Jamaican News

Obama’s visit to Kenya, Ethiopia sparks concerns over human rights and governance issues

By Darlene Superville


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WASHINGTON _ President Barack Obama’s trip to Kenya and Ethiopia is drawing fresh criticism that the two countries are heavy-handed on human rights and basic democratic freedoms.

Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Kenya, his ancestral homeland, when he arrives Friday to attend a business summit and meetings with President Uhuru Kenyatta. Obama will become the first U.S. president to travel to Ethiopia when he lands there Sunday to confer with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and to address the African Union, which is headquartered there.

“While both countries face real security threats, we are concerned by the way in which each government has responded, often with abusive security measures and increased efforts to stifle civil society and the media,” Human Rights Watch and other advocacy organizations and analysts said in a letter to Obama. “Many of these initiatives undermine core human rights protections and the rule of law and are also counterproductive when it comes to reducing insecurity.”

Obama, who departed Washington on Thursday night, said one of the themes he will stress during the trip is that the economic growth that Africans seek depends on good governance, including free and fair elections; strong, democratic institutions; freedom of speech and the press; vibrant civic participation and respect for human rights.

“Some African nations have made impressive progress on these fronts,” he said in an opinion piece published Thursday by The Root, a website with a largely African-American audience. “Others have not. My trip will be an opportunity to address these issues candidly, both publicly and privately in my meetings with leaders.”

Ten members of Congress were travelling to Kenya aboard Air Force One with the president, including Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, other caucus members and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the lone Republican.

Obama infrequently takes lawmakers with him on trips. Flake is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa and has supported Obama’s policies on immigration and re-engagement with Cuba. A different group of 10 lawmakers were scheduled to travel back from Ethiopia with Obama.

The White House says the trip, Obama’s fourth to the continent as president, is an important opportunity for him to promote trade and investment with Africa, but to also check in with important Horn of Africa partners in the fight against Islamic extremism. The U.S. and Kenya work together to counter al-Shabab, the Islamic militant group based in neighbouring Somalia that has carried out numerous attacks in Kenya, including the mass killing of university students in April, the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, the capital, and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy, also in Nairobi, in 1998.

Ethiopia shares intelligence with the U.S. as part of the anti-terrorism effort and also has sent troops across the border into Somalia to address instability there.

The letter to Obama said he should put the “pressing human rights concerns” in Kenya and Ethiopia “at the forefront of your discussions.”

The letter expressed concern that both countries are using national security concerns to stifle the media as well as civic participation and, in Kenya, to crack down on Somali refugees who have fled the instability in their home country. Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, is also under indictment by the International Criminal Court for alleged links to violence after the 2007 election. The ICC recently dropped similar charges against Kenyatta, an outcome that increased the odds of an Obama visit to the East African nation.

The Ethiopian government earlier this month released several journalists and bloggers who had been arrested in April 2014 on charges of incitement and terrorism, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ethiopia is known for media oppression and the journalism watchdog group ranks it as the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Eritrea. The country’s ruling coalition also won a sweeping victory in parliamentary elections in May that Western nations criticized as unfair.

“With all the countries in Africa, and a visit to two countries, to pick Ethiopia is a very bad optic, I think,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said “there is nothing unique” about Obama’s visit to Africa. The president often meets with foreign leaders with whom the administration has concerns about how they treat their people, she said Wednesday while previewing the trip for reporters.

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