Obama’s Historic Visit to Ethiopia: A Larger Perspective

President Obama addressing Mandela Washington Fellows in 2014. (Photograph Courtesy: blackpressUSA)

Tadias Magazine

Published: Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

New York (TADIAS) — Seven years ago in October of 2008, a few weeks before Barack Obama was elected President, the late Professor and Ethiopianist Donald N. Levine who was a colleague of Obama during their teaching days at The University of Chicago, wrote an article highlighting “Five Reasons for Ethiopian-Americans to Support Obama.” Levine asked: “Even if this is the most important American presidential election in the last half-century, why should Ethiopians burn with special interest in it?” He added: “Considering what’s at stake for Ethiopian immigrants and their home country, the question warrants a fresh look.”

On the eve of Obama’s highly publicized inaugural visit to Ethiopia this week — the first by a sitting U.S. President — the question remains more relevant today than ever.

President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia is a significant milestone for the U.S. government to strengthen one of the first and oldest diplomatic relations with an African nation. Yet we would be remiss not to mention that this U.S. presidential excursion awkwardly comes on the heels of the unrealistic 100% election victory announced last month by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia.

Recalling Obama’s commitment during the 2008 campaign, while still soliciting our vote, he addressed the Chicago Council on Global Affairs stating that it “requires a society that is supported by the pillars of a sustainable democracy – a strong legislature, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, a free press, and an honest police force. It requires building the capacity of the world’s weakest states.”

In the days ahead it is our sincere hope that these pillars of democracy – respect for human rights and encouraging the growth of the press sector — are boldly communicated and emphasized by President Obama.

We hope that the Obama administration has learned from the Wendy Sherman debacle and understands how the President’s tour can be taken as ignoring Ethiopia’s lack of free press and the country’s outdated political culture of muzzling journalists and crushing dissent — a concern that has been duly noted by the Editorial Board of the Washington Post as well as several international human rights organizations. These are serious, legitimate criticisms that President Obama should take to mind and heart as he visits our ancestral home. We urge him to boldly amplify our human rights concerns as much as he is ready to speak about Ethiopia’s economic successes.

Historically, Ethiopia and its people as a nation, has greatly contributed to the Pan-African movement for independence, paving the way for establishing the African Union as well as forging the first bilateral trade agreement between an African country and the United States. It is fitting that President Obama, the son of an African man and the leader of the United States, makes the first visit to Ethiopia. Moreover, President Obama’s journey to the new African Union headquarters is unprecedented and can serve as a belated opportunity not only to pay tribute to founding fathers such as Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana who stood together to plant the seeds of a lasting Pan-African movement, but likewise acknowledge how the OAU listened to a young African American civil rights leader named Malcolm X and passed a resolution in support of his fight against racial discrimination in the United States. Author George Breitman captures Malcolm X’s enthusiasm following the passing of his resolution at the 1964 OAU Summit in Cairo quoting him in his book, Malcolm X Speaks, as stating “from all standpoints it has been an unqualified success, and one which should change the whole direction of our struggle in America for human dignity as well as human rights.”

So what better stage is there than the AU headquarters to stand firmly behind the ideal that freedom of expression is a global human right?

It is also equally important that this historic occasion be viewed through a larger lens, acknowledging the long-term relations between the people of America and Ethiopia.

President Obama can also use this historic moment to recognize another seed of friendship — the first batch of 51 Peace Corps Volunteers who arrived in the new African nation of Ghana in August 1961 and the following year to Ethiopia — shortly after President Kennedy signed an executive order in March of that year. Approximately 11,000 Americans had signed up eager to serve, and since the Peace Corps’ first launch on the African continent the organization has flourished and expanded its network to over 140 nations worldwide. Addressing heads of state at the African Union President Obama will become the first American President to honor the Peace Corps’ first launch in Africa as well as the legacy of a generation that helped create independent African states.

Last, but not least, the presidential trip is also an opportunity to recognize that Ethiopia and the African Union have been two of America’s oldest friends. It is stunning to think that despite the signing of the first U.S.-Ethiopia bilateral trade agreement in 1903 no sitting American president has ever visited Ethiopia in over a century. Ironically, it is an Ethiopian Head of State (former Emperor Haile Selassie) who held the record as the most frequent traveler to the United States as a foreign leader, only matched by the Queen of England in the last decade. While African leaders continue to travel to headquarters of the European Union and the White House, no American president has addressed African leaders from the African Union headquarters.

We look forward to witnessing history as President Barack Obama takes the AU stage in Ethiopia this week and stands by the words he spoke in Ghana in 2009, asserting that “mutual responsibility must be the foundation” of a partnership between America and African countries, and emphasizing that “in the 21st century, capable, reliable and transparent institutions are the key to success – strong parliaments and honest police forces; independent judges and journalists; a vibrant private sector and civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy.”

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