ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – President Barack Obama diverged from top aides and most outside observers here Monday by declaring twice that he thinks Ethiopia’s government was “democratically elected.”
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s party knocked out the last remaining opposition member of the parliament in the June elections, giving it, purportedly, 100 percent of the vote — a figure that American and other international officials have repeatedly condemned as proof the elections were neither fair nor representative.
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Standing tensely at his joint press conference with the prime minister at the Jubilee Palace, Obama said “I don’t bite my tongue so much when it comes to these issues.” He ran through a list of areas of planned cooperation that Ethiopia is seeking, including economic investment, geo-thermal energy development, security and counterterrorism.
“Everything I’ve mentioned,” Obama noted, “also depends on good governance.”
But as he did, Obama differed from his top aides, who have expressed impatience with Ethiopia and its elections. By contrast, Obama expressed some understanding for Ethiopia’s travails: “It’s been relatively recently that the constitution was formed and the elections put forward a democratically elected government,” he said.
That’s not what national security adviser Susan Rice said she thinks.
At the White House the day before the president left for Africa, Rice was asked specifically if she considered the Ethiopian prime minister to be “democratically elected.” She said that the purported 100 percent support that Hailemariam supposedly won suggests “some concern for the integrity of the electoral process — at least if not in the outcomes, then in some of the mechanisms that supported the process, the freedom for the opposition to campaign.”
Pressed to clarify whether she thought that made the prime minister a democratically elected leader, Rice smirked and pointed again to the election results: “100 percent.”
In Nairobi on Sunday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes was more explicit: “Clearly an election that has 100 percent is not one that enjoys the broad support and legitimacy that a free and transparent election would have.”
A senior administration official said after Obama’s remarks that there was no distinction: Saying the government was democratically elected, the official said, was not the same as saying that the government was elected by a process that was fully free, fair and democratic.
“These elections were far from perfect, but these elections certainly took place,” the official said. “Had the president been asked was this a perfectly free, fair and democratic election, the answer would have been, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Obama’s stop in Ethiopia, tacked on to his Kenya homecoming over the weekend, put him in contortions over holding a bilateral meeting and state dinner with Hailemariam, who’s using the visit by the American president to claim legitimacy. The White House feels that’s worth it to nurture the larger security relationship with Ethiopia — and to press Hailemariam to a higher standard now that Obama’s recognized him as the leader.
“There are certain principles that we think have to be upheld,” Obama said, no matter Ethiopia’s history or recent troubles.
“Coming as a source of pressure to create more space for civil society and journalists is part of the reason we’re here,” the senior administration official added.
Hailemariam seemed only mildly moved by Obama’s prodding.
“Something has to be understood is that this is a fragile democracy, and we are coming out of centuries of undemocratic culture in this country, and it’s not easy that in two decades we can come out of all this,” Hailemariam said. “But we feel we are on the right track.”
He said Ethiopians feel obligated to follow the constitution, and pay attention to how other governments have opened up.
“We have to learn the best practices of the United States and age-old democracies, because this is a process of learning and doing, and I think we understand that,” he said.
This is hardly an open country. Hailemariam’s party controls all government functions. Human rights abuses are commonplace. Most outside Internet and phone service does not work.
And in an area where Ethiopia infamously leads the way, the jailing of journalists, Hailemariam seemed unwilling to budge beyond a little lip service.
Ethiopia wants more journalists, he insisted, since there are so many good stories about the country to tell.
“We need you, this is very important, but we need ethical journalism to function in this country,” he said, leaving the definition of “ethical” fully up to him.
But Hailemariam said, maybe the journalists he’s putting in prison are working with the same opponents of the government that he claims are terrorist groups — though Obama noted specifically at the press conference that the American government doesn’t agree that they are terrorists.
“Journalism has to be respected when it doesn’t pass the line that is working with violent terrorist groups,” Hailemariam said. “My government is committed to this issue.”
Obama seemed suspicious, even as he urged observers to put the same standards of how America relates internationally on smaller countries like Ethiopia as it does on bigger ones that Washington is forced to deal with, such as Russia or China.
Obama and aides say that they are expecting the trip to help prompt more changes in Ethiopia by highlighting these issues by making the trip, comparing what might be ahead here to the progress they claim credit for in Burma.
As for legitimizing Hailemariam, the administration official said, “it’s not a worry because we are making very public our concerns.”
“The Ethiopian government,” the official added, “is now on the hook.