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Can Obama Influence Ethiopia on Human Rights, Democracy?

FILE - People protesting against an earlier security force attack on a student rally in Orono shout slogans during a demonstration organized by the opposition Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum in Addis Ababa, May 24, 2014.

For years, the United States has displayed a kind of split personality when it comes to Ethiopia, working closely with its government to fight designated terrorist groups like al-Shabab, while denouncing the same government for arresting journalists, suppressing dissent and making it impossible for opponents to win even a single seat in parliament.

Human rights and democracy advocates want President Barack Obama to focus on the second set of issues when he visits Ethiopia beginning late Sunday and meets with officials including Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

"I don't know how much scope the U.S. or other outsiders have to pressure the Ethiopian government to be a little bit more open and inclusive," said Mark Bellamy, a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, now a senior adviser on Africa for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "What I think is that this has to be discussed. We need to find a way to raise these [issues] frankly with the Ethiopian leadership and ... point out that in the long run, this is going to happen one way or another in Ethiopia, and it'd be better if this opening happened in a more controlled and peaceful fashion."

Bellamy was one of 14 analysts and advocates who signed an open letter to Obama released this week. The letter raised human rights issues in Kenya, where the president arrived Friday evening, but the signees voiced stronger concerns about Obama's decision to go to Ethiopia. " ... [Y]our visit may send the message that the United States is giving short shrift to the profoundly repressive policies pursued by the government," they said. "The political environment in Ethiopia is dramatically restricted, as is the ability for Ethiopians to express themselves."

Other individuals who signed the letter are leaders and officials with groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, the Council on Foreign Relations and the United States Institute of Peace.

Earlier this month, hundreds of Ethiopian-Americans protested outside the White House, waving their native country's flag and calling on Obama to cancel his stop in Ethiopia.

At a pre-trip news conference this week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would emphasize the importance of democracy and respect for rule of law and human rights during his two-nation tour.

Pre-visit detentions

Ethiopia's ruling EPRDF party has imposed greater and greater restrictions on the media and political opponents since the 2005 elections, when the opposition made substantial gains and challenged the ruling party's hold on politics. Disputes over the results triggered protests and led to violence that killed some 200 people.

In 2010, opposition parties found it hard to campaign, held back by harassment on the street, restrictions on broadcast time, and the ruling party's dominance over the voting process. When the votes were tallied, the EPRDF and allied parties had won all but one seat in parliament. That seat was held by an independent. Opposition groups were shut out.

The 2015 election results were the same, except that the EPRDF coalition won that last elusive seat.

The opposition All Ethiopian Unity Party says the repression continues, charging that authorities have arrested more than 100 of its members this month ahead of the president's visit. The party's president told VOA's Amharic service this week that few of the detainees have been brought to court. The Ethiopian government refused to comment on the arrests.

Authorities did release six detained bloggers and journalists last week, but scores of other journalists, protesters and political opposition leaders remain in jail.

Balancing act

U.S. criticism of Ethiopia has been muted, because of the country's importance in combating Islamist militants in the region, especially Somalia's al-Shabab. In 2006, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia and ousted an Islamist movement that had seized most of the country. The troops stayed another two years and have returned periodically since to fight al-Shabab in areas near the Somali-Ethiopian border.

On Wednesday, President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, offered only mild criticism of the outcome of the 2015 vote, saying the U.S. has "some concern for the integrity of the electoral process."

"Ethiopia has always played a very strong hand vis-a-vis the U.S. government," said E.J. Hogendoorn, the deputy program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group. "It has always said that its security cooperation is contingent on not too much public criticism of the government. And again, that will be a delicate balancing act for the president to play."

Hogendoorn said the IGC believes the president should have gone to other countries like Nigeria because of its democratic elections in March. He said the president has legitimate security concerns to discuss with Ethiopia but added that "certainly, he could push Ethiopia a little harder on its record with its citizens."

Terrence Lyons, an associate professor at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, said he thought that if the president pushed, there is a chance Ethiopia may yield.

"This trip is a big deal to Ethiopia," he said. "This is something they want, the kind of diplomatic recognition, the kind of profile they get from hosting the president of the United States. That, I think, provides an opportunity for some leverage, some ability for the president to shape the conversation we have with Ethiopia. And that policy discussion, that debate, must include opening up political space, more room for civil society, more independent media."