A careful look at President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia will reveal that plenty of unlikely circumstances will render his purpose to visit to a near irrelevance, except for one only
The drizzly afternoon on June 26, 2015 saw Addis Abeba’s Bole International Airport playing host to a hitherto unacquainted guest – Air Force One – the flying White House. Its powerful tenant, President Barak Obama, became the first sitting US President to ever set foot in a country that has, as of late, won the hearts and minds of the US government for being home to one of Africa’s ruthlessly efficient military establishment.
Defying the ill-disposed rain, characteristic of Ethiopia’s main rainy season well into its heaviest downpour, senior government officials, led by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn were more than ecstatic (and have in fact goofed the ABCs of protocol) to welcome President Obama.
In anticipation of his arrival, main streets in the capital were embellished with twin flags of both countries and billboards of the president’s pictures hanging on the walls and poles of eventful business districts. They were worth more than a million birr and were paid by Ethiopia’s ministry of foreign affairs.
For a week preceding and during the visit, state owned and controlled (as well as pro state media outlets – together they constitute a close hegemony of Ethiopia’s media ownership) have traversed through the ebb and flow of the century old diplomatic relation between Ethiopia and the US in an extraordinary scale. The message was loud and clear: everyone needs to accept President Obama’s visit as a visit that should go down the history books as nothing but ‘historic’, and the current government in Ethiopia made it happen.
Of the purposes…
The four major purposes of the President’s visit are symbolic clichés in the itineraries of many heavy weight visiting dignitaries to Ethiopia: enhancing economic cooperation and encouraging entrepreneurship; strengthening security collaborations (especially on counter-terrorism measures); strengthening US’s relationship with the AU as an ‘African institution’, and finally Ethiopia’s fault line that serves as the unmistakable mask: encouraging democracy and the respect for human rights.
“The economic and [security] strategic interest of the US is too obvious to miss”, says Tsegaye R. Ararssa, a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne Law School and special contributor to Addis Standard. “These two interests merge with the interests of the regime in Ethiopia.” Economically Ethiopia desperately wants to attract American foreign direct investment to fill its yawning appetite for dollars (shortage of the national foreign currency reserve is threatening Ethiopia’s economic fairytale in wonderland).
On boosting the security collaboration, it’s a beaten discourse that Ethiopia’s much publicized – sometimes praised and often criticized – effectiveness of its military intervention in Somalia has earned it the title of ‘America’s deputy sheriff’, Tsegaye said.
And of the US-AU relationship, the former wasn’t much interested in the later for years. As a consequence, it was the EU that was behind the AU both as a role model and as a financial bulwark for many of its projects. It is also a subtle move towards enhancing America’s economic presence in Africa which is almost swept away by China’s increasing economic influence. “The US doesn’t want to be left behind in this. In a sense, the US’s interest to invigorate its economic presence in Africa as a whole (through the AU) is a silent competition with China and a new form of ‘scramble for Africa’,” Tsegaye said.
Personally too, following his earlier visits to north, west and southern Africa regions Obama’s visit to east Africa, aside from his wish to reconnect with his root in Kenya, completes the image of a president who has been to all major regions of the continent. So it comes as a natural diplomatic move that in his last years of the presidency, President Obama wants to play out “America’s self-projected identity as a nation engaged with the world, including Africa; as a force for good, as a force that is no more indifferent to places such as Africa.”
On the surface this was a visit President Obama can’t afford not to have.
But scratch that surface and one is confronted with the chilling reminder that reduces the president’s visit to Ethiopia to a single purpose – security collaboration. A stealth of other dynamics make what is beyond a rare visit by a president of the world’s most powerful empire (albeit without colonies) to one of the world’s last standing repressive regimes hard to quantify.
Economically,despite the compelling reasons for economic cooperation between the two countries and Obama’s wish to “unlock Ethiopia’s potential”, Ethiopia will remain doing what Ethiopia does best. The terms and conditions of doing business in Ethiopia have long parted company with how America does business overseas. Ethiopia’s foreboding investment policy has led to the country’s state driven ‘miraculous’ economic progress, and is serving as a bait to attract likeminded investors, most notably from China. It has no room to stomach a global neo-liberal free market economic policy led by none other than America’s private sector. In fact, there is nothing more the architects of Ethiopia’s economic policy despise than the concept of a “neo-liberal economic policy.” That makes the practicalities of an economic cooperation between the two states dependent on America’s continuous aid package to boost Ethiopia’s economic progress than doing business with Ethiopia’s seemingly growing economy.
