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Obama Panders to Ethiopian Dictatorship

On Monday, while visiting Ethiopia, President Obama qualified his mild criticisms of Ethiopia by saying his observations were made “from a position of respect and regard for the Ethiopian people, and recognizing their history and the challenges that they continue to face.”

Ethiopia is a dictatorship. It holds a large number of journalists and dissidents in its jails. In the last election, the ruling party received an absurd 100% of the vote. Nevertheless, in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Hailemariam, President Obama twice referred to Ethiopia’s “democratically- elected government.” Prime Minister Hailemariam chimed right in, saying his country was on “the right track” and was a “constitutional democracy.” According to the prime minister, “two decades of democratization” were not enough to overcome “centuries of undemocratic practices and culture in this country.”

The White House claims that a more frank and presumably factual discussion was held behind closed doors. The New York Times’s Peter Baker quoted a senior administration official saying that privately, “Ethiopian leaders ‘expressed some discomfort’ with the ruling party’s sweep of the election because it was ‘not indicative of the kind of competition they want to have.”

Setting aside the questions of what margin of victory the Ethiopian ruling party would like to have to disguise their faux democracy–not too high, not too low–the message from the president and his aides is disappointing and revealing. It sounds defensive of the Ethiopian government.

Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly how those private exchanges went. That’s precisely the point. It would have been better if the White House were able to say that the president left no doubt that Ethiopia’s failure to allow democratic elections would be a barrier to US relations.

A US presidential visit is already an enormous sign of respect–this one, especially so as it was the first by an American president. Unless care is taken, a visit to an authoritarian delivers respect to the government, not to the people, particularly those persecuted or jailed for seeking democracy and human rights. Anything the president and his team said privately, even if it was robustly and unequivocally supportive of democracy, was heard by only those with an interest in ignoring it. Meanwhile, the president’s public remarks will have a lasting demoralizing impact on Ethiopia’s democrats and provide a boost for dictatorships elsewhere. 

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