Barack Obama will become the first ever sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia. This is a testament to the firm friendship that the two countries enjoy. Ethiopia has had a close relationship with the U.S. ever since Emperor Menlik II earned recognition as the only sovereign state leader in Africa after defeating Italy. Emperor Haile Selassie deepened the bond with his seven official state visits to the U.S during his reign.
President Obama’s trip to Ethiopia, although overdue, shows America’s growing confidence in the significant role Ethiopia plays in African affairs. But critics argue that the trip sends the wrong message and that the U.S. should stay away from Ethiopia, using unfounded data while underestimating that isolation policy can be destructive in the long run.
The question should not be whether Obama’s visit to Ethiopia sends the right or wrong message because this is not the first time a US president has visited an undemocratic country. The question should rather be what the outcome of the trip will be and how to maximize long-term strategic partnerships with the aim of benefitting Ethiopian citizens while meeting U.S. interests halfway.
Obama has been consistent with his promise to engage with countries even where there is disagreement. Burma, China, Iran and recently Cuba are all part of that effort. Without genuine effort to engage with others, real change can’t be achieved. It is also important to note that the US has continued to criticize Ethiopia’s human rights violations.
The president’s visit is momentous and well timed for the following reasons:
1. Geostrategic location + Stability + Capable military
Ethiopia has been playing a stabilizing role in the geostrategic region of East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Yemen is in disarray, South Sudan is on the brink of collapse, and Somalia and Kenya are wary of continued al-Shaabab attacks. Ethiopia’s responsibility as a regional power to assert its ‘security guardian’ role in this tough region is more relevant than ever before. Although Ethiopia has been a target of terrorist attacks, the country remains stable in the chaotic and volatile Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has foiled terrorist plots in time and has been able to avoid a large-scale al-Shabaab attack like those that occurred in Kenya. The Ethiopian army is also the fourth largest contributor to peacekeeping missions around the world.
2. Continued security partnership is more important than ever before.
A large part of northern and eastern Africa has become a breeding ground for homegrown forces and transnational violent extremists. Its frequent instability has made it susceptible to terrorist groups that see it as a potential safe heaven. Which is why U.S.-Ethiopia bilateral talks should stress how to boost border security to address weapons trafficking as well as avert radicalization of youth. Two years ago, Obama said Ethiopia is going to be critical to US overall efforts to defeat terrorism. In the East Africa only, the US has spent almost $100 million from 2009-2015 in counterterrorism efforts. However, there is a need to strike balance between army training and long-term institutional development – military and rule of law institutions within the long-term engagement frame. Also the sooner Ethiopia joins the Security Governance Initiative the better.
3. U.S. should jump on the fast-moving train.
Ethiopia’s economic rate of growth of 10.5 percent is attractive for investment. Countries like China, India, and Turkey have taken advantage of this opportunity by contributing to the $1.5 billion in overseas direct investment in 2015. However, the U.S. has fallen behind. Obama should stress the need to improve trade relations between the two countries and capitalize on Ethiopia’s trade potential. It’s never too late for the U.S. to jump on the train and compete with growing Chinese investment, especially now that Congress has finally voted to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by 10 years.
4. Censorship is bad for development.
The May 24 election, which the governing party won with 100 percent of the vote, confirmed the leadership’s fervent desire to silence and dominate the political space. The ruling party’s “security conscious” approach is not only inadmissible to dissent but also to liberalization, in which sectors such as telecommunications, banking, and finance are monopolized and lack the competition to effectively serve growing demand. Obama should introduce programs targeting institutional capacity building through the transfer of knowledge and technology with the aim of addressing governance, accountability and efficiency. National Electoral Board and the Ethiopian Institution of the Ombudsman are among the weak institutions screaming for help.
5. “African powerhouse” has so much to offer Africa and the U.S.
Ethiopia, the epitome of “Africa Rising”, intends to lead as a regional renewable energy hub in East Africa. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) hydropower project will be Africa’s largest when completed in 2017. By 2037, Ethiopia aspires to build Africa’s largest geothermal plant with a hydropower potential of up to 45,000 mw to become a major power exporter. Add to that Ethiopia’s first space observatory in East Africa is opening doors for space science technology in Africa.
6. African Union (AU) Headquarters in Addis is gateway to reach African leaders.
Although this continental organization lacks the ability and collective will to punish corrupt leaders or prevent young Africans from dying in the Mediterranean Sea, the AU could use this historic visit to gain support from the U.S. president. Using this opportunity, the president should also underscore the need to support the African monitoring system as a way to improving governance and political stability among AU member states.
7. Call for peace in South Sudan.
The president should seize this chance to discuss regional strategies with key players using his leverage. This may include increasing financial pressure on those that fund the conflict as well as bringing public-private leaders of South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia to the negotiation table.
Overall, this historic visit will strengthen the U.S-Ethiopia partnership and provide mutual benefits.
Wegayehu, an Ethiopian national, is a Tom Lantos-Humanity in Action Legislative fellow and a researcher on defense, gender, energy, Horn of Africa, and China. Follow her on Twitter @RediTweets.
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