U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Thursday in the first leg of his three-nation trip to Africa “to encourage democratic development.” He came to a country rocked by mountingstudent protests against the government and vicious military crackdowns that left scores dead and wounded, as well as the troubling imprisonment of dissident journalists and bloggers.
To his credit, Kerry raised concerns about the tightening of press freedom in Ethiopia. “I made clear to Ethiopian officials that they need to create greater opportunities for citizens to be able to engage with their fellow citizens and with their government by opening up more space for civil society,” Kerry told reporters in Addis Ababa.
However, his discussions with Ethiopia’s leaders were overshadowed bySouth Sudan’s implosion — with continuing fragility in next-door Somalia, and souring Egypt-Ethiopia relations stirred by Ethiopia’s construction of the Great Renaissance Dam over the Nile, in the background.
This focus was unfortunate but hardly surprising. For over two decades, despite fleeting statements expressing “concern,” Washington has shied away from seriously engaging Ethiopian authorities on the need for genuine democratization. Without the latter, the country’s extended prosperity is in danger. “To support economic growth for the long term, the free marketplace of ideas matters just as much as free markets,” Kerry noted in his remarks. But he failed to underscore how rising instability could erode Ethiopia’s standing as a linchpin to the otherwise volatile Horn of Africa region’s stability and damage its newly minted image as an emerging economic powerhouse.