Reconnecting with Barack Obama

Obama Restaurant and Cafe in Bahir Dar Ethiopia
A man takes a photo of Salam (on left ) 19 years old winner of the Miss Obama beauty pagent held at the Obama Cafe owned by Alelegn Abebaw who is on right talking to the woman in front of his business's sign In Amhara's regional capital Bahir Dar, Ethiopia on President Barack Obama's inauguration day, Tuesday January 20 2009.

Kirubel Tadesse, Capital

Back in his hometown of Chicago, the 44th US President Barack H. Obama has once again presented himself as a contender for popular choice. President Obama made his debut as a candidate on Thursday, April 14th night as he started his campaign for a second four-year term that will receive verdict from American voters on November 6, 2012.

For 1.3 billion black people, Obama’s election meant much more than simply another American politician sitting in the planet’s most powerful seat. It was shockingly unveiled this week by the BBC how shamefully black immigrants are being treated in Russia where officials are reportedly “concerned about the blood mix of whites and blacks.” This is just one striking demonstration of how we still have to go very far to achieve a world without racism. This is one of the reasons why Obama’s election was celebrated as an important milestone for the cause for equality of all races.

Obama’s historic 2008 election victory, which was celebrated by Ethiopians as their own due to the president’s African descent, that had created waves of euphoria across the poor continent has fizzled out over the past two years as the many hopes for the new President, not only over his identity but also his pledge to alter US foreign policies failed to materialize during his  presidency.

Change hopes
Whenever the US is posed to elect its commander in chief, the world closely watches, and Ethiopia was no exception. In addition to this, there were unique circumstances surrounding the Ethiopian political landscape when Obama was about to take office.

Ethiopia’s political landscape was in a fast changing mode as Obama took oath. A number of laws were being issued such as the ones concerning civil societies, the press and the political parties which have all raised eye brows as there were widely regarded by rights groups as efforts by the ruling party to preempt challenges in the 2010 polls following opposition parties’ unprecedented gains in 2005.

Ethiopian opposition leaders such as Birtukan Midekssa, Bulcha Demeksa, Merera Gudina (PhD) and many others all had expressed optimism over Obama’s election.
“Support for human rights protection and rule of law took a back seat,” Birtukan had commented in 2008 reflecting on Bush’s era US foreign policy focus towards Ethiopia, and envisaging a new US foreign policy priorities once Obama takes office.

For Merera, the introduction of Obama meant a lot more: “Even the world itself doesn’t see good days coming unless Obama ends the so called war on terror Bush advocated.” Leaders such as Bulcha accused US of prioritizing Ethiopia only as an ally in the Bush war, this too was hoped to change once the black man conquers the White House”.

No, he can’t!
Earlier signs from the Obama administration such as Assistant Secretary of African Affairs, Ambassador Johnnie Carson’s senate confirmation speech that reflected both the legislators and the executive “concerns” over the latest developments, led many to believe that Washington was about to change its tone towards Addis Ababa.

“I am concerned by growing reports of repressiveness by the Ethiopian Government,” Carson said in a strong statement about Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government. The US, with its one billion dollar annual assistance and vital votes in leading global financial institutions that came in handy to support finance for Ethiopian projects, surely would be in a position to negotiate and address whatever concerns it has, especially in areas of human rights’ protection that even the Ethiopian government wants to uphold. The expressions of the concern however proved to be nothing more but just part of Washington’s empty rhetoric.

While Birtukan landed in prison before Obama took office; the  opposition was presented with a reality that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government assessment that the US policies would remain consistent was vindicated.

“The issue of human rights is only an instrument to be used to needle China and Russia,” Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, one of the country’s leading political elites, said as the US chose not to exert any meaningful pressure while Birtukan “vegetated in prison” as Meles once reportedly put it.

In the meantime the State Department’s annual human rights reports continue to write about “widespread and systematic human rights violation and abuses.”
“An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place in the two years prior to the May elections,” the latest 2010 State Department annual human rights report said two weeks ago.
“President Obama’s administration’s policy priorities in Africa, as said in Accra by the president himself, include supporting African commitment to the rule of law, democracy and good governance,” said Karl Wyckoff, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Bureau of African Affairs, during his visit here.

Despite the yearly assessment made by the annual human rights reports and event based reactions such as the ones made in May election period, Washington officials have avoided strong tones against PM Meles’ government and lately they are in a dilemma as to how to sell the picture of their assessments of Ethiopia and their cooperation go together.

In his first press conference after named US Ambassador to Ethiopia a year ago, Donald E. Booth, on March 31, responded to questions in an effort to paint a different political atmosphere in Ethiopia.

When asked about Washington’s stance toward last May’s elections; rather than the over 99 percent election victory the ambassador called focus on the 80-20 popular votes distributions while he called Birtukan Midekssa’s apparent fleeing to the US a trip made for “recovery”. Even in a very skillfully drafted statement Birtukan released before her departure, she didn’t want to be taken as giving up politics “recovery” wasn’t named as a reason for her indefinite stay in the US.

President Obama’s top diplomat here a year back when he was going through a senate confirmation speech had a very different tone about Ethiopia: “limitations on political expression risks instability in Ethiopia.”

Despite just hosting an election that wasn’t free and fair [according to the US assessments] Ethiopia continues to be an island of stability in the ambassador’s view. Or the ambassador wants to shade the limelight on selected facts that suit different times and situations. But a rather controversial remark came when the ambassador declared that “The Ethiopian people have accepted the outcome of this election [May, 2010]. It is not our job to challenge their wisdom in that.”

Without offering to withdraw the assessment that the May elections weren’t free and fair, to say the public accepted unfair elections remains a puzzle.  ‘Unless Ethiopians were made “to comply” with the outcome, why would they accept an election that wasn’t free? Certainly the Ethiopian people don’t lack “wisdom” to distinguish an election that isn’t fair provided that they have the means to express their ideas,’ say opposition leaders.

Casually and strongly the US Ambassador communicated to the opposition that they represent a small part of the population. When one looks back and sees that the top three opposition parties in the May elections have all rejected the outcome of the election, it is easy to read between the lines that the US assessment that “the Ethiopian people have accepted the election outcome” comes from a shared belief of Ethiopian and American administrations that the opposition doesn’t represent a significant portion of the public.

So where does all these conflicting signals coming from the US lead?  Obama couldn’t change the priority of Ethio-US ties and focus on the protection of Human Rights. This is why Ethiopians may never “reconnect” with Obama in the near future.