When former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Addis Ababa in 1996, Ethiopian officials invited him to address a joint-press conference, to which he declined.
He did so in protest against the harassment and imprisonment of independent journalists, and their exclusion from his official press conference. It was just in the prior year that the State Department he oversees reported Ethiopia’s human rights violations in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
The first Secretary of State to visit Ethiopia after the downfall of the military rule in 1991, Christopher later on held a news conference in his hotel. He said even though his country appreciates Ethiopia’s progress on human rights, it still wants to see more especially in areas of freedom of press and treatment of journalists.
Fast forward to 2014 — it’s a whole different story.
Days before the present Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Addis Ababa on his African tour, the Ethiopian government arrested the three journalists and six bloggers, commonly referred as the Zone 9 collective.
Kerry’s trip to Ethiopia ironically, was to advance peace and democracy in the region, and engage with civil society and young African leaders.
The arrests of the Zone 9 collective just days before the Secretary’s trip is thus hard to overlook as mere coincidence. It seemed to be preplanned by the Ethiopian government to test where the US stands with its priorities.
Kerry, who clearly wasn’t as defiant as his distant predecessor, did nothing other than telling the press he had raised the issue of the Zone 9 collective — one of whom he had met in person a year ago — in his meeting with PM Hailemariam Desalegn and FM Tedros Adhanom.
In a way, Kerry’s move countervailed the tenacious stand of the State Department under Secretary Christopher. A turn of events that might have compelled Ethiopian officials to let go of whatever grudge they may have harbored against the Department from 18 years ago, but one that distressed many journalists and activists alike.
But nothing had highly upset many than the remarks made by US Under Secretary Wendy Sherman back in April. Sherman, who travelled to Addis to discuss security issues in the region, ended up calling Ethiopia a ‘democracy’ where elections ‘get better and better’ every time.
The Under Secretary is under the illusion that Ethiopia’s relative peace and economic growth is a product of democracy; or that the absence of dissent in the repressive environment is a mark of harmony. Such is a gross misjudgment and one that’s very elementary to point out.
Interestingly, the Under Secretary — whose diplomatic career began with the Clinton administration in 1993 — started out as an Assistant Secretary of State under Secretary Christopher. She knows too well that the same concerns of the State Department outlined in its 1995 country report on Ethiopia are also to be found in itsmost recent reports. So for her, as the fourth highest-ranking official in the State Department, to utter those remarks while Ethiopia has made no major strides towards democracy, is absolutely outrageous.
Indeed, the only thing that has changed over the past years are the interests and priorities of the United States. Understandably, the prevailing circumstances in the region, like the rise of ISIS, warrant the United States to stay committed to its security allies more than ever. After all, no matter how uncalled-for her remarks were, Sherman does what’s best for the US.
This however is a simple reality that escapes many Ethiopians in the United States.
Disagreeing with the current stand of the State Department is one thing, but demanding it to have a different stance is quite another. The latter requires convincing why having a different position will be in the best interest of the United States. The Ethiopian community needs to understand that whatever they are demanding of their US leaders ought to be irresistible.
At present, as far as the US is concerned, it is only the Ethiopian authorities who are giving that irresistible offer. If there’s anything to be deduced from the ever cozier relationship between the US administration and its Ethiopian counterpart, then it should be this very fact.
What’s even more absurd is, the one tool the Ethiopian community has at its disposal — its voting power — isn’t well utilized. True, the Ethiopian constituency may be too small to have any effect in the polls, but its votes are nonetheless counted and that’s an effective communication tool.
The last US midterm elections was such an opportunity, seeing it was just thirteen thousand votes that helped Senator Mark Warner to get elected in Virginia — a state with a heavy Ethiopian presence. Had the Ethiopian community cast its vote to fringe candidates instead of the conventional ones — as a protest vote — perhaps for the first time its clout would have been felt. At the very least, it would have led officials of the current US administration to have the community in mind when engaging with the Ethiopian regime.
Because in America, it’s the ballot card that sends a more powerful message than the protest placard. But for the last decade, what the Ethiopian community in the US has been doing was exactly the opposite: it protests the administration throughout the years but when election day comes, it votes to keep the administration in office.