In his remark at the AU on July 28th, President Obama lashed out at China when he said: “economic relationships can’t simply be about building countries’ infrastructure with foreign labor or extracting Africa’s natural resources.” And in theory America’s diplomatic machinery continues to downplay China as its direct challenger to doing business in Africa, (and Ethiopia); but America’s businesses understand that they have long been outflanked by China. Nothing signifies this than a statement by GE director of government relations in Africa, Nils Tcheyan: “…we can talk about China as a competitor, and there’s no doubt about it, they are a competitor.”
There is no place in Africa where this is obvious than the continent’s “fastest growing economy,” where economic policies are more of a result of an obsession with ideological perfection than an approach to practicality. And that ideology has long made Ethiopia an inhospitable terrain to enhance economic cooperation and encourage entrepreneurship by a custodian of a pure “neo-liberal” economy. AUC Chairwoman Dlamini Zuma’s silver lining that “there is no America without Africa” is increasingly looking like an anecdote at work just the other way round: ‘there is no Africa without China.’ Ethiopia symbolizes that; it’s leading it by example.
In his attempt to set the records of America’s way of doing business straight, President Obama also made a point that people should not bribe their way “just to start a business or go to school, or get an official to do the job they’re supposed to be doing anyway”; and humbled his audience saying it is not “‘the African way’.” But in truth, that is not only the “African way”, but the only way in most parts of Africa, worse in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s state bureaucracy is designed to make bribing and proximity to power not the last but the first and only way to doing business. China has found its way around it and part of the competition for American businesses is that they need to find their way around just how China does it. It’s a well-known – if less acknowledged – truth that Chinese businesses are corrupting their way into Africa and are succeeding, a fact not lost to America; but all the same a fact that a symbolic (‘historic’ if you wish) visit by the first sitting President of the US can’t possibly influence to a great extent.
On the predictable cliché of using the president’s visit to advocate for human rights and democracy (and the fanfare thereafter), no other sitting president’s visit to Ethiopia left its informed citizens’ opinions sharply divided as that of President Obama’s.
For Ethiopia minders its Obama the messiah’s message of encouraging democracy and the respect for human rights outside of his home turf that loomed large, dominating his three other purposes to visit the horn of Africa. The fierce debate advocating for and against Obama’s visit emanated from the enigmatic nature of Ethiopia as a country – a country where donors express their constant ecstasy for having to write it off their checklist as a donor-dependent country, but at the same time, a country where the liberty of its ordinary citizens is made to become the slave of the an unprecedented economic progress and the so called war on terror.
Speaking at the joint press conference on Monday July 27th PM Hailemariam Desalegn went an extra mile to tell the world that it was a well-deserved visit and his government had earned it fair and square. Thousands of Ethiopians believe him; thousands others do not, not without good reasons.
But despite overwhelming global condemnations (and a smirk from Susan Rice, his own national security advisor,) on Ethiopia’s claim of a 100% parliamentary election victory, President Obama generously branded the government in Ethiopia (even against some Ethiopian politicians who were embarrassed about the 100% parliamentary seat victory) as a “democratically elected.” That was no slip of tongue; by in large that was America’s Africa policy at work.
President Obama contradicted himself the next day during his AU speech – perhaps to redeem himself – when he said “democracy is not just formal election”. He even talked to his Ethiopian ‘friends’ direct when he said: “Ethiopia will not fully unleash the potential of its people if journalists are restricted or legitimate opposition groups can’t participate in the campaign process.” But the truth of the matter is whether or not President Obama jiggles his words to describe Ethiopia, Ethiopia does what Ethiopia does best – it has always jailed, gaged and decimated its critics and opponents and will continue to do so.
So does America
Ethiopian officials usually take offensive (and evasive) as well as defensive approaches when confronted with the country’s authoritarian approach to human rights and liberty. But this time they have used the “fledgling democracy” saving grace to convince America and the world that muzzling a country of +90 million odd is the best they can do to govern it. However, America knows, perhaps more than any other country in the world that at 24 Ethiopia’s democracy is not a ‘fledgling democracy’; it simply took a back seat since 2005 and will be a long, long way before it comes to the front. But America does what America does best – it will nonetheless continue to refer to Ethiopia as its most valuable ally in the Horn. This is so for the one and only reason where the interests of both countries merge flawlessly – security.
