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While US president calls for end of crackdown on political and press freedom, his comments on Hailemariam administration are widely condemned
Barack Obama has been criticised by opposition groups and journalists in Ethiopia after referring to the country’s government as “democratically elected”, with one human rights watchdog describing the statement as “shocking”.
The US president was speaking at a joint press conference with Hailemariam Desalegn, the Ethiopian prime minister, after the two leaders held talks in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Although Obama said he had raised issues of good governance – “I don’t bite my tongue too much when it comes to these issues” – he also insisted: “We are opposed to any group that is promoting the violent overthrow of a government, including the government of Ethiopia, that has been democratically elected.”
Answering questions from journalists later, Obama repeated the phrase: “We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history – 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.”
Hailemariam’s party and its allies won 100% of seats in parliament two months ago. The opposition alleged the government had used authoritarian tactics to secure victory, including intimidation, arrests and violently breaking up rallies. At the time, the US said it remained “deeply concerned” by restrictions on civil society, media, opposition parties and independent voices and views.
But Ethiopia remains a key security ally for the US in the fight against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. It has also become an economic battleground with China, which has delivered huge infrastructure projects in Africa’s second most populous nation.
Critics accused Obama of granting legitimacy to the regime. Reeyot Alemu, a columnist released earlier this month after four years in jail on terrorism charges, said: “It’s not ‘democratically elected’ because there was only government media and people did not get enough information.
“They also arrested many opposition leaders and journalists. They won the election by using human rights violations. How can it be democratically elected? It is completely false. I wish Barack Obama had sent a strong message.”
Bekele Nega, general secretary of the Oromo Federalist Congress, representing Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, said: “I don’t know if democracy means robbing people’s vote and robbing their election result? They have killed people and they have taken the ballot box with them in organised fraud.”
Nega claimed his party found some of its votes thrown down a toilet, while at one polling station its victory by 800 votes to 40 was reversed to a 40-800 defeat. “I wonder if people could tolerate this in America or Britain or wherever? Is this the meaning of democracy in America? We are very sorry that Mr Obama’s comment on our election is really supporting dictators. We know the US is always looking after its own interests and will take over on the military side, sending our people to Somalia.”
Obama had let down opposition groups in Ethiopia, Nega added. “We gave support for an African-American to be elected as president of the United States. We hoped Africa and Ethiopia would benefit from Obama, but we found it to be just a mockery of democracy. We expected a lot and we lost everything.”
Obama’s statement appeared to be the closest thing to a “gaffe” he has made so far on his east African tour. He earned widespread praise in Kenya for championing both gay rights and women’s rights, challenging Africans to reconsider traditional practices including female genital mutilation. But Ethiopia’s more restrictive approach to civil liberties was always going to pose a tougher diplomatic balancing act.
Felix Horne, Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “For president Obama to suggest there is anything democratic about Ethiopia is a shocking statement. I wonder what the jailed journalists, bloggers and political prisoners think of his comments? Or the thousands of Ethiopians who have fled their country because they did not support the government? Or the 18 Muslim activists who were recently convicted under the anti-terrorism law? A truly disappointing statement from the US president.”
Rachel Nicholson, Horn of Africa campaigner at Amnesty International, added: “While President Obama described the Ethiopian government as democratically elected, the leadup to the elections saw a serious onslaught on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, undermining citizens’ right to participate in public affairs freely and without fear. Opposition political parties have continued to face harassment since the elections, including reports of the deaths of at least three opposition political figures in suspicious circumstances.”
Many journalists, bloggers and political activists remain behind bars in Ethiopia. Maya Foa, of the UK-based pressure group Reprieve, said: “It’s encouraging to hear President Obama telling Ethiopia to ‘open up space’ for opposition voices. But his praise for Ethiopia’s elections as ‘democratic’ was woefully misplaced, at a time when the government is systematically detaining and torturing leading activists such as Andy Tsege – a father of three who faces a death sentence for the mere ‘crime’ of holding democratic beliefs.”
Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Ethiopia. He praised the country’s progress in development that has lifted millions of people out of poverty, as well as its regional role in fighting al-Shabaab militants and helping peace efforts in wartorn South Sudan, the subject of talks with regional leaders later on Monday.
Speaking at the national palace originally built for emperor Haile Selassie, Hailemariam rejected criticism that his government had crushed opposition and press freedom. “Our commitment to democracy is real and not skin-deep,” he said, adding that Ethiopia is a “fledgling democracy, we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices”.
The country needed “ethical journalism”, he added. “For us it’s very important to be criticised, because we also get feedback to correct our mistakes. Media is one of the institutions that have to be nurtured for democracy.”
Obama’s visit to Ethiopia is rigidly organised and, although pictures of his face and US flags adorn much of Addis Ababa, there is little opportunity for interaction with the public. On Tuesday, he will also become the first US president to address the African Union, the 54-member continental bloc, at its Chinese-built headquarters.