President Obama’s East African Tour

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia –During his visit to East Africa in July 2015, President Barack Obama lost opportunities to right the wrongs in the region. Even worse, he enabled bad behaviors. He hailed the “democratically elected” Ethiopian government; reluctantly admonished the Kenyans about their homophobia. On the other hand, he ushered the African Union with his usual oratory skills. Nevertheless, he received a warm welcome; red carpet treatment in Nairobi, and a visit from Lucy—a collection of bones representing about forty-percent of our bipedal ancestor ape, in Addis Ababa. The President’s visit was more of a symbolic than an official business.

The exotic nature of the visit was a hard-to-miss from the mainstream media coverage with less focus on the U.S. foreign policy towards Africa, but with emphasis on the adventures. He danced the night away with Sauti Sol, the Kenyan afro-pop band. He giggled with Ethiopian hostesses, who treated him to a strong buna—your espresso from the Starbucks—only twice as strong, and he managed to offend the Ethiopia’s ethnic majority by calling them “Omoro”. The correct name is Oromo. The visit’s main goal was the speech to the African Union, in addition to Ambassador Rice’s emphasis on the entrepreneur summit held in Nairobi, during her press briefing prior to the President’s departure for Africa. It was also an acknowledgment of the rulers who kept East Africa stable.

One needs to look no further than national security advisor’s laughter during the White House Press Conference on July 22, 2015, to see Ethiopia’s May election as a joke. She gave a tongue-in-cheek short answer to reporter’s question on whether the hundred percent election win was democratic. “Hundred percent,” she said before she let us know her feelings about it with a guffaw. The president himself declared Ethiopian government “democratically elected,” twice in a joint press conference with Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn in Addis Ababa. What U.S. taxpayers don’t know is the fact that American diplomats were not allowed to observe the sham election, in which Ethiopian ruling party won every seat in the parliament.

President Obama wasn’t planning to let common sense and logic detract him from his mission—standing by Ethiopia, a key ally in global war on terrorism. As a result, he confirmed many skeptics’ outlook on U.S. foreign policy towards Africa–paying lip service.

Kudos to WikiLeaks, a cable sent to Washington from Addis Ababa in November of 2002 clearly states U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials knew what Meles Zenawi, the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia was up to. “Meles finds the GWOT politically advantageous both for Ethiopia and his ruling coalition,” reads the comment signed by Aurelia Brazeal, former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia. The GWOT is an acronym for Global War on Terrorism. The ambassador also stated that Ethiopia was quick to come with a proposal of “large-scale” strike on Somalia shortly after 9/11. In the same cable she also pointed to Meles’ excitement about the global war on terrorism, stating the fact that he called it “godsend”. In the same cable, the official reports Seyoum Mesfin promised not to fail the United States. Obviously, the reports of human rights abuses in Ethiopia have fallen on the deaf ears.

Not all the resources provided to Ethiopian defense forces by the United States were used to fight terrorism. In the aftermath of the 2005 election, Ethiopian government deployed U.S. HUMVEEs to crack down on the opposition. At least 85 people were killed. As usual, U.S. handled Ethiopian government with a kid gloves–banning the sale of HUMVEEs, and that was it.

Deputy defense secretary Ashton B. Carter laughs with General Samora Yenus of Ethiopia
Deputy defense secretary Ashton B. Carter laughs with General Samora Yenus of Ethiopia Public Domain / The HornPost

The international non-governmental organization with a focus on advocacy on human rights, Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote a letter to President Obama prior to his visit to East Africa. In the letter, the organization urged [him] “to clearly articulate that the United States expects its partners to support an environment where independent organizations and media outlets can thrive, and security forces undertake operations that protect – rather than abuse – their citizens.” The letter goes into details of the concerns of HRW about both Kenyan and Ethiopian governments. It ends by quoting the president himself, “history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.” The quote was from his speech in Ghana in 2009. It appears Ethiopia defied this rule, or maybe not.

The United States’ role in Africa has been diminished to aiding and abetting dictators. Its only presence is in the joint military exercises, and the plan seems to be doubling down on that. In his statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2015, General David M. Rodriguez, Commander of United States Africa Command praised the progress made in East Africa and other parts of Africa in the past year. “In East Africa, our regional partners continued to lead security efforts in Somalia and demonstrated greater effectiveness and coordination in operations against al-Qa’ida affiliate al-Shabaab,” he told the Committee chaired by Sen. John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona.

The General also pointed out that there is a risk of destabilization as Africans demand political and economic reforms, in his statement. “Corrupt leadership, persistent economic inequalities, swelling youth populations, expanding urbanization, and ready access to technology can fuel popular discontent and violent civil unrest,” he continued, “when populations cannot rely on the ballot box for accountable governance, they are more likely to resort to violence.” He also stated his most fear—corruption permeating military institutions, which he said could be, exploited by terrorists. One notable mention from the statement is the emphasis given to Camp Lemonnier, a forward operating base in Djibouti. He stated how important this site is to the U.S interests, given the recently signed agreement, allowing the United States presence until 2044. These yearly statements to Congress are justifications for the U.S. military presence on the African continent, and reports on the progress of missions.

Nick Turse, associate editor of tomdispatch.com writes in detail about the entrenched U.S. military in Africa. Per his report, “U.S. carried out 674 military operations in Africa in 2014.” That is about 2 operations per day. As Turse points out, most of these operations involve training allied forces. Turse also goes into details about what he called “multinational military future for a troubled region of Africa.” You can read his fascinating report here.

The Obama administration responded to The Horn Post’s request for comments on human rights abuses in East Africa with a link to a searchable library on the government website.

As originally published on Sep. 6, 2015.