Aryn Baker, Time
On the morning of July 27, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn welcomed Obama into Addis Ababa’s National Palace with the pomp and glory of an ancient empire that, unlike much of Africa, was not colonized by a European power until 1936. A large brass band, decked out in the red and green of the Ethiopian flag, played The Star-Spangled Banner and the Ethiopian national anthem as Obama and Desalegn stood at attention. Stone lions stood atop the palace portico; real ones roamed the palace’s back garden, reminders of Ethiopia’s former emperor, Haile Selassie, who took the lion as his symbol. (Obama later visited the palace lions, and joked, in a press conference, that he was “considering getting some for the White House.”) As cannons fired off a 21-gun salute, Obama inspected troops from the Ethiopian national guard in a bit of state visit formality that appeared to bore him. Then he and Desalegn entered the palace for several hours of closed-door discussions on regional security, economic development and human rights.
For many Westerners, Ethiopia still conjures up images of starvation and desperate poverty, a product of a horrific famine during the 1980s. But today Ethiopia is the second most populous state in Africa, with some 90 million people, and it has become a regional military and economic powerhouse, averaging ten percent growth over the past decade.
But that success on the African stage has come at a cost to civil liberties and democratic ideals. Described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the second largest African jailer of journalists, after Eritrea, the government has detained at least nine reporters and bloggers critical of the ruling party; five were released in the weeks leading up to Obama’s visit. Prime Minister Desalegn justified the detentions in a press conference after the talks by insinuating that the journalists were unethical and aligned with terrorist groups. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have lambasted the Ethiopian government for its abysmal record on human rights, noting that members of the political opposition are regularly accused and detained on charges of terrorism. Obama, in the same press conference, said that U.S. intelligence had seen no indication that the opposition groups of most concern to the government posed a terrorist threat. “If they tip into activities that are violent and are undermining a constitutional government, then we have a concern,” he said. A vocal opposition, he added, should be seen not as a threat, but as an essential part of any functioning democracy. Read more