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Ethiopian Opposition Urges Obama to Press for Political Freedom

  • James Butty

Demonstrators outside the White House protest President Obama's planned trip to Ethiopia in this July 3, 2015 photo.

Demonstrators outside the White House protest President Obama's planned trip to Ethiopia in this July 3, 2015 photo.

An Ethiopian opposition figure has called on U.S. President Barack Obama to demand political freedoms when he meets Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Monday.

Gizachew Shiferaw, former president of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, said he is less politically active as a result of the government’s crackdown on the opposition, independent media, and civil society groups.

Shiferaw said the opposition is not allowed to function as required under the Ethiopian constitution.

“The current political environment is totally closed. There is no political space. For a nation like Ethiopia, we must operate democratically. Currently, democratic institutions are totally controlled by the ruling party. The political opposition is not able to function. They cannot call public meeting, they cannot conduct town hall meetings, [and] they cannot get offices to rent for their branch officers. So, they are not functioning as expected by constitution,” he said.

Human Rights Watch has said Obama’s visit to Ethiopia “undermines the stated goals and commitments of this administration when it comes to support for human rights, the rule of law and good governance in Africa and beyond.”

Shiferaw said the independent media suffered greatly at the hands of the Ethiopian government.

“There is no independent mass media currently. Most of them have been jailed, most of them have left the country. So, virtually we don’t get any balanced view from the current government-controlled media,” he said.

A year ago, the government charged seven bloggers, known as Zone 9, under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. Earlier this month, it released two of the bloggers and other journalists.

Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States was quoted as saying Obama’s visit is a “confirmation of the strong relationship that’s been built between the two countries.”

Shiferaw also said Ethiopia’s judicial system has become a political instrument of the ruling party. He said he would like for the U.S. president to press Desalegn to initiate “constructive engagement” with the opposition.

“My message is that we must have democratic institutions like the judiciary system, the media, the national election board, and also the civil society. We want these democratic institutions to be independent, free. If these democratic institutions are functioning, I think the Ethiopian people are very, very well-informed to elect their own government,” Shiferaw said.

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