By E Gebreselassie
Addis Ababa – As US president Barrack Obama makes his third official trip to the African continent, the issues of democracy, human rights and economy are set to dominate his agenda for his visit of Ethiopia.
Obama will make a visit to Kenya, the land of his father, this weekend and is expected to touch down in Ethiopia on Monday as part of a two-nation tour of the African continent.
His visit to Ethiopia has been dogged with controversy as editorials in leading US newspapers, statements from human rights organisations and dissident groups based in US have been highly critical of the trip.
The country’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and its allied parties won all of the Parliamentary seats and all but three regional seats in the May election which has been criticised by opposition parties and human rights advocacy groups for being neither free nor fair.
However, Desta Tesfaw, Head of Public and External Relations Office at EPRDF, rejected such criticism and said the trip – a first of its kind by a sitting US president to the country – was a testament to the progress Ethiopia had shown in development, democracy, and stability over recent years.
“Allegations made against Ethiopia by the likes of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International who work with local and exiled anti-peace elements is without basis,” said Tesfaw, adding that the allegations, particularly by those who say they’re Ethiopians, were shameful, without merit and lacked the correct information.
“The trip in general shows the increasing warming of relations between the two countries, and shows Ethiopia is shedding its famine image,” surmised Tesfaw.
However, Dr. Chane Kebede, leader of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) which fielded the third largest number of candidates during the May parliamentary election, while not questioning the merits of Obama’s visit, disagreed with Tesfaw view of the situation in the country.
“The May 2015 election showed the ruling party practically taking all of the seats, quashing what remains for the democratic opening and cementing a dictatorship,” said Kebede, adding that his party did not believe the government formed after the elections was credible.
Kebede also took issue with the itinerary of the US State department, which he said didn’t give a timetable for the airing of the opposition parties’ position on the state of Ethiopia.
“We’ve sent a letter to the US embassy in Addis Ababa to request a one-on-one chat with President Obama, but have been given negative replay on this,” said Kebede, adding that opposition parties had been invited to conferences the US leader would be attending.
“At the end of the day we want Obama to press Ethiopia to include respect of human rights which the country is a signatory to in terms of the Universal declaration of human rights and enshrined in the constitution, so that it goes with the economic growth the country is achieving at this moment,” said Kebede.
But while Obama’s trip to Ethiopia has already featured criticism of the political and human rights record of the host country, there is one key element the Ethiopian government, and indeed many Ethiopians, will be expecting of the world’s biggest economy despite the emerging economic clout of countries such as China, India and Turkey.
The Power Africa scheme announced by the US president during his previous trip to the continent two years back and considered at that time to be Obama’s legacy on Africa will likely be brought up during the presidential visit. The plan at the time envisaged a $7 billion pledge from the US, financed primarily by $5 billion in funds from the Export-Import Bank and $1.5 billion by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
The programme also had plans to be funded by $9 billion from private entities, among them General Electric with a view to add 10 000 megawatts plus of “cleaner, more efficient” power to a region sorely in need of reliable electricity and to expand energy access to 20 million new African households and commercial buildings.
Ex- President Bill Clinton left office in 2001 with the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) which has had the purpose of extending and boosting economic relationships between Africa and the US through the use of preferential trade policies for African countries.
Former US President George W. Bush Junior left office in 2009 with The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a United States governmental initiative to address the global HIV/AIDS epidemic and help save the lives of those suffering from the disease, primarily in Africa.
However, Obama’s programme may be in jeopardy according to the reports coming from the US with a congressional battle over one of the main financial sources of the program, the US EXIM-Bank jeopardizing its future.
But Elizabeth L. Littlefield, President and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), said although Power Africa had been less visible in the two years since its announcement, it was here to stay.
OPIC is the US government’s development finance institution which mobilises private capital to help solve critical development challenges.
The Ethiopian government is relying on funding mechanisms to move forward with a 1000 MW Geothermal Project signed on September 2013 between a US-Icelandic firm Reykjavik Geothermal (RG) and the Ethiopian government.
The project, which was expected to take 10 years to construct, is divided into two phases, costs about $4 billion USD and at the time was proclaimed to be the continent’s biggest geothermal power initiative.
Alemayehu Tegenu, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, said despite initial snags he expected the geothermal project to start work soon, and a portion of it to be part of the country’s drive to increase its power generation capacity from its current 4 200 MW to about 17 300 MW by 2020.