Barack Obama’s decision to visit Ethiopia has shocked human rights activists, who say the visit sends the wrong message to a repressive government widely accused of clamping down on dissent.
A White House statement said Obama will visit the east African country for meetings with government officials as part of his last African trip as president. As well as meeting the leadership of the African Union, the visit will form part of US efforts to strengthen economic growth, democratic institutions and improve security in the region.
But as activists and social media users have been making clear, Ethiopia’s track record on human rights and democracy is deeply troubling.
In its 2014 report, Human Rights Watch noted that Ethiopia increasingly clamps down on the freedoms of its citizens “using repressive laws to constrain civil society and independent media, and target individuals with politically motivated prosecutions”.
Last month, Ethiopians voted in parliamentary elections which were widely denounced as unfair. Though the African Union declared that the vote was peaceful, they fell short of using the words “free and fair”.
While the US state department has expressed concerns about restrictions on civil society, media, opposition parties, and independent voices, Ethiopia remains a significant recipient of foreign aid money and security support.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front – which has been in power since 1991 – and its allies won all parliamentary seats in the May election, including the only seat won by the opposition in the 2010 elections.
Freedom House said that “Ethiopia’s elections are just an exercise in controlled political participation”, but suggested one positive outcome could be that it would garner attention for the “government’s growing political repression”.
But Obama’s proposed visit suggests that this hasn’t been the case, despite continued arrests and jailing of bloggers, journalists and dissenters.