Washington wants a stable partner in the Horn of Africa. But cozying up to the repressive regime in Addis Ababa isn’t the way to go about finding one.

By Jeffrey Smith, Mohammed Ademo |

Later this month, President Barack Obama will become the first sitting United States president to ever visit Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, and a nation viewed by many as a bastion of stability in a region otherwise beset with civil strife. The trip — which will also include a stopover in Kenya — is being billed as part of the Obama administration’s regional efforts “to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security.”

These are indeed laudable goals and should be actively pursued by the U.S. government. But the timing and tenor of the visit to Addis Ababa sends a worrying signal that Washington’s priorities — not only in Ethiopia, but on the entire continent — are actually at odds with the president’s oft-repeated rhetoric about advancing human rights and strengthening African democracy and institutions.

Let’s be clear: Ethiopia is not a model of democracy that should be rewarded with a presidential visit. The long-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), now in power for 25 years, claimed a landslide victory in legislative polls held in May, winning all 547 parliamentary seats, which places it among the ranks of North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq in terms of the sheer efficiency of its electoral sweep. The results should not have come as a surprise: the EPRDF swept the last four elections, including in 2010, in which it took a whopping 99.6 percent of the vote. This time around, Washington and the European Union did not even bother sending election observers, knowing full well that an EPRDF victory was a foregone conclusion.

The lead up to the May 24 vote saw a widespread crackdown on journalists, human rights activists, and opposition supporters. What’s worse, Obama’s trip was announced on June 19, the same week it was revealed that three opposition party members were murdered in the country, all under highly suspicious circumstances.

So why is President Obama visiting a country where democracy is in such a sorry state and where human rights violations remain systemic and widespread? Because, despite the obvious lack of political rights and civil liberties in Ethiopia, and its status as one of the top jailers of journalists in the world, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is palatable to Washington and other Western donors precisely because of who he is not: a retrograde dictator in the mold of his regional counterparts, Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea or Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The brutal and oft heavy-handed oppression exhibited by the latter two regimes is brazen, whereas Desalegn and the EPRDF work within the (regime-controlled) judicial system, giving their repression a veneer of legality.

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