security ties with the East African nation, which has experienced rapid economic growth. 

Ethiopia is also a key U.S. partner in fighting the terrorist group al-Shabaab in Somalia. 

The president has faced criticism from human-rights groups for traveling to Ethiopia, saying his presence offers legitimacy to the country’s government. 

Ethiopia’s ruling party claimed 100 percent of the vote in May elections. And the government rounded up a group of journalists in April 2014, accusing them of aiding terrorism, part of an ongoing pattern of stifling press freedoms, human-rights groups say. 

Obama said he was not shy in urging Desalegn to expand space for political opponents and the media to speak freely. 

“I think the prime minister will indicate I do not bite my tongue when it comes to these issues,” Obama said, adding that “there’s still more work to do.”

Desalegn said he is committed to adopting democratic reforms. “We’re on the right track,” he said.

Obama defended his decision to travel to Ethiopia, saying they can engage on mutual interests while discussing differences, “the same way we deal with China and a range of other countries.”

But Obama appeared to frustrate human-rights groups when he twice referred to Ethiopia’s government as “democratically elected.” 

Just last week, National Security Adviser Susan Rice questioned the legitimacy of the election, saying the U.S. has “some concern for the integrity of the electoral process,” including the opposition’s ability to campaign freely. 

“Ethiopia is ruled by a brutal unrelenting dictatorship. Obama should say so,” Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted Monday. 

Obama was expected to convene a meeting with African leaders later Monday on the conflict in South Sudan, where warring factions face an Aug. 17 deadline to accept an international peace deal.

“We don’t have a lot of time to wait,” Obama said. “The conditions on the ground are getting much, much worse.”

If the sides do not accept the terms, the new nation could face sanctions and an arms embargo from the U.S. and other nations. Obama said he would consider “other tools” if the South Sudanese reject the deal.