President Barack Obama is sometimes called the “President of Firsts.” He is the first African American to hold the office of President of the United States, the first US president to support gay marriage, the first to appoint a Hispanic-American to the Supreme Court, and the first to address both houses of the British Parliament. Last week, he also became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
This coming week, Mr. Obama will add one more item to his list of historic firsts—he will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia.
After visiting Kenya, the homeland of his father, the president will make a stop in Addis Ababa as part of his six-day Africa trip. He is expected to address the African Union about the future of US-Africa relations, and will also be holding bilateral meetings with Ethiopian officials.
Talk of Obama’s visit has colored the conversations of Ethiopians for weeks and expectations are high.
For Welansa Asrat (MD), a cross-cultural psychiatrist in New York, the awkward history between Obama’s father and the US, and how that would play out in the President’s Kenya tour is what’s piquing her interest. “I’m curious to know if President Obama feels torn or conflicted about representing the West’s interest in Kenya, given the INS had his father kicked out of the US before he finished his studies at Harvard,” Asrat told GIZEYAT.
“I also wonder how he feels about representing the West in a country [Ethiopia] that never capitulated to Europe,” she added, saying that Malcom X spoke at the Organization for African Unity (OAU) to decolonize Africans. “And President Obama?” she questions.
What will the President’s visit achieve?
The Ethiopian-American economist and former adviser to the World Bank, Aklog Birara (PhD), told the Washington Times on Tuesday that although he admires the president for paying a visit to Ethiopia, he had misgivings that his visit may skirt around the human rights problems in the country.
Birara’s alternating delight and concern over President Obama’s trip seems to be something that resonates with the residents in Ethiopia as well.
Negash Abebe, a psychologist in Addis Ababa, perceives Mr. Obama’s visit to Ethiopia as good fortune for his country. “His visit gives Ethiopia more international media publicity. This is what we have been working for in order to let the rest of the world know about this age-old country with a magnificent history, stunning geography and an awesome culture.”
But Abebe wants the president to address the human rights and democracy issues as well. Despite the steady, and impressively fast, economic growth in the country, Abebe says that the condition of human rights is deteriorating. “I fear that the president’s visit dignifies this abuse, which is not what America and the world stand for,” he said.
On the other hand, Addis Ababa University’s political science and international relations instructor Demeke Achiso (PhD) argued that Obama’s visit to Ethiopia is not necessarily because Ethiopia is a model of democracy, but because there are both internal and external factors that made the president’s visit necessary.
“In the Horn of Africa, where almost all states are characterized by state failure, Ethiopia will continue to attract all major powers of the day—including the USA—as a dependable partner for mutual interests,” Achiso said. He added that it would be unwise for the U.S. to ignore not only Ethiopia but the entire Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf of Aden as a region. After all, the country has vested national interests including the fight against global terrorism and investment opportunities for its ever-growing MNCs. Democratization and stabilization of the region would reduce America’s vulnerability, contain regional and global contenders, maintain oil supplies and safeguard the country’s trade route interests across the Mediterranean and Red seas.
Achiso said Ethiopia has a good track record. It has done well in economic development, succeeded in most of the MDGs, partaken in several continental peacekeeping missions, and is also the political hub of Africa. All these factors make it a good African partner for the world’s sole superpower, especially in the Horn of Africa.
“Politically speaking,” Achiso elaborated, “I could argue that the planned visit is partly a political signal to all contenders of the U.S.A. that Obama’s administration in Ethiopia is committed to accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve bilateral relations for better security and the ‘War on Terror’.”
According to the scholar, Ethiopia in turn can benefit a lot from the visit by strengthening its bilateral relations and gaining economic support, whether in terms of aid, trade or investment and security issues.
On the ground
Unlike the neighboring state Kenya, preparations are taking place here without much publicity. Obama’s stay in Ethiopia seems to be confined to bilateral dialogue with Ethiopian and African Union officials.
The Ethiopian opposition parties are calling on Obama to address them when he comes to Ethiopia. Yet current developments indicate that there is little chance of opposition parties meeting Obama.
“Our chance of meeting Obama is close to zero. We would have been consulted by now about the rendezvous if the President was about to meet us,” the opposition coalition MEDREK leader Professor Beyene Petros told the Amharic service of VOA.
Professor Beyene added, “President Obama’s visit will be regrettable if he fails to meet the opposition political parties at a time when the multi-parties’ role in the nation’s politics is close to zero.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs however, says Obama’s visit to Ethiopia comes as a recognition to the country’s all-round progress.
Bereket Dereje has contributed to this story from Boston.