Officials from both countries often make proud references to the +100 years old diplomatic relationship between America and Ethiopia. It’s true and it has its foundations in the fact that America was solidly behind the “international legal machinery that operated towards the creation of the Ethiopian state in the horn of Africa in the image and likeness of a sovereign nation state,” says Tsegaye.
But the changing dynamics of state sovereignty over these years means each county’s influence towards one another has been narrowing down to a single common interest – security cooperation.
Currently security collaboration is perhaps the only stage where both America and Ethiopia tango together and go home happier. For America, which is at war ideologically and militarily with many countries and groups (respectively) around the world, Ethiopia’s cooperation in sharing and making valuable intelligence available in abundance is priceless. And for Ethiopia dealing with security concerns has become the major part of its sophisticated state mechanism to sustain and solidify the government’s stay in power.
It’s no brainer to see that Ethiopia is deploying the mechanisms that America wants it to use to run its business of the war on terror to devastate its critics and political opponents at home. At the same time President Obama made his brief stopover and found the generous “democratically elected” lexicon to praise Ethiopia, hundreds of Ethiopians – from journalists to Oromo university students to members of the Ethiopian Muslim arbitration committee and opposition political party members- are locked in jail accused of being ‘terrorists’.
Obama’s Africa charm offensive no more
The president’s first Africa charm offensive came in 2009, a year after his historic ascendance to the Oval Office. While visiting Egypt, Obama delivered an address that came to be known as ‘A New Beginning’ at the University of Cairo. He electrified his audience (in their thousands) when he spoke about the significance of “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed.” Two years later, Egyptians had a say in how they wanted to be governed and the outcome showed there was not much of the “Obama prescription” in it.
President Obama also visited Ghana, a country celebrated for its significant strides in implementing democratic governance. Speaking to the parliament in Accra, the capital, he called leaders throughout the continent to commit themselves to “strong and sustainable democratic governments” and famously declared, “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.”He went on to caution that governments that lead with the consent of their people, and not by coercion, are the once which are likely to become more stable.
And in the last day of his brief stopover in Addis Abeba, he delivered yet another one of his signature speech at the AU headquarters “to the people of Africa” and struck a chord with Africans when he said: “Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end.” and yes, “nobody should be president for life.” If he was concerned as to how exactly many of them came to power in the first place he opted not to show it. He brought his speech closer to Ethiopia with his analogue of liberty and security: “if we sacrifice liberty in the name of security, we risk losing both”.
In all fairness, no speech gets any better, clearer and louder, and millions of African youngsters still consider Barack Obama as “the symbol and embodiment of democracy and the myth of the so-called ‘American Dream’,” Tsegaye said at the end of our interview. “As the first black president of the most powerful country on earth, Barack Obama exudes a lot of pride among ordinary citizens.”
But beyond Obama’s charismatic personality and the richness of his inspiring speeches, his term in office will come to an end before America’s Africa policy is able to overcome Africa’s strongmen. And the case for Ethiopia has just got interesting.
For all their distaste of a neo-liberal approach to economics and human rights issues, Ethiopian officials have cleverly tried to make President Obama one of theirs; one of the million birr worth banners that littered the city reads: “welcome home our son”. And in all the public appearances during Obama’s visit, they made it clear that all was okay, as long as Obama understood that Ethiopia is still a work in progress. That by itself renders Obama’s likening of his visit to Ethiopia as having the same effect with his visit to Burma or China an unnecessary parallel to draw in the first place.
What was to unfold in Ethiopia in a span of one week after the president left for his Oval Office shows that Ethiopia is neither Burma, nor China. A day after Obama left, Ethiopia’s justice system returned to its normal day at work: four of the five bloggers who are facing charges of terrorism appeared in court; in less than a week, on Aug. 4th, a court in Addis Abeba will sentence members of the Ethiopian Muslim arbitration committee; and a week later on Aug. 6th a group of young Oromo university students will appear in court facing terrorism charges – because Ethiopia always does what Ethiopia always does best.
Cover Photo Credit: AFP