It only took eight words for Barack Obama to break the hearts of millions of Ethiopians. Alemayehu Mariam was one of them.

Alemayehu (“Al”) Mariam is an Ethiopian lawyer and professor who lives in the U.S., and also a commentator on Ethiopian affairs. This week’s commentary was the most passionate one I’ve read yet. In a response nearly 8,000 words long, Al Mariam expressed shock, anger, and a sense of betrayal upon hearing the man he’d once been proud of convey, what the commentator called, “his total contempt for Ethiopians” in a single sentence.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia to address the African Union. While there, on July 27th, he took part in a press conference with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. When asked by a Fox News journalist about his “obvious concerns about human rights…in Ethiopia,” Obama paused, looked down, and stated that he was “mindful of Ethiopia’s history,” then followed up with his view of Ethiopia’s recent elections: “the elections put forward a democratically elected government.

Someone aware of Ethiopia’s history is unlikely to draw such a conclusion. Did Barack Obama mean what he said?

Can a government be democratically elected when it restricts freedom of the press, silences criticism, and jails journalists and opposition party members? The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Ethiopia as the second worst jailer of journalists in Africa (and fourth globally). According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation that supports democratic change, Ethiopia’s press status and freedom on the net status are both not free. Human Rights Watch said Ethiopia’s media “remain under a government stranglehold with many journalists having to choose between self-censorship, harassment and arrest, or exile.” It indicated the Ethiopian government continued to suppress dissent ahead of the May 2015 elections by using “arbitrary arrests and prosecutions to silence journalists, bloggers, protesters, and supporters of opposition political parties…” Even the US Department of State (USDS) reported restrictions on freedom of expression, print media, and the internet in Ethiopia, as well as “harassment and intimidation of opposition members and journalists” and “limits on citizens’ ability to change their government,” among other human rights concerns. The USDS criticised the Ethiopian government’s politically-motivated prosecution of its critics in the past, insisting that the rights to freedom of opinion and expression must be upheld “if Ethiopia is to realize its stated goal of being a democratic state.”

Can a government be democratically elected when it carries out acts of political terror? About Ethiopia, the USDS stated in its 2015 report, “Other human rights problems included alleged arbitrary killings; alleged torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces…” This use of terror by government security forces and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—which has governed Ethiopia for more than two decades—is not new and has been reported every year since the EPRDF took power, by independent human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Ethiopia Human Rights Council, as well as the United States Department of State. Are these acts of political terror (defined as such by the Political Terror Scale) included in the history President Obama is mindful of?

Can a government be democratically elected without the loss of a single seat? The May 2015 general election reportedly won the EPRDF 100 percent of the seats in parliament—an increase from the 99.6 percent it secured in 2010. Freedom House expressed concern about the elections, stating they were “conducted in in a highly restricted political environment that precluded the possibility of a free and fair election.” Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other organisations and individuals echoed that concern. Three days after the election, the USDS stated the “essential components for free and fair elections” were missing from Ethiopia’s, and expressed its doubt about the elections being democratic, noting,

The imprisonment and intimidation of journalists, restrictions on NGO activities, interference with peaceful opposition party activities, and government actions to restrict political space in the lead-up to election day are inconsistent with these democratic processes and norms.

U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice didn’t believe a democratically elected government could earn all the seats in parliament. She laughed at the idea. At a July 22nd White House Press Briefing a journalist asked Rice if President Obama considered the leaders of Kenya and Ethiopia to be democratically elected. Rice responded, “…the prime minister of Ethiopia was just elected with a hundred percent of the vote which I think suggests…some concern for the integrity of the electoral process.” When the journalist inquired again if Obama considered the election democratic, Rice answered, “100 percent” and started to giggle. Just a few days after Rice’s comments, President Obama told the world Ethiopia’s government had been democratically elected.

Susan Rice giggles at a July 22 White House Press briefing, after responding to a reporter's question. Credit: White House video.
Susan Rice giggles at a July 22 White House Press briefing, after responding to a reporter’s question. Screen capture from White House video.

Freedom House president Mark P. Lagon said Obama was “fundamentally wrong” in calling the Ethiopian government “democratically elected,” and that doing so “lowers the standards for democracy and undermines the courageous work of so many Ethiopians who fight to realize a just and democratic society.”

But what’s a president to do when his nation’s closest regional ally in the so-called “war on terror” violates its own citizens’ human rights and fails to uphold the standards of democracy (and its prime minister is standing next to him at a press conference)? Does he make a statement he doesn’t believe to justify his government’s support of that regime? Does he attempt to maintain the relationship at any cost? If that cost is borne by the very people he claims to be helping with foreign aid, does it matter? If he breaks the hearts of nearly 100 million people when he tells them, and the world, that the violations of their human rights and the oppression that causes them great hardship is acceptable, is that okay?

If the “war on terror” included the terror Ethiopians are subjected to at the hands of their own government, could Obama still have made that statement?

Al Mariam pointed out that when Obama was campaigning to become president of the United States of America, Africans cheered him on and hoped for his victory. He now says their faith in Obama was misguided: “Barack Obama has returned the love and respect of the African people by embracing their dictators who disrespect their human rights and make their lives miserable.”

And in Ethiopia, he did it with just eight words.


Header image: Aerial view of the city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ©derejeb / iStock

15 thoughts on “Obama’s heartbreaking words in Addis Ababa

  1. What is the Ethiopian people who are in the know doing to help the electrorate to choose wisely and demand for their rights. If one puts their vote for the wrong person, they are individually responsible for their choice. Knowledge is power, let us give our people that to arrive at the destination we desire.

    1. Mary, I agree that knowledge is required for “the electorate to choose wisely and demand for their rights,” as you state. However, one of the issues is that information is restricted in Ethiopia, as voices that criticise the government are silenced (journalists, bloggers, critics, and opposition members are often imprisoned, or self-censor to avoid imprisonment).

      It is also difficult to help Ethiopians demand their human rights since the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, which restricts “the advancement of human and democratic rights” to Ethiopian charities (Article 14.2.j) and defines Ethiopian charities as those for which foreign donations comprise not more than ten percent of their funding (Article 2.2). In 2011, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that out of 127 organisations that advocated for human rights in Ethiopia before the Charities and Societies Proclamation enactment, “only three reportedly still operate.”

      Another factor making it difficult for Ethiopians to demand their rights is the history of violent response by government forces to non-violent protests—as occurred when the public protested the outcome of the 2005 general election, and at least 193 protestors were killed and 20,000 people were arrested.

      You said that if someone votes for the wrong person, they are responsible for their choice. What if the ruling party intimidates or threatens voters? What if citizens cast their vote out of duress? What if they know they will be unable to acquire the seeds and fertilizer they need for farming, or the employment they need to provide for their families, unless they support Ethiopia’s ruling party? In its 2010 report, Development Without Freedom, Human Rights Watch describes this kind of discrimination, intimidation, and repression in Ethiopia.

      Even if voters overcome intimidation and fear, and cast their vote for the person they feel is right, there are no guarantees their vote will be accounted for or accepted. Without adequate election monitoring it is difficult to really know who the legitimate winner is.

      Mary, I agree that the Ethiopian people need help to demand their rights and elect a government that will represent them, and respect their rights. Due to repression making it difficult for change to happen from within, there are opportunities for the international community—especially nations that support Ethiopia with foreign aid—to attempt to exert some influence to improve the situation. Unfortunately, this has not happened as Ethiopia’s bilateral foreign aid donors appear more concerned with maintaining the geostrategic relationship they have with the Ethiopian government than they are about promoting human rights and democracy in Ethiopia.

      Thank you for your comment on my blog, Mary. I appreciate your feedback.

    2. Hi Mary, Knowledge is nothing to do with the Ethiopian sham election, in 2005 the dictatorial government partially opened the political space and the oppositions won landslide, guess what the government jailed more than 100 elected candidates many journalists and human rights advocates for 2 years 🙂

      Then they closed the partially opened political space and start winning each elections 100%.

      1. Thank you for your comment, Tolla! I appreciate you pointing out how the success of opposition candidates in 2005 has negatively impacted democratisation (and press freedom) in Ethiopia today.

  2. I followed this discussion with great interest because Ethiopia today is very much like Kenya, where I came from, about 13 years ago. Much suppression, unfair elections, and so forth. I totally understand where Al is coming from, as the most powerful leader in the world had a moment to take a clear stand on a very sensitive issue. However, on the other hand, I also understand where the US leader is coming from. As a true African himself, he put diplomacy first. As a leader, he followed the rules of international relations, safeguarding the diplomatic relations between the US and Ethiopia, as well as respecting Ethiopia as a sovereign state. If, on the other hand, the Ethiopian people took matters into their own hands, and appealed for US intervention, then that would be a different matter. I believe that Mr. Obama’s hands were tied in this instance, and we must not be too quick to judge him.

    1. Thank you, Jael Oyieke, for offering your thoughts on this issue. I appreciate reading the perspective of someone who has lived in the region. I do acknowledge that the position Obama was in during the press conference was not an easy one, but I think he could have left out those eight words about the Ethiopian government being democratically elected (when his own government has expressed doubt about whether the election was democratic), and still answered the journalist’s question diplomatically.

      I have been interviewed several times on television and radio, and I have also fielded impromptu questions from audiences. Occasionally I say things that I later wish I had worded differently, because I was not able to think about my reply before-hand. Perhaps that’s what happened in this press conference, although I would hope that a leader of Obama’s stature would have been well-prepared for the question on human rights that he would obviously have been asked in Ethiopia. This may be a case of a high profile leader just being “human” and making a mistake. (And he may have regretted the statement afterwards.) Whatever the explanation for Obama’s comment, I think it illustrates the power of words.

  3. Its a tight balance to walk when you’re giving a speech. First, he have to remember who his audience is, and how he has to put things. I’m surprised he wasn’t chased off stage for mentioning gay marriage in Kenya.

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