The U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs, who was in Addis Ababa to discuss mutual interests with Ethiopian officials, called Ethiopia a democracy where the U.S. expects elections to be free, fair and credible.

Undersecretary Wendy Sherman made the remark during a press briefing following her talks with Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom on April 16, 2015.

“I was very glad to have a wide-ranging discussion with the Minister. Not only about the tremendous success here in Ethiopia and all of the development goals that have been met, Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies on the African continent,” Sherman said. “Ethiopia is a democracy that’s moving forward, in election that we expect to be free, fair, credible… Every time there’s an election, it gets better and better.”

Activists and human rights groups are fuming at Sherman’s remarks.

“Undersecretary Sherman’s comments today were woefully ignorant and counter-productive,” said Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of Freedom House on Thursday. “Ethiopia remains one of the most undemocratic countries in Africa. By calling these elections credible, Sherman has tacitly endorsed the Ethiopian government’s complete disregard for the democratic rights of its citizens. This will only bolster the government’s confidence to continue its crackdown on dissenting voices.”

Obang Metho, executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Arlington, VA, shares Calingaert’s opinion. “What’s even more embarrassing,” Metho told GIZEYAT, “is that the undersecretary made the remark together with a ruling party candidate when the election is only a month away. Her action is not short of campaigning for the regime.”

Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have sent a letter to the US Secretary of State John Kerry, urging a clarification on what they referred as an “unfortunate statement” by his undersecretary.

Others took to Twitter, with the hashtag #EthiopianDemocracy101…Sherman barely trending in the last two days.

“Disgusting!,” is what Mrs. Ana Gomes, MEP, tweeted in reply to a thread that gave vents to frustrations over Sherman’s comment. The undersecretary’s statement came as Mrs. Gomes was preparing, together with four other European dignitaries, to hold a conference in Brussels exactly a week later titled, “Cartoon Democracy – Authoritarian Rule and Elections in Ethiopia.”

But last week’s statement also marks the first time where a United States official publicly mentioned Ginbot 7 —an armed Ethiopian opposition group stationed in Eritrea— as a security concern in the Horn of Africa.

“We discussed the reality from Ethiopia’s perspective as well as concern about all of those terrorist groups that Ethiopia considers, Ginbot 7 as well,” Sherman said.

“The United States believes that no group, including Ginbot 7, should attempt to overthrow or speak of overthrowing a democratically elected government, and we look forward to continuing our work with the Ethiopian government to address these concerns in a very serious and appropriate ways.”

Officials at Ginbot 7 however, seem to be unmoved. The chairman, Berhanu Nega (PhD), told VOA Amharic Radio yesterday that such developments aren’t unique since the Ethiopian regime always seeks the support of the United States whenever things get tense.

“As those from Ethiopia can remember while I was in prison following the 2005 elections, it was Vicki Huddleston, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires at the time, who came all the way to the prison asking me to voluntarily renounce my mayorship in order to calm situations for the regime,” Nega told VOA.

“It’s not the U.S. government or anyone else that can determine Ethiopia’s affair, but only the people of Ethiopia,” Nega added.

It is to be recalled that the State Department, in its 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, has concluded “there was ample evidence that unfair government tactics, including intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters, influenced the extent of the EPRDF victory” in the 2010 elections.

Following Undersecretary Sherman’s latest remarks, some are wondering if perhaps the U.S. is shifting its policy toward Ethiopia in light of prevailing circumstances in the region.

Sherman, who flew straight to Addis from a G7 meeting in Lubek, Germany, said her talks with Ethiopian authorities included the pressing issues of al-Shaabab, ISIL and Al-Qaeda, which were also points of discussion during the G7 meeting.

“The world is facing a lot these days, and Ethiopia is a very strong and growing country. And we want to make sure that this stability, the peace, the security, and the growing prosperity continue,” Sherman said last Thursday. “And we look forward to our very strong partnership, building all the platforms that we need to meet these threats, meet these concerns with all of the seriousness that they deserve.”