The business of Obama’s visit to Ethiopia

June 21,2015

As Obama’s visit to Ethiopia in July is announced, mixed reactions resonated among politicized Ethiopians in social media.

For some, Barrack Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa is undesirable. And they took their furious disapproval campaign to social media platform, mainly twitter,on grounds of Ethiopia’s government shocking record as it relates to human rights and democracy. Among other things, and only to mention the most recent one, Ethiopian government announced a 100 % election result while informal survey on the legitimacy of the Ethiopian government suggests not even 10 % of Ethiopians support the regime. Besides, despite seemingly partisan approval about “peaceful” nature of the election process, opposition parties in Ethiopia reported deaths of their party members in different parts of Ethiopia.

Even weeks after the election result is announced, a young lawyer who was a candidate for Semayawi party was stabbed to death in Debre Markos, in North Western Ethiopia.Hash-tagged social media campaigns of this group of Ethiopians, taunted Obama that he will learn in Ethiopia how election could be won 100%. Even Human Rights Watch reportedly reflected a disapproving toned view and called for Obama to pressure the government of Ethiopia to end its crackdown on free press and opposition party members.

For others, and mainly for the champions of the ruling party, Obama’s planned visit triggered rather euphoric hysteria and is a matter to be celebrated. Needless to say, this group evaluates developments like this one the basis of its propaganda value for local consumption. And it has to make the regime appear unprecedentedly glorious in the history of Ethiopia (and they already think the system is glorious despite chronic legitimacy crisis.) Oddly enough, the tendency to consider the government in power glorious is in part based on illusions nurtured by ethnic supremacy and in part based on misinterpretations and discounting of Ethiopia’s past achievements. For example, supporters of the ruling TPLF party tend to think that the late Meles Zenawi’s invitation to G20 and G8 meetings is a manifestation of recognition to his government and the importance of the Ethiopia as a key player in the ‘international community’. Questions like on what capacity did Zenawi attended those meetings and whether he had a role, if at all, in agenda setting is not even considered. Historically, Ethiopia is a founding member of the League of Nations and a key player and mastermind in the formation of the Organization of African Unity, now African Union. Yet, for this group Ethiopia is a making of the ruling party.

And there are those who place historical and ideological meaning and significance to Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa while being staunch opponent of the regime in power. For this group, the visit is a matter to be seen in light of Ethiopia’s historical significance. And the fact that Obama is the first sitting president to visit Ethiopia seem to have given more meaning.

Business of Obama’s visit

The relevance of Obama’s trip to Ethiopia does not lie in him being the first sitting president of the United States of America to visit Ethiopia. It would be simply too naive and politically immature to think otherwise. And I do not dare to purchase the idea that Obama’s visit to Ethiopia has a historical significance. In the first place, as much as Obama’s popularity, whether it was inorganically produced for a different purpose or not and irrespective of his win for second term, Obama sounds to me probably the weakest president in the history of USA and for a reason.

The question as it relates to Ethiopia, thought, is that what exactly is the relevance of his visit to Ethiopians in terms of influencing change along the lines of easing minority ethnic based over repressive political climate in Ethiopia? For that matter, what is the relevance of his visit to the regime itself? Nada! as the Latino’s say.

I am not even clear if Obama intended to visit Ethiopia.The primary reason seem to meet AU leaders and the alleged bilateral talk with Ethiopian leaders is rather a side dish.

Something like a year ago, Obama called many African head of states, including Hailemariam Desalegn, to the White House to discuss business partnership. China’s aggressive economic expansion in Africa is, so to speak, a huge factor for the US to rethink its relation with Africa. If I remember correctly, at the end of the meeting USA decided to invest $14 billion in Africa.

Declared purpose of his planned meeting with African leaders seem to have something to do with “continental issue.” Security issue could be a piece there too but not as colossal as business venture. In essence,the business of Obama’s trip to Ethiopia is business. And note that his visit is preceded by US business delegation visit to Ethiopia and their view is that “The growth and market opportunity within Ethiopia is exploding.” Not to mention billions of dollars investment in energy sector which was agreed a year or so ago.China,India,Turkey,Pakistan,Sudan,Kuwait, and many of the Arab countries do have strong and expanding business empires in Ethiopia. And US’s investment in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa is weaker compared to investments by China and other new business conquistadors which is somewhat alarming to the US.

Also it is good to note that Obama’s visit to Ethiopia is happening,and I do not see trip cancellation coming, just months after China established its first military base in Africa -close to Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. China’s might or might not have hegemonic ambition but the military base is a necessity for its expanding business empires in Africa which is estimated to be hundreds of billions of dollars.Ironically, Obama will be talking to African leaders in the magnificent $200 million dollar Africa Union building in Addis Ababa which is China’s gift to African states.

As things stand now, Ethiopia is basically a client state to the US. And new US strategy to engage African states seem to emphasize business partnership. And there are indications that the US seem to want to do business in Africa China style ; avoiding talk about politics and ‘democracy’ and human rights. Normally, democracy and human rights never been a matter of priority for the US in its relations with other nations unless it is a means to regime change which are not client to the US. For that matter, the practice of democracy is degenerating big time and slowly ‘democracies’ seem to be moving to medieval time. Whether it is because democracy could in the long term be in a collision course with business interest or because businesses in China and elsewhere are doing well without democracy is not something I could accurately single out. But it does seem to me that states like the US are rather working on how to degenerate democracy indicatively.

In the case of Ethiopia, we have noticed two remarkable examples that speak to that fact that US is not interested in influencing change when it comes to improving the gruesome human rights situation in the country and crackdown on press freedom. Under Secretary of state ,Wendy Sherman, explicitly called Ethiopia a democracy although she ambiguously retracted her statement. But the US government which firmly stated that Sherman’s,through White House press Secretary, statement reflect US government policy on Ethiopia never retracted the statement. At the same time,and on the contray, Barack Obama was sitting with a group of journalists during world press day and one of the speakers along with Obama was a journalist who discussed crackdown on media in Ethiopia. Not uncommon for the US to be consistently inconsistent when it comes to Ethiopia.

The big picture is, so to speak, time has changed and the primary interest of the US seem to be business and of course its hegemonic agenda (framed as security) not democratic change and human rights in Ethiopia. But again who knows what the tricky USA could do? Remember! Before the fall of a thirty year old US client regime in Egypt, Obama paid a visit. Ethiopia? Different context and situations in terms of security and what not. Yet,you never know. But the forces of change in Ethiopia need to believe in themselves not in what the US can do.

Dimetros Birku

Follow the writer on twitter : @dimetros